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Originally published Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 5:57 AM

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‘Percival Everett’: a rich but muddled story

“Percival Everett by Virgil Russell” is author Percival Everett’s mind-bending novel about a dying father and his son, among other things.

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‘Percival Everett by Virgil Russell’

by Percival Everett

Graywolf, 227 pp., $15

The self-referential title of author Percival Everett’s latest novel, “Percival Everett by Virgil Russell,” only hints at the mischief he makes in this utterly confounding story exploring the relationship between a dying man and his son.

At least that’s what appears to be at the center of this novel, in which narrators, identities and subplots shift like a sports car’s gears on a winding road.

Everett, a master of language who at his best can cut right through you with a sharp turn of phrase, uses the reader as a test subject for all sorts of poetic word play and experiments with devices like internal dialogue and one-page chapters. It was not, at least for me, an always pleasant experience.

At the core, however, is a tender and nuanced bond between a beguilingly intelligent elderly man wasting away in a nursing home from a nervous-system condition and the son who visits him, who evidently is Everett himself. The old man is trying to get his son to appreciate the pain of his illness and the severity of his mental decline, so he gives his son an unfinished manuscript he wants his son to finish.

“It’s sort of something you would write, if you wrote,” the father tells him. It’s a bit of an inside joke on the part of the author. The real-life Everett, we all know, wrote this entire novel. Or is it the son who’s written the manuscript?

One thing seems certain. Both father and son are at the least depressed, the father because of his illness and the son “because I could for days on end live my life without feeling the horror of his daily existence.”

Physically, the father is almost motionless, but his intellect is leaping. The son marvels that his 79-year-old dad is “feeling so little through his body and feeling so much through his mind.”

If Everett, the one who wrote this novel, as well as “I Am Not Sidney Poitier” and “Erasure,” had confined his story of switching perspectives and realities to this truly fascinating father-son relationship, he’d have something great on his hands.

But the book feels weighed down by all of the voices, from past and present, both real and imagined, that emerge as the novel moves along. There’s the strange inclusion of slave-rebellion leader Nat Turner, who is depicted here writing author William Styron’s life story (It was the other way around, of course) and engaging in banter about guns with Charlton Heston.

References to T.S. Eliot’s gloomy “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Styron, who famously wrote about his own depression in “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” hint that his book is really about coming to grips with the abyss — the bottomless pit of human sadness and the unfathomable empathy of a loving but helpless witness to that suffering.

This novel may leave readers with their own desire for a knowing guide through Everett’s rich but muddled story.

Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.

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