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I am guilty not because of my actions, to which I freely admit, but for my accession, admission, confession that I executed these actions with not only deliberation and premeditation but with zeal and paroxysm and purpose….The true answer to your question is shorter than the lie. Did you? I did.

These opening lines of The Water Cure by my recent discovery, Percival Everett (See WW Jan 19, 21, 23, 2012) presage what I guarantee, the most difficult novel about the rape/kidnap/murder of an eleven year old girl you’ll ever read. The whole thing is a muddle of motive and event. Not long after he declares his guilt, the narrator gives us his name: Ishmael Kidder. So. Did you? Did you seize your daughter’s putative killer in L.A., transport her to the basement of your mountain retreat in New Mexico and proceed to torture him for some extended period of time? And then did you let him go after thus terrorizing him? And what about the drug dealers who stole your water? Them too?

Questions for a thriller. But no thriller is replete with arcane exploration of Greek and Roman philosophers:


Aristotle speaks of Thales in the Metaphysics and De Anima. With a bit of condescension, … Aristotle identifies Thales as “The founder of this kind of philosophy.” According to Aristotle, Thales says, “that the principle is water [and therefore declared the earth to be on water],perhaps taking supposition form the fact the the nutriment of all this is moist, that from which they come to be the principle of thing.” And then, as if fed up or drowned by Thales, Aristotle snaps, “Thales at any rate is said to have explained the principles and origins of things in this way.”


Or Joycean Finnegan’s Wakean transports like this:


As a oneder-loving and wonder-see kinng sort, I will exhighbitesnuff offf myshelf, my deep sadnest asidele, my disillusionmantle acider, my fear and lax thereof asighted, my asides aslide, to yiell a bravf picture of the main I yam …



Interspersed with terse fragments or jokes like the one about the Aussie, the Canadian and the American who went off intot he woods around Guantanamo looking for a deer. Neither the Canadian nor the Aussie found any. The American came back with a rabbit declaring victory. “That’s not a deer,” says the Aussie. “Yes it is,” says the American. “Just ask him.”


By this and other passages do we begin to realize that this novel is both political and personal. In the face of enormous personal trauma, morality goes by the board. In this case, the water board. Torture and blood no longer mean torture and blood. They become tools to maintain democracy or justice thus destroying the very things they mean to preserve. And the very souls and minds of those who employ them.

As always with Everett, there’s another level of identity. Our Ishmael is a romance novelist. He makes bundles writing bodice rippers under the name of Estelle Gilliam. As he plunges deeper into physical/psychological physical isolation while ministering to his victim, he spends quite a few pages wondering where she leaves off and Ishmael begins.

Joyce once told someone that what he expected of his readers was that they spend their lives studying his works. I don’t know that Everett expects that or not, but you could spend a long, long time spelunking in the depths of his incredible knowledge and intellect and never reach bottom. A challenge. A wonder. A marvel.

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