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L o o k i n g a t t h e B ig P i c t u r e : P e r c i v a l E v e r e t t ’s W e s t e r n F i c t i o n M i c h a e l K . J o h n s o n “Maybe,” [Pop] told Mother later, “we’d better take the boys to Dakota, like John says. They’re getting big now. Should be workin’, anyhow. ... Nothin’ for colored boys to get in this town but porter work, washin’ spittoons. They need to grow and develop, live where there’s less prejudice and more opportunity.” — Era Bell Thompson, American Daughter A ll I had when I came to the Coast was my height and weight and the fact that I believed that being bom in America gave everybody a certain importance. ... That’s all I’d ever wanted— just to be accepted as a man— without ambition, without distinction, either of race, creed, or colour; just a simple Joe walking down an American street, going my simple way, without any other identifying characteristics but weight, height, and gender. — Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go T h e African American characters in Percival Everett’sshort stories and novels set in the contemporary American West seem to have achieved what earlier generations of black Westerners have sought but seldom found— an existence not defined or limited by American narratives of race. As Madison Smartt Bell observes about Everett’s first western novel, Walk Me to the Distance (1985), “Its narrator is a black man in a landscape where there aren’t any others ... and because his color isn’t a consuming subject for him the reader doesn’t hear much about it either; in Walk Me to the Distance, race is not an issue” (vii— viii). In fact, the reader hears so little on the subject that the text contains no explicit references to David Larsen’srace, no textual indication that he is either white or black, and the primary implicit indication is the extratextual jacket photograph of the African American Everett. David’s central marker of identity is that of Vietnam veteran, one who, “though cer­ tainly affected by his tour, ... did not come home emotionally or men- — ■ W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e 4 2 .1 (S p r in g 2 0 0 7 ) : 2 6 - 5 3 . M i c h a e l k . J o h n s o n tally scarred” but rather “returned as unremarkable as he had been when he left” (3). His parents dead, his sister an antiwar activist, David leaves his home in Georgia to head west soon after his tour of duty ends, and, by accident— he shoots a hole in his radiator while firing his pistol at jackrabbits along the roadside— he is stranded in Slut’sHole, Wyoming, where he remains and finds a home. The primary outsiders in the book are the tourists that David encounters while working at a rest stop on Interstate 90: “He smiled with a confidence, a comfort, a knowledge that he belonged to this big, beautiful place and they didn’t” (80). If David is a black man, then race is indeed “not an issue” in determining who belongs in this landscape and who is accepted by this community. In Everett’s early short fiction set in the West, his protagonists are similarly either not identified by race or identified only in passing. In the story “A Good Home for Hachita,” the only reference to protagonist Evan Keeler’srace isthe narrator’scomment that Keeler’sestranged wife’s desire “to be a liberal had certainly supported a more favorable portrayal of her father” to their daughter, “lest her hatred of him be construed as racially rooted” (18). We only know that border agent Cole Dixson in the story “Esteban” is African American because his partner refers to him as the “black black sheep” of the family (65). Issues ofracial, ethnic...


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pp. 26-53
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