- Jesting in Earnest: Percival Everett and Menippean Satire by Derek C. Maus
The problem with writing a book-length study of Percival Everett’s work is that the work resists classification of any kind. As many scholars have observed, Everett’s thirty-five books range over so many different genres and are [End Page 346] so elusive in their meanings that it is unusually difficult, and some would say impossible, to generalize confidently about them. Everett himself is on record in a number of interviews for being outspokenly hostile to any labels being attached to his books and has even rejected the status of being “uncategorizable” as yet another form of false labeling. Derek Maus’s Jesting in Earnest: Percival Everett and Menippean Satire does a remarkable job of productively coping with this problem by reading Everett’s fiction in terms of “an interpretive framework” for examining Everett’s “thirty-volume megawork,” which is centered in Menippean satire, a feisty, unconventional form of classical satire which attacks any simplistic formulations about human experience. This allows Maus to trace coherently important thematic and formal continuities which are threaded throughout Everett’s writing without oversimplifying his vision by putting it into “tidy boxes” (9).
Maus begins by carefully defining Menippean satire, cautioning us that it is “not the sole or even best key to unlock the meaning in any one of Everett’s works” but instead is “an analytical strategy” that can enable us to discern “interpretive insights” while accepting “the deliberate ambiguity” (9) of Everett’s œuvre. Maus makes a clear distinction between Menippean satire and other satiric forms developed by Horace and Juvenal; whereas these latter two propose solutions to the problems which they examine and offer “moral and ethical instruction” (59), Menippus offers “no models of human behavior” (53) and, quite to the contrary, probes irremediable aspects of human folly. Rather than affirming human verities, it seeks to “destabilize existing notions of truth” (59). Another significant feature of this mode is its “tonal multiplicity” (94), dramatic and sudden shifts in tone from wildly comedic to deadly serious, producing uproarious laughter laced with nihilism. Maus bases his understanding of Menippean satire on the work of a broad range of scholars, including Northrup Frye, Carter Kaplan, Theodore Kharpertian, David Musgrave, and Howard Weinbrot. He agrees with Weinbrot that “Menippean satire lives in a precarious universe of broken or fragile national, cultural, religious, political or generally intellectual values” (55) and is therefore an attractive mode for postmodern writers like Thomas Pynchon and Flann O’Brien. But Maus also traces the form back to Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, writers whom Everett has cited as influences.
Jesting in Earnest is structured in five chapters and a postscript, beginning with a very useful and revealing overview of Everett’s life and work. Maus then moves to a carefully researched study of the roots and nature of Menippean satire and how Everett and a number of other writers have used it. The third chapter is a penetrating study of novels such as Erasure, Glyph, and Grand Canyon, Inc., which most completely exemplify the Menippean tradition. This is followed by a chapter focusing on books like Suder, American Desert, and I Am Not Sidney Poitier, which employ Menippean techniques in “more sporadic and diluted” (94) ways. The final chapter explores a series of Everett’s western novels, including Wounded and Assumption. Maus makes a good case for viewing them as “intrinsically satirical and specifically Menippean” (132) because they reduce to absurdity the values of the mythic West of popular culture. The book concludes with a brief postscript in which Maus challenges the view that Everett is a “post-racial writer who seeks to transcend racial issues and who therefore fails to pay sufficient attention to the problems encountered by contemporary African Americans.” Maus argues persuasively that Everett “does not deny his own blackness” (162) but rejects essentialist views of race as well as any other concepts that would limit the scope and complexity of his artistic vision.