January 30, 2016: “Looking for Billy White Feather” by Percival Everett

The first Percival Everett book I read, his collection of stories Damned If I Do, was abandoned in an ER in Toledo. I had cut myself the night before at a party on the lid of a can of Ecto Cooler Hi-C. I had been making melon balls, which called for the neon green drink, and I dropped the full can in the kitchen of this cabin on Lake Erie and swiped at it. Instead of catching the can, I caught my finger on the jagged lid, ripping open my flesh, green Hi-C everywhere, followed by a steady stream of blood. What a color that made. Nobody at the cabin was sober enough to drive me to the ER, so I wrapped the finger, bled all over, and vowed to stop for stitches on my way home: The cut was a good half-inch log and the serrated metal made it everything but a clean cut.

The next day, I went to the ER and waited forever, over three hours, but had brought Damned If I Do inside, just for that purpose, a long wait. People had real, more urgent problems, a lot of them kids, and some hungover jackass with an outchie on his finger could wait. I had time to read all of Everett’s collection, finishing in an examining room when they finally just wanted me out of there. I had the book next to me on the table when the doctor came in and he moved it to the table with all the supplies on it—Q-Tips, cotton balls, tongue depressors, those longer stick-things—and proceeded to tell me that he would have given me stitches for sure—had I come in within two hours of the injury. It was too late. A nurse cleaned my wound, bandaged me up, and I left, forgetting my book, Damned If I Do forever the property of St. Luke’s Medical Center.

I was glad to see Everett put out a new book out this past October, Half an Inch of Water, a collection of stories set in the West. I knew I’d get to it relatively early in this blog, as I’m a fan. I had the pleasure of reading a few of its stories for today, making it hard to pick one. No title story in this book (I’m assuming the title comes from one of the pieces I haven’t read), so I’ve chosen “Finding Billy White Feather,” my favorite of the batch.

“Finding Billy White Feather” follows the adventures of Oliver, who finds a note on his porch, telling him twin foals have been born and he should contact Billy White Feather if he wants to buy them. Twins are rare with horses, it’s explained, and Oliver is curious. He doesn’t know Billy White Feather, but wants to see the foals, but also find out who this stranger is who stepped onto his porch and left a note—a violation, Oliver believes, and he’s not 100 percent pleased. Seeking the enigmatic man out, Oliver sojourns into town.

Oliver discovers that no one is happy when they hear the name “Billy White Feather.” No one offers the same description, either. Oliver gets profiles ranging from tall, skinny, and blond to overweight and raven-haired, a running gag that Everett has fun with. A similar confusion runs parallel, Billy White Feather’s Native ancestry as big a mystery—each person he visits runs down a list of tribes that Billy is not a member of: “He ain’t no Arapaho and he ain’t no Shoshone and he ain’t no Crow and he ain’t no Cheyenne.” The tone of the story remains light despite Oliver’s growing frustrations, the lengths he goes to to find this man, to fulfill the promise of the title.

The stories I read in “Half an Inch of Water” mostly use dialogue, some of it snappy, to tell its story. Everett’s people are of few, but careful words. There isn’t a lot of interior monologue, nor elaborate descriptions, and Everett is sparse with his similes and metaphors. I just finished teaching Carver in my Contemporary Fiction class, and Everett could go toe-to-toe with anything in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please in terms of economy. I enjoyed Everett’s style, as I have in the past, as the actions that he lets tell his story are succinct, suspenseful, and funny.

I didn’t tear my hand open on a Ghostbusters-themed product today (though it’s still early), but I could see myself sitting down and consuming Half an Inch of Water in one sitting. Percival Everett’s book count is nearing thirty, and it’s easy to see why we keep wanting more. He’s a master, and this latest book is just another example of why you should go out and read him right now.

Percival Everett



2 thoughts on “January 30, 2016: “Looking for Billy White Feather” by Percival Everett

  1. Pingback: Vol. 1 Brooklyn | Afternoon Bites: Claire Vaye Watkins, Alexander Chee Interviewed, Percival Everett, Nikesh Shukla’s Recommendations, and More

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