American Desert

American Desert

by Percival Everett


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Part parable, part fantasy novel, part laugh-out-loud satire, American Desert is the story of Theodore Street, a college professor on the brink of committing suicide. When the decision is taken out of his hands—he's hit by a car and his head is severed from his body—he must come to terms with himself.

At his funeral, he sits up in his own coffin with the stitches that bind his head to his body clearly visible. Everyone is horrified by this resurrection. He becomes a source of fear and embarrassment to his daughter, and an object of derision and morbid curiosity to the press and the scientific communities, and is anointed as a sort of devil by an obscure religious cult. In the process, Theodore manages to reestablish his relationship with his estranged wife and family and to rediscover the value of his life.

In this experimental, satirical, and bizarre novel, critically acclaimed author Percival Everett once again takes on the assumptions of a culture whose priorities have gone out of whack. He lampoons the press, religion, and academia while offering, ultimately, an existential meditation of what constitutes being alive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786869176
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 05/05/2004
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.81(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt


A Novel
By Percival Everett


Copyright © 2004 Percival Everett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7868-6917-8

Chapter One

THAT THEODORE STREET WAS dead was not a matter open to debate. The irony of his accidental death went unobserved as no one knew that Theodore was on his way to commit suicide when he was, shall we say, interrupted. Now the irony is lost amid the confusion created by Ted's death, departure, demise, dissolution and further by the fact that Ted chooses to relate his own story in third person, an unusual (the occasional politician and athlete aside), but acceptable device, given that, in a most profound way, he stood-or stands even-outside himself, not so much on the parapet of consciousness but of life itself, it being perhaps the case that neither entails, necessarily, the other. But regardless of where Ted stood, or stands, he was on his way to the beach where he had every intention of marching into the ocean until it was over his head and taking a deep, lung-filling breath of water which, according to his limited knowledge of human physiology, would result in a termination of his life, barring the interference of some lifeguard or Boy Scout or Girl Scout, though he had never found Girl Scouts to be terribly overzealous or meddlesome. He was driving at a respectable clip along Ocean Boulevard when a fat man chased his nails-painted poodle out into thestreet before a UPS truck, causing the driver of the huge, brown block to swerve and slide into a lane of oncoming traffic, the oncoming traffic in this case being Ted Street in his 1978 Lancia coupe. The truck and the Lancia met violently and whereas his vehicle halted quite abruptly, Ted did not, but continued in the same direction he had been traveling through the already cracked windscreen. Remarkably, Ted's face suffered not a single scratch and neither did his body break about the ribs, clavicles, arms or legs, but his head did become rather cleanly detached from the rest of him. It was a jagged but complete wound around his neck that left one seasoned police officer vomiting by the accordioned front fender of the Lancia while the young rookie on patrol with him stood, mouth agape, staring at the head lying on the asphalt. Unlike the stories of beheaded Frenchmen stealing one last, pitiful look at their cast-off bodies, Ted had no such perception. He died instantly and, in a manner of speaking, completely. The UPS man was beside himself, so much so that he would later attend Ted Street's funeral and subsequently take a civil service examination in order to change his profession. The coroner's wagon came with a representative of the coroner, not the coroner himself, and the young man observed Ted's head from his wagon door and was satisfied that he was dead, making the requisite marks on his clipboard, but having to call his office to ask whether head and body should be placed in the same or separate bags. Ted's head was placed under his left arm, the fingers of his hand falling over his mouth which was frozen partly open, and the cool vinyl bag was zipped from bottom to top. The ride in the coroner's wagon to the morgue was protracted, the medical examiner's assistant stopping at a fast-food restaurant, his mother's house, a comic-book store and a remote parking lot where he charged gang thugs a dollar each to "see the stiff."

* * *

At the morgue, which turned out not to be deep in the bowels of some hospital but on a second floor of the sixties-vintage medical examiner's offices with lots of windows that didn't open and a unisex restroom, Ted's wife, Gloria, viewed his head on a video monitor as it sat in a metal bowl. She let out a short but reasonably justified scream. She then fell into the arms of her sister, Hannah, who "had never liked Ted anyway," and wept convincingly and no doubt sincerely, the image of the head on the screen etching itself into her forever-memory. The image blurred just a bit, there on the screen, but finally looked exactly like the head she had slept with for so many years. The matter, however, rang with an air of incompleteness, as it was the case that the body was never identified, only the head and isn't that what is always required? That the body be identified? "We want you to come down and identify the body," the cop always says. Never, "Is that his head?" So, Gloria signed papers and said that Ted had never mentioned that he wanted his organs donated to medicine, science, or the needy and that such a decision should have been his and that he, all of him, should be sent to the Iverson, Ash, Graves and Shroud Mortuary over in Garden Grove and so he was. Sent over there.

In the embalming room, Ash and Graves agreed that Ted had lost enough blood that there would be poor draw on the fluid and that no one would notice the difference anyway if they didn't fill him with formaldehyde and methyl alcohol and certainly they were not going to waste humectants and anticoagulants on him. Besides, as Ash pointed out to Graves, poor draw could create embarrassing results, as when Pope John Paul I began to swell up and make sounds during the live broadcast of his funeral ceremony. "Don't you remember how that poor altar boy had to keep wiping the purge away from the pontiff's mouth?" Ash said. Ash sewed Ted's head back onto his body, his stitches sloppy but tight, using blue thirty-weight fishing line, and instead of sewing the mouth shut by passing the thread through the nose, Ash simply put eight stitches between the lips.

Iverson and Shroud were trying to talk Gloria into buying a gaudy bronze coffin with eagle- or some other bird-of-prey-sculpted handles, her sister balking the while, the children, Emily and Perry, twelve and seven, sitting some feet away, their little faces blank with confusion, but knowing enough to be terrified of the place-the drapes, the maroon flock and foil wallpaper, the dark corridors, the ashen-faced men smiling those ashen smiles which were not quite smiles.

"Mommy," Perry said, "I want to go home."

"As soon as we find Daddy a nice casket, dear," Gloria said. "Come over here and look at the book with Mommy."

Perry and Emily walked from the floral print sofa-irises-across the dark carpet to the desk, where they stood on either side of their mother and looked at the catalogue of final resting containers.

"He won't be able to turn over in there," Perry said.

"Daddy's dead, stupid," Emily said. "He won't be turning over." Then, having said it, the girl understood and began to feel her grief, a contagious condition that reduced both children to tears.

This left Gloria at the mercy of the tall, chilly-handed morticians and she ended up buying the most expensive box, the lining of which even she at the time recognized as something appropriate for a brothel, however "cloudlike." "Come along, children," she said and they escaped, went to a fun place to eat.

* * *

The funeral was held three days after Ted's decapitation, at a church that Ted never attended when alive. In fact, Ted had never attended any church, but where else does one hold a funeral service; this was what Gloria thought and so with her sister's help, Hannah no doubt thinking it a fitting final insult to Ted to have his last earthly function held within the walls of a place he would never have entered alive, she found the Sacred Blood First Christ Church of the Everlasting Spirit over in Long Beach.

* * *

During his life, Ted had been a college professor, teaching Old English and various survey courses at the University of Southern California. He had taken ten years to obtain his doctorate and had put off his tenure review by taking leaves of absence, but the time had come to be considered for tenure and the pressure was on. His book had not been accepted by any publisher, though Cornell University Press had kept it for a long time, finally rejecting it, writing "It is too much like books we published last year." He had for the past two semesters felt as if his colleagues were staring at him, avoiding him, treating him like some terminally ill patient. "Good teaching evaluations just aren't enough," said Horace Shiply, an Early Americanist with a Melville beard and a mole that stuck out of it. When his department hired a new person in his field, a young woman who had not only already published a book on Beowulf, but was on the cutting edge of digital imaging of manuscripts, Ted saw the writing on the wall.

* * *

Now, the cast were all crammed into the roasting-hothouse of God, the department chair, the insufferably pompous dean of the college, and the Beowulf woman included, to watch Ted being sent off to wherever, stretched out in his expensive box with a bit of the blue fishing line showing just over his starched white collar. He was casketed in the standard position, his right shoulder slightly lower than his left, so as not to have him appear as what he was, a dead body flat on its back. As well, he was slightly elevated in order to diminish the prominence of the coffin. Gloria and the children were in the front row, just feet away from the casket, their backs straight against the tired wood of the pew. So was Gloria's sister, wearing a khaki dress and white sandals. There was a choir dressed in powder blue robes singing some songs that Ted would never have recognized about their God coming back to earth and pastures and sheep and they swayed the while. A maroon-robed minister, a big man named Larville Staige, stood and cleared his throat, made a brief comment about the heat, fanned himself using a fan bearing the image of Martin Luther King, Jr., on one side and advertising a funeral home on the other, and said that he didn't want to keep everyone too long,

"But we must send our brother off to his final resting place with the proper blessing and the love of Christ, our Lord. Poor, poor Theodore Street met a violent and senseless death on the streets of our sin-ridden city. His blood spilled into the same gutters that carry away our daily filth and urine. Yes! Brothers and Sisters, Theodore Street is nothing less than a neon marker in the road of life, having looked both ways before crossing perhaps, but like so many of us, having failed to look up. He is a marker telling us that at any second-any second!-everything earthly can end. One minute, you're driving along and the next, your head is over there and your body is over there!" A yelp escaped one of Ted's children and then both buried their faces in their mother's sides. Staige spread his sausage fingers wide and wrapped them over the edge of the lectern in front of him. "Theodore Street was a teacher and he is teaching us even now. He is teaching us that life is temporary and that we had better have our affairs straight. The Book of Isaiah, chapter thirty-eight, verse one, says, 'Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.' Never were truer words spoke. Just ask Theodore Street. But finally, I must admit that I did not know Mr. Street. But Jesus knew him!"

An "amen" shot out from the choir.

"Thank you, Sister! Yes, Our Lord knew Mr. Street and He knows him even better now, though we have no idea if he got to the house of God in one piece. Maybe his head got there first and had to wait for the rest of him, but it is no matter, because both parts have moved on. But to speak about the living Theodore Street, let me introduce the head-pardon me, the chairman of the department in which the deceased taught, Professor Orville Orson."

Orville Orson was a fat pig of a man, a Joyce scholar who despised Joyce with a passion and had devoted his career to exposing the great author as a mediocre writer who happened to be very, very smart. Orson wore suspenders, which he called "braces," and seersucker suits no matter how cool the weather turned. He was wearing a heat-crumpled seersucker when he rose and walked from the third row to the altar. His sweaty, meaty palm pressed into Staige's sweaty, meaty palm and the lectern was turned over. Orson was perspiring about the neck and forehead, but he was used to that and so his constant wiping with his handkerchief did not make him appear nervous or uncomfortable. "I first met Ted nine years ago," he said, the point of it significant to everyone save Larville Staige and the members of the Sacred Blood First Christ Church of the Everlasting Spirit. "He came into my office, having just finished his degree at Duke, with bright eyes and enormous energy. He immediately became a cherished colleague to all of us in the department and the college as well. Though he never published anything or, to my knowledge, wrote anything, he was a dedicated teacher." Then in his usual, forgetful manner, he paused, then said, "I'm sorry, Ted did write something. He wrote a book, though I have no idea what it could have been about. I know only that no one wanted to publish it. Anyway, Ted's students admired him greatly. He was, in fact, twice voted by the students as Outstanding Teacher of the Year. His classes were for years oversubscribed." He paused again, then, as if thinking while talking, he said, "Until his tenure review loomed rather largely on his horizon and his attention span apparently dwindled to a few seconds and he stopped preparing his lectures. But you know how that goes. The important thing to remember today is that Ted Street was a good man, a devoted husband and a loving father. One doesn't have to be a good scholar to be those things and what's more important? Ted was what he was right up to the very end. It's a shame that such a gruesome death befell him, but from all reports, he died suddenly and suffered little if at all." Orson tugged at his collar. "So, we bid Ted a final farewell. Perhaps in that university system in the sky, Ted will, after all, get to publish his book. Goodbye, Ted."

The choir sang a song called "This Is the Road to Our Savior Lord Our Christ" while the attendants stood with hymnals open before them, mouthing the words and flashing to each other bewildered looks. Then, as the choir ended its final amen with a harmonious hum, Theodore Street sat up in his coffin. A hush filled the church, as one might expect, but it was not long-lived. Emily Street screamed and tried to crawl up her mother's side while Perry Street's mouth formed the word Daddy over and over. Gloria Street fainted but remained frozen upright with wide-open eyes. Gloria's sister made a break for the door, her large feet tripping her near the end of the aisle's red carpet, causing her to roll to a stop at a blind man's feet with her dress over her head. Orville Orson farted and farted again. The dean prayed, loudly. The Beowulf woman reached into her bag and readied the pepper spray her fiance had bought for her.


Excerpted from AMERICAN DESERT by Percival Everett Copyright © 2004 by Percival Everett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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American Desert 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
mbergman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A satire on American religion, media obsession with the freakish, bureaucracy, the military/industrial complex, and, to a lesser extent, academic life. At the beginning of the book, an English professor who has failed to get tenure & is ashamed of a recent extramarital affair, decides to commit suicide but is decapitated in an auto accident on the way to do so. At the funeral, with the stitches in his neck where the funeral director has reattached his head fully evident, he sits up and begins talking to the congregation. The rest of the book, in the mold of Gulliver's Travels, relates his experiences (1) dealing with his family as he is held under siege in his own home by the media; (2) his capture & attempted murder by a religious cult; and (3) his capture by a secret military/scientific unit in the desert. Often sophomoric, often awkwardly written (& never inspired writing), & never really very funny despite its strained attempts at humor, it was nonetheless a mildly amusing entertainment, but no Tom Robbins.
Gary10 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Strange tale of a man who is decapitated, but remains very much alive--with all the strange behavior this situation can be expected to induce. Entertaining but not deeply satisfying.
bnbookgirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A strange story one has to read to believe. I am not sure there is an appropriate way to describe it.
PirateJenny on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ted Street is driving to the beach to kill himself. Suddenly, in a catastrophic accident, he's hit by a UPS truck and decapitated. Three days late, he sits up in his coffin at his own funeral. It's rather shocking and a riot ensues. In the following days, while trying to ascertain if he's alive or dead, Ted is kidnapped by a cult that believes he's Satan's emmissary, resuced by the government and taken to Area 51, escapes and runs into a cult that believes he's the messiah, and reunites with his family in the midst of it all.
EmScape on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Odd, existential, yet delightful, American Desert is the story of Ted Street, who, on his way to committing suicide, is decapitated by a UPS truck. However, Ted is not dead. Or is he? Sitting up in his coffin at his own funeral, Ted begins a whole new kind of life. Is Ted a devil? An angel? A ghost? The Messiah? Or, something else entirely?This book grapples with questions of life and death in a wholly unique and hilarious way. It's laugh-out-loud funny, but also gets one thinking about what kind of life she is living and what she would do with a second chance if it was handed to her. Ted is both bizarre and relatable. His wife seems off, but genuine. The reactions of his children to this situation are heartbreaking and also incredibly genuine. Everett also gives obscurely fitting names to each of the characters, some of which are obvious, but all can be discovered or confirmed by checking Wikipedia. My one complaint is that I wish there was a bigger payoff at the end. The conclusion is fitting, but a little anti-climactic.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is laugh out loud funny. One of the wildest books I have ever read. I would definetly recommend it to anyone with an open mind and good sense of humor.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While quite readable--the language easy enough--this story fails to capture interest in any meaningful way. While there are portions that curled my lips into a sort of half-hearted, semi-smile, I found no chuckles here. This 'satire' touches on several important cultural/social quirks, but fails to give them the 'air time' necessary to make the reader give serious contemplation to the failures and ambitions of an 'inclusive, tolerant' society. In other words American Desert is dry as the desert, and not a long drink of ice cold water.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I only gave it two stars because, although most of the time it seemed well written, I got sick of the dirty language used constantly. I got tired of the unfaithful people. I really sick of the stupid so called 'Christians.' Every 'Christian' in that book is an absolute moron. I don't reccomend this book. There are a zillion much better ones out there for you to read.