The Water Cure by Percival Everett
Reviewed by Jim Krusoe
Washington Post Book World
The narrator of The Water Cure is a man whose 11-year-old daughter has been raped and killed. He now is in the process of torturing her murderer, but this, as they say, is only the tip of the iceberg. True, as a subject it's plenty disturbing in itself, but through a variety of devices -- including drawings, mini-lectures on language, philosophy, politics, theology and nature, and even excerpts from a romance novel called "The Gentle Storm" -- Percival Everett has made his new novel much more than a simple horror show or self-righteous rant.
So while The Water Cure is most decidedly a novel, it is also a meditation on what it means to be a victim and a torturer at the same time. In his finest book to date, Everett combines in his narrator, Ishmael Kidder, a man pursued by furies (some of his own making -- he had left his wife before his daughter was killed) and one who speaks with a cool sense of detachment.
If this question of who has the right to torture seems familiar to Americans, it's not an accident. One of my favorite moments comes early on as Kidder declares, "I come from a nation of stupid [expletive] and by association, at least, if not genetic inevitability, a sobering and sickening thought, I must be a stupid [expletive] as well. The stupid [expletives] in my country elected a king stupid [expletive], and he ruled with stupid [expletive] glory and majesty, a stupid [expletive] for the ages, who in a more fair time might have been successful as the man who follows behind the circus parade with a shovel, but probably not. The stupid [expletive] was elected by stupid [expletive] and supported by stupid [expletive] and even occasionally fell out of favor with stupid [expletive], but stupid [expletive], being stupid [expletive], either forgot or forgave and again loved the king stupid [expletive]." Reading this made me happy for just exactly as long as it took me to realize that this nation of "stupid [expletive]" included me. Gulp.
Not surprisingly, the book is a series of fragments, as befits a mind in agony. Do the parts add up to a whole? Almost, and this is one of Everett's points. In one part Kidder sets up 18 mirrors around the molester so the man can better witness his own torture. Would 18 more make his picture twice as complete? Would one have been plenty? So these fragments of writing are like pieces of the mirror through which Kidder reveals his own agony -- frustrating, incomplete, inexact. Throughout the book, a drawing sequence -- the famous Gestalt cat -- emerges whisker by whisker, so that at the end there it is, almost complete, lacking only eyes.
So how are we to make sense of ourselves? Everett is too wise and too sad to provide any answers, except to remind us that language won't save us -- a brave statement for a writer. Steadfastly, stubbornly, he refuses to let the reader escape into a narrative fantasy; the pages that actually describe the events surrounding the girl's murder are surprisingly few, but they spread throughout the rest like a cancer, making the detachment more horrible.
Can a novel be separated from life? How does a writer, or anyone else for that matter, separate himself or herself from "the music of my torture, learned well from my world, my culture, my government"? Kidder is on fire, but if the cure for being on fire is water, what does it mean to drown?
In other words, this is a book that not only makes you feel, but think. And what it made me think about was what poor stuff we humans are: venial, mendacious, hopeless and, yes, in pain, too. But also that the great mission accomplished by this particular president and his administration is to have made it impossible for humans, specifically Americans, to pretend yet again to be innocent. And if this realization leaves us with any glory at all, it's not the knowledge that the world can be made right again. Instead, it is the courage to contemplate the stream of misery we have left in our wake, and our own responsibility in the matter. It's no accident that the last word of The Water Cure is "retriever."
Jim Krusoe's next novel, The Girl Factory, is forthcoming.