Percival Everett, Assumption

Publisher: Graywolf Press

2011, 225 Pages, Paperback, $15

i have to start at the end. Bear with me, I won’t include any spoilers, but the end of Assumption must be mentioned. After finishing Percival Everett’s latest novel, I felt disappointed and more than a little ripped-off. The ending seemed tacked on, out of left field, and a complete 180-degree turn from the rest of the novel—if I could come up with any more synonyms for “unpleasantly shocked,” I’d insert them here.

I was mad.

But then I thought about the title. And then I realized I let the genre trappings fool me into thinking Everett, known provocateur and experimenter, was telling simple, straightforward murder mysteries. I should have known better, and now you know not to take anything for granted while reading this book.

Assumption is a masterful novel that adheres to satisfying genre rules and also challenges readers in daring, unexpected ways.

Set in a small, fictional town in northern New Mexico, Assumption focuses on three cases involving Deputy Sheriff Ogden Walker—the only African American police officer in the entire state, it seems. These cases all revolve around mysterious deaths. The murders shock Walker and the other police officers, but each crime is connected to the deeper, endemic darkness that surrounds the characters. The crimes are a result of the racism, drug addiction, and general suspicion that permeates the town of Plata and the entire region. Northern New Mexico is blanketed in mountains, forests, and deserts; and Everett pumps the regions for its best secrets.

An important part of Assumption’s tone is that Walker doesn’t really want to solve these crimes. He doesn’t want to admit they’re real, that this kind of violence can strike so close to him and his beloved mother. But he’s also driven to solve these crimes—he can’t not search for the truth:

Ogden could feel his heart racing and he wondered why and realized the answer to that was obvious. Nothing makes people more interesting than their being dead. Sad, but true. He really didn’t want to see dead people. It made him feel queasy to see dead people, but damn if it wasn’t interesting. The sky was so blue that it was almost ironic.

Walker is a likable character, and his down-home personality is sweet yet not cloying. The reader believes he’s always that polite around attractive women and so clueless about the Internet. Assumption is split into three parts; it could even be considered a collection of linked novellas, each focusing on a different crime. Walker goes about solving the crime with a simple, yet effective persistence. If he has to drive to Dallas and back in a single day (which takes an entire day) to hunt down a clue, then that’s what he does.

Of course, this all makes the end of the novel that much more upsetting. So, after you’ve finished the book (and it’s so well written and suspenseful that you’ll charge through it quickly), you’ll get mad. Then you’ll look back and realize that it all makes sense, that you should have read more closely, that you were making Assumptions that you never should have. It’ll be one of the best, most frustrating books you’ve ever read.

—Richard Z. Santos