Percival Everett is a master at downplaying race. He’ll only tell you a character’s race if it matters in the course of the storytelling—and even so, race is treated as an afterthought, an “oh, yeah, by the way” sort of thing. Everett does this because he understands what connects rather than divides people, and uses these similarities to create characters that expand the boundaries of race to the outer limits of humanity. Such casualness is exemplified through John Hunt, the main character in Everett’s new book, Wounded, as he mulls over how his small town perceives him: “I of course, realized that I was referred to as the black rancher. I suppose had I been extremely handsome, I would have been the good-looking, black rancher.”
Wounded is an experiment in sociology: What happens when you mix a black horse trainer, a small town in Wyoming, small-town folk, young gay men, hate crimes, love, loneliness, revenge, and murder? Everett’s subtle answer is that it isn’t necessarily race or even sexuality that defines who we are or groups us together; the decisions we make and how we react to others and situations that say more about us.
Besides being a man who doesn’t mind sweeping horseshit daily, John Hunt is a middle-aged widower who goes through life without actually participating. He lives with his uncle Gus, also a widower, who doubles as the household cook, and together they nurse wounded coyote cubs, tend unruly mules, and take cheap shots at one another, all without much emotional output. Everett captures this numbed calm through simple, direct language that lacks hidden agendas.
Normalcy is disrupted by a series of events that forces John to react. His ranch helper, a young boy—and not the sharpest tool in the shed—is arrested for murder; a college friend’s gay son comes to live on the ranch; and a neighbor confesses her feelings for him, in the course of a few months. Amid all this pressure, John maintains his cool, still tending horses and delivering dry one-liners. But over the course of the book, his transformation from a passive participant to an active member of the living is welcomed.
The book is positioned as a thriller, but Everett’s execution says otherwise. The murder is tertiary at best; you’ll know very quickly whodunit. The villains lack originality: bad guys with limited vocabularies. The rather quiet suspense stems from how a town overcomes hatred, violence, and death. And as Everett explores it, the titular “wounded” is the stage between getting hurt and recovering from it. It links us as human beings and, as Everett shows, in plotting our path to recovery, distinguishes us as individuals.