Percival Everett’s fiction encompasses everything from explorations of the western United States to metafictional riffs on notions of authorship and memoir. His newest book, the collection “Half an Inch of Water,” keeps things in a mostly realistic vein — the settings here are largely rural, and a lightly overlapping cast of characters explores questions of trauma, trust and identity. The characters in these stories are taciturn and deeply knowledgeable about the spaces around them; they’re experts in their own fields, but are placed in situations that test them in unexpected, sometimes miraculous ways.
The collection is bookended by its two strongest stories, each of which blends a fantastic sense of the lived-in with aspects that venture more into the surreal or ambiguous. “Little Faith” follows a veterinarian named Sam Innis through his daily routines, giving the reader a sense of him through the ways that he interacts with the people in his community — and then showing how he reacts when a series of events threatens the careful balance he’s established.
The narrator of “Graham Greene” is hired by an elderly woman to find her almost-as-elderly son. The title turns out to be a reference to the actor rather than the writer, but it’s hard not to shake the specter of author Greene’s work on belief and his own use of ambiguity in “The End of the Affair.”
The narrator’s search becomes stranger the deeper in he gets, and there are echoes of an earlier story, “Finding Billy White Feather,” in which the search for a mysterious man who may or may not exist parallels its protagonist’s increasing irrationality. Wounded egos loom large here. Another version of ”Wrong Lead” might focus on the aspect of problematic attraction that puts its plot in motion, but here Everett opts to focus on the relationship of a horse trainer with the members of an estranged couple, pushing past more familiar conflicts to probe the inner lives and boundaries of all three.
One of Everett’s strengths as a writer is his ability to embrace both the familiar and the strange. This is present throughout the collection: While stories of plainspoken men and women living in stark, sparsely populated towns are familiar, Everett finds new ways to enliven the setting and the characters. He knows the right places to apply pressure to the narrative and the stresses to test. Just when you think you have a particular work figured out, it tends to shift into something fresh and new — taking both the reader and the characters closer to a moment of mystery and revelation.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.