Popular culture's endless appetite for superhero content defies the painfully obvious: There are no flying humanoid aliens or radiation-infected teenagers available to bail humanity out of what often feels like desperate times.
But what about supervillains? Maybe it's something about this uncertain era, populated by peculiar billionaires obsessed with outer space, irresponsible demagogues with cultlike followings, and yacht-bound oligarchs that make a character like Lex Luthor feel more realistic than a character like Superman.
A prolific novelist and finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the Booker Prize, Percival Everett plays with that possibility to dizzyingly good effect in "Dr. No," his latest from Graywolf Press. In the villainous character of John Milton Bradley Sill, Everett gives us a charmingly witty, possibly insane billionaire with a decades-long grudge to bear against the United States and an elaborate plan for revenge that hinges on the application of a deeply esoteric field of mathematics.
Nothing, to be precise. Dr. Wala Kitu, the novel's narrator and a "distinguished professor of mathematics at Brown University," in his own words, is an expert on … nothing. "I have spent my career … contemplating and searching for nothing," he says. "I have not found it."
"Dr. No," of course, takes its title from the 1963 movie that introduced James Bond to the movies (itself based on a 1958 Ian Fleming novel). What unfolds is a breezy, strange, frequently hilarious, action-adventure story that's rife with Everett's talent for deadpan dialogue and vivid scene-setting, but just as equally given to brainy tangents and wordy digressions on dense mathematical concepts.
It's also another thoughtful entry in Everett's career-long literary exploration of America's troubled racial legacy. But he keeps the mood light by mimicking the silliest conventions of spy movies, with a story that shifts between exotic locales and luxury compounds, and a large cast of characters — federal agents and shadowy operatives, mysterious women with uncertain motives, a sinister general and an insincere politician — chasing around in planes, a submarine and a yacht, heavily armed jeeps and sports cars. Kitu makes for a delightfully eccentric protagonist, a maladjusted math whiz with a one-legged dog, Trigo, who talks to him in dreams.
With more than two dozen novels on his resume, most released by Graywolf, Everett in recent years has appeared on lists of finalists for some of literature's biggest awards. "Dr. No" might be a little too odd, a bit too brainy and inclined to philosophic-mathematic ruminations to significantly build on any new fans Everett gained with his last few, lauded novels. Still, fans of last year's "The Trees" will see parallels — the earlier book a detective thriller with suggestions of the supernatural, "Dr. No" a spy caper that shades into science fiction, both propelled by reckonings over racial injustice.
What marks Everett as a singular talent is the way he elevates such serious concerns inside a stylishly executed, frequently hilarious pair of genre thrillers. By the end of "Dr. No," even as the self-negating logic of Everett's plot about nothing builds to an inevitably surreal conclusion, a more pertinent question than what's happening (or not happening) on the page might be, what are the actual chances that an unhinged billionaire with limitless resources and a righteous sense of grievance could bring widespread harm upon society? Probably not nothing.
Pat Condon is a city editor at the Star Tribune.
By: Percival Everett.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 232 pages, $16.