“Read it, love it, spread the word” – Dr. No by Percival Everett

IMG_2023-3-12-090539Wala Kitu (whose name translates from Tagalog and Swahili, respectively, as Nothing Nothing) is a Professor of Mathematics at Brown University, where he specialises in nothing. Nothing is important, Wala says, because it is the measure of that which is not nothing – but what if you find nothing? What can you do with nothing? What if nothing happens?

Dr. No is that grand mash-up of a Bond caper, a campus novel and a satirical philosophical treatise that you never knew you were waiting for: think a Jonathan Swift reboot of Ian Fleming, starring a pair of socially inept mathematicians, a one-legged bulldog called Trigo, a cop called Bill Clinton and a Mike Pence-a-like called Shilling. Say what, you ask? Okay, concentrate. Wala Kitu and his colleague Eigen Vector are recruited by eccentric Black billionaire John Sill to help Sill find nothing, which he claims is stashed in a box in the Fort Knox vaults. Sill’s not just eccentric, though: he’s a real-life Bond villain, complete with shark tanks, high-tech submarines, and lots of violent goons. Sill’s backstory, though, taps into themes fans of Everett’s work will recognize: when he was a kid, Sill’s dad was shot by James Earl Ray, the man jailed for the murder of Martin Luther King: after visiting Ray, the young Sill determines to embrace a life of evil – he wants to take White American down, and if Black America goes with it, well, so be it. Sill’s plan is to make nothing happen to America, to ‘make America nothing again’, with the help of Wala, the Black academic who specializes in nothing. Wala, increasingly appalled, needs to use his expertise (and the dream-guidance of his dog) to make sure nothing doesn’t happen.

Dr. No is a masterwork in wordplay – if you’ve read I Am Not Sidney Poitier, well, imagine that book’s comedic stylings dialled up to eleven. The academic satire echoes in turn Erasure, but this is sillier (in a good way): Wala’s colleagues are wistfully jealous of the ‘funding’ of his research by a literal villain because where else will the money come from? As for the Bond conceit: Everett sends up Fleming’s masculine gadgetry and ornamental ladies to great effect, and, taking a broader view, he subverts the Cold War dynamic of the originals into the context of a race war, sending up both Fleming and vigilantes, whilst also, as usual, drawing our attention neatly to the nasty past and present of racialised America. Sill is evil, yes, but not exactly wrong, though he’s certainly misguided: like all good villains, we don’t really want to see him brought to justice. On the micro-level, Everett is as comically astute as usual: as with many of his previous books, for instance, there’s some brilliant encounters here with inept racist cops hassling his weary Black protagonists. An exasperated officer tries to book Wala on multiple driving offences but is ordered to let him go: ‘He’s not armed,’ the cop tells his superior, ‘but he is Black. You heard me say that, right?’ The cameos, named or otherwise, from Pence and Trump (in absentia) underline this theme: avatars for the America Sill wants destroyed, which is also, of course, the America which has enabled Wala to make a good career ‘contemplating and searching for nothing’. And like everything Everett writes, the  dialogue is so funny, it’s a crying shame when any exchange ends, from Wala’s encounter with a divorcing couple each vying to sell him their respective cars, to his visit to a fellow academic, an atheist alcoholic priest who believes fervently in the Devil.

Any Cop?: I cannot – CANNOT – understand why Everett’s entire back catalogue is not available yet in the UK. Influx Books deserve a publishing medal of honour for introducing him to a wider audience here, and Dr. No is a worthy follow-on from the Booker-shortlisted The Trees. Read it, love it, spread the word.

Valerie O’Riordan


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