I may be developing a knack for reading books I can’t summarize.
Sasha Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf was difficult to sum up because it lacks a linear plot.
Percival Everett’s Assumption, on the other hand, has inspired personal reviews saying, in so many words, “Stop right here and go read the book! Everything is a spoiler!”
I don’t think that’s true. In fact, I believe Assumption is a very non-risky book to at least begin to summarize for the simple reason that everyone seems to be thrown by it, regardless of what they think they know about it.
So, we start safe. Assumption follows Ogden Walker, a deputy sheriff, through three criminal cases that emerge in a small town in New Mexico. In the first, a trigger-happy old woman is found murdered shortly after Ogden confiscates her gun. The situation at the outset feels sort of like a reverse “locked room” mystery, as the blanket of snow around the woman’s residence reveals only one set of footprints—Ogden’s—while she appears to have vanished into thin air. Later, she’s found dead beneath a trapdoor in her floor.
Not long after, it comes out that people are getting their car windshields smashed by vandals in a nearby canyon, and four more dead bodies turn up.
As Ogden is investigating possible connections between the deaths, he’s visited by the FBI and discovers that a hate group may be involved. He rushes to try to uncover clues, is sidelined by someone he thought he could trust, recovers and, with the help of friend and fellow force member Warren Fragua, emerges relatively unscathed if not exactly triumphant. Several unanswered questions hang in the balance.
Unanswered questions become a pattern. In the next “story”—Assumption is a series of three novellas published together as a novel—a woman shows up who says she’s from Ireland and trying to track down a female cousin in the area. Ogden is tasked with helping her find this “missing” relation. In the course of asking around, the two of them stumble across a fatally wounded woman, an event which eventually sets Ogden on the trail of a one-handed man who he suspects of killing prostitutes.
Once again, Ogden haplessly kicks his way through the mystery, worse for wear mentally and physically. We’re occasionally reminded that he’s not even a proper detective, but rather a deputy who has a penchant for picking up more than his obligatory share of small-town mystery pie.
Still, Ogden doesn’t seem to register as being particularly reckless to his colleagues, and he doesn’t seem so dedicated to his job—he expresses indifference and downright distaste for it at times. His deep involvement in cases appears more to stem from a combination of plain bad luck and a lack of anything else meaningful in his life. He lives alone in a trailer, occasionally visits his mother, sometimes goes fishing with Warren Fragua and feels uncomfortable with the memory of his father, who he’s convinced wouldn’t approve of his career choice.
We’re getting a little less safe now, but still there will be no serious “spoilers.” Proceed with slight caution, or stop reading this and read the book instead.
Readers like me, who are fans of what I’ll reluctantly categorize for practical purposes as “literary crime fiction,” may pick up Assumption with the hopes that it will hang tight with, for example, the humanistic intrigue of Belgian author Georges Simenon, whose work The New York Times suggests a connection to in a review. But neither the refusal of Simenon’s creation, Inspector Maigret, to make the criminal the “other” nor the entertaining amorality shown by certain characters of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell are to be found here to a significant degree.
Ogden Walker does share some of the empathy characteristic of Maigret—or Scottish writer William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, for that matter—in his interactions with people to whom he has no particular reason to relate. Like Maigret and Laidlaw, he’s run down by the demands of his job and the manufactured uncaringness of the world he lives in. But unlike them, Ogden’s feelings for humanity don’t appear to be leading him to make a meaningful connection with any human being, criminal or otherwise.
That’s not necessarily a problem for us readers of literary crime fiction. After all, reading about psychopaths, narcissists and a monstrous lack of concern for the human race can also be fun, especially if it provides a perspective that can’t be gotten elsewhere. In addition, mysteries and suspense novels often provide the pleasure of a voyeuristic glimpse at the lives of those unfortunate enough to be victims of a slow, steady reveal. For an instant, pasts, motivations and actions seem to line up, make sense, even if the book itself admits that life’s never that neat. The process can be both confounding and satisfying. But the pleasure of Everett’s novel, the “thrill” in this “thriller,” is in a reveal of a different kind.
For the first two novellas and much of the third, the style of Assumption centers around sparse, smart dialogue and humor that I associate half with the novels of Tom Drury and half with the television series Justified, which is based on the work of Elmore Leonard and features the creating, editing and producing chops of American author Leonard Chang, among others. This witty writing may serve to put the reader in a good mood. I won’t say it’s a front, but it does help conceal, if not deliberately hide, the twisted undergrowth of the novel’s arc.
We’re now getting a tad dangerous, but if you’ve read this far, you probably won’t mind.
I’ve read some debate and expressions of frustration over whether Assumption should be considered a novel or simply a compilation of three separate stories. I think that like all well-wrought series, it can and should be read as both. It brings to mind Hungarian-born French-language writer Ágota Kristóf’s La Trilogie des jumeaux (“the twins’ trilogy”), which includes Le Grand Cahier (The Notebook), La Preuve (The Proof) and Le Troisième Mensonge (The Third Lie). The third book places the first in a different reality, but they can each be read separately, as can La Preuve.
In the same way, Assumption’s third episode places the first two in a different context, though there are clues of its eventual reveal earlier in the text. I had the feeling that something was “wrong” as early as the second novella, but it manifested to me as bad writing. I had mistaken the tone of the book for that of a more standard, if edgy, detective novel. I thought the edginess was in the humor, that the book would call forth vignettes about people’s lives that would be a little shocking but nevertheless interesting. The book wasn’t delivering on this expectation. I had missed that it was much more twisted than that. In other words, I had mistaken style for tone.
It may now seem facile and naïve of me to say, “I was wrong, I was reading it wrong.” And facile and naïve it might be if the ending were the trying-too-hard trap some have made it out to be. But Assumption isn’t, to borrow and perhaps slightly misuse a phrase of Kurt Vonnegut, the type of literature to “disappear up its own asshole.” As the title practically gives away, the trap you ultimately stumble into is of your own making. Therefore, it’s going to bring different habitual assumptions to the surface for different readers.
Some of the assumptions I brought to this book were hammered in place by my familiarity with what I think of as offbeat detective fiction. Some of them were embarrassingly, predictably American assumptions that I’ve held on to despite the fact that they’ve been contradicted by my own life experiences again and again. I won’t say what they are because that might give something away.
I understand why the ending of Assumption seems clumsy and tacked-on to some. But if you find yourself having this reaction, as I did at first, it may be worth examining why it seems that way to you. Have you truly been “tricked”? What ending would you have written and why? If nothing else, this is a great hot potato to throw at your book club for stimulating conversation, though I can’t promise it won’t all end in tears, fistfights and bitter recriminations.