Damned If I Do by Percival Everett review – sardonic take on identity politics | Short stories

T.The protagonists in Percival Everett’s newly released collection of short stories include a romantic novelist, a man whose marriage is saved by a giant talking trout, and a sandwich bar owner who takes on a handyman with an uncanny knack for fixing things. They have a lot in common – these are men who live in the western or southern US, often love fly fishing and are appealingly open-minded. They’re black too, though in all but two of the dozen stories here, the race is laid down in ways that feel downright subversive.

Exceptions are alluvial deposits and the acquisition of cultures. In the first case, a hydrologist (Robert Hawks from Everett’s novel Watershed) meets an old lady who hurls n-words and fires guns. In the end, she feels sorry for him – and then he’s stupid for it. What he doesn’t do anymore is get angry about racism. “There’s no point getting angry at a tornado or a conspicuous snake. you just stay clear, ”he says.

When white lads ask him to play Dixie, the Confederate anthem, he surprises everyone with a heartfelt rendition

In The Appropriation of Cultures, Daniel Barkley has an Ivy League degree, a legacy big enough to make a living from, and a guitar he enjoys playing in a bar loved by college kids. When some white lads ask him to play Dixie, the Confederate anthem, he surprises everyone, including him, with a heartfelt rendition, claiming it is his own. He does the same with the Confederate flag. “Don’t take it down, just take it,” he explains.

Damned If I Do first appeared in the US in 2004, but time just seems to have made it more necessary. His stories are largely about race only in so far as they highlight some of the reductive, restrictive aspects of identity politics. They are rooted in a deep sense of rural places, original and subtle, smart and soulful – also full of sublime sardonic humor. The characters are so multidimensional that their ethnicity is just one item on a long list of expectant attributes.

Damned If I Do by Percival Everett is published by Influx Press (£ 9.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply