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'Dr. No' is a delightfully escapist romp and an incisive sendup of espionage fiction

Graywolf Press

Pulitzer and Booker Prize finalist Percival Everett won another prestigious award this month, the PEN/Jean Stein Award, for his newest book, Dr. No. Taking a sharp turn with his first novel since the triumphant success of The Trees, Everett's Dr. No is a delightfully escapist romp as well as an incisive sendup of espionage fiction.

Everett makes a myriad of compelling creative choices in crafting this satire, but a few crucial choices really elevate the game. First, both of its main characters are men of color, eschewing the determined whiteness at the center of most spy novels, and putting race in play in challenging and shockingly entertaining ways. Since no one is more insightful or fearless on the subject than Everett, this choice pays off brilliantly. To induce laughter in a protagonist's racially driven traffic stop in this age is nothing short of a literary miracle.

Second he gives us a MacGuffin that literally has no value. The hero of the story, Wala Kitu, is a brown-skinned, Brown University mathematics professor specializing in the study of "nothing," who gets swept up in a strangely high stakes yet pointless government heist spearheaded by an egomaniac with millions of dollars to burn. This self-styled "self-made" billionaire (let the record show, he inherited tens of millions from his mother) has a singular goal: "John Milton Bradley Sill aspired to be a Bond villain, the fictitious nature of James Bond notwithstanding." And so in what becomes sort of an "emperor's new clothes" kind of situation, he pays Wala handsomely for his expertise in "nothing."

All that would be amusing enough, but Everett stacks the deck by giving this antagonist more than a passing resemblance to a certain high-profile, high-tech mogul. An angry, orphaned racially ambiguous billionaire who goes out of his way to be shocking in cartoonish ways? If Elon Musk had a baby with Kanye West, he'd sound a lot like this diabolical creation (their antics are far more amusing in the pages of fiction).

Another ironic strength is how the hallmark Everett commitment to literary conceits plays out in this context. The novel's most obvious investment is in revisiting Sill and Kitu's circular meditations on the concept of nothing and the impossibility of defining an absence. For instance: "Most believe, wrongly, that nothing is merely the emptiness between subatomic particles. Nothingness is not emptiness any more than it is the absence of something, some thing, some things or substance," and "It was my expertise in nothing, not absolutely nothing, but positively nothing, that led me to work with, rather for, one John Milton Bradley Sill."

Yet, while the abstract and empty nature of the philosophy to which this billionaire is committed is glaring, I found the style of storytelling the book's most interesting trait. In contrast with the gravitas and dark gallows humor of Everett's previous novel The Trees, Dr. No has a light touch, more concerned with the ironies of art, life and relationships than in tragedy, and full of comedy bits and pop cultural riffs. At one point an inscrutable character's life story sounds suspiciously familiar. Details are ripped from classic 1970s television shows like "Good Times" and even whole lines from The Jeffersons' theme song ("We finally got a piece of the pie.")

If you listen closely to the rhythms of the dialog and you're of a certain age, they may also remind you of classic comedy duo Abbott and Costello's Who's on First, a routine that similarly hinges on stylized and circular wordplay and miscommunication. This exchange for example felt like a modern day "Who's on First": "What do you think you can do with nothing if you find it?" "That's why we're talking to you," said General He. "We'd very much like to know, you know?" "You know nothing," from General She. "That is widely accepted."

In a similar vein, as a narrator, Wala Kitu is both bizarre and riveting with his consistently deadpan staccato that perfectly fits his oddball character: "My parents, both mathematicians, knew that two negatives yield a positive, therefore am I so named. I am Wala Kitu. That is all bullshit, with a capital bull. My name is Ralph Townsend." Kitu's thoughts on his students are also laced with dry wit and cynicism: "There were only three students, but they were eager, enthusiastic, and brilliant, I am sad to say. Give me a stupid student any day." That Everett tells the story from Wala's perspective and in his distinctive voice so comprehensively gives the proceedings a fittingly off kilter air. In combination these elements add up to a master class in satirical style, even if the substance of what's conveyed doesn't carry quite as much weight. How could it when the stakes are nothing?

A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

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Carole V. Bell