What's African-American novelist Thelonius "Monk" Ellison to do when his postmodern "retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists" can't compete with pop fiction like Juanita Mae Jenkins' "We's Lives in Da Ghetto"?
In "Erasure," Percival Everett's amusing, self-absorbed satire on race, academia, publishing and popular culture, Ellison uses the pen name Stagg R. Leigh and writes "My Pafology," a parody of "true, gritty real stories of black life."
"Erasure" may have a limited audience. Its bristling observations could restrict its appeal to other writers, academics and academic writers.
On race: "Monk" comes from a family of physicians and admits he has no skill with basketball.
On academia: In California, he teaches "a bunch of green intellects about Russian formalism." Back home in Washington, D.C., he presents an indecipherable bit of gobbledygook to the Nouveau Roman Society. The response is a "tentative smattering of applause and a nerve-dulling silence while people tried to figure if they were offended and why."
On publishing and pop culture: Enraged by the success of Jenkins' Harlem novel, "Monk" writes "My Pafology." A stereotypical 'hood novel, it is embraced by television talk-show host Kenya Dunston for her on-air book club.
Off the beaten track of satire and parody, Everett creates a number of indelible characters with the Ellison family. The sister runs an unpopular family-planning clinic; the brother's life is falling apart in Arizona; the mother is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. The book is strong when it focuses on these emotional crises.
Despite its several virtues, however, "Erasure" ultimately succumbs to the weight of its own sense of self-importance.