Half an Inch of Wa­ter by Per­ci­val Everett, Gray­wolf Press, 163 pages

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In Per­ci­val Everett’s slim book of short sto­ries, Half

an Inch of Wa­ter, set in the Amer­i­can West, there is a sym­me­try to what hap­pens in the first four sto­ries: a dis­ap­pear­ance; an un­read­able four­teen-year-old; a dis­ap­pear­ance; an un­read­able four­teen-year-old. We also en­counter dra­matic anom­alies such as a den of rat­tlesnakes and the pos­si­bil­ity of a cougar at­tack. Everett has the tech­ni­cal know-how to write scenes in­volv­ing an­i­mals, and while rat­tlesnakes and cougars can raise the pulse of a reader, the fifth story, “Wrong Lead,” is a re­minder that the truest pulse-raiser is the mys­te­ri­ous hu­man heart.

“Wrong Lead” is al­most as plau­si­ble as it is in­trigu­ing. A woman who is an as­pir­ing “horse per­son” cred­its her horse-rid­ing in­struc­tor with giv­ing her the courage to leave her hus­band — a claim that leaves her in­struc­tor as per­plexed as it does her hus­band. When the woman, Sarah, has a con­ver­sa­tion in a diner with the in­struc­tor, Jake Sweeney, and when Sarah’s hus­band knocks at Jake’s door, the puz­zle only deep­ens. The end­ing, which, for the first time, brings the three char­ac­ters to­gether in one phys­i­cal space, has the vis­ual ki­net­ics of a mas­ter­ful short film.

There is much that is keenly drawn in these sto­ries — many horses trot fetch­ingly through them, and the sto­ries evoke the nat­u­ral world and our in­ter­ac­tion with it. There are sur­pris­ing turns of phrase. The sto­ries would, how­ever, have ben­e­fited from a more lived-in pace. Too much comes up — for in­stance, a pe­riph­eral char­ac­ter has mur­dered his wife and child at the end of one story and this is only fleet­ingly ad­dressed — giv­ing some of the sto­ries the feel of tele­vi­sion news. The litany of events is re­lent­less: Wives leave hus­bands, a teen be­comes preg­nant, and there is al­most al­ways the loom­ing threat of vi­o­lence. Such things do hap­pen in life, but too many events com­pressed to­gether can start to feel con­structed, and, iron­i­cally, the whiff of re­al­ity fades. One longs for more mo­ments like the one in “Wrong Lead,” when Jake Sweeney drinks tea, looks at his “poor, ne­glected roses,” and swears over the aphids on the same roses.

Sam, the pro­tag­o­nist of the first story, “Lit­tle Faith,” is a vet­eri­nar­ian, and he has the mak­ings of a com­pelling char­ac­ter — to­ward the end, his in­te­rior life be­gins to peek through. Af­ter two snake bites and res­cu­ing a deaf Na­tive Amer­i­can girl, Sam says, “I need to be alone with my thoughts for a short while.” Who can blame him? He’s cry­ing out for more Jake Sweeney mo­ments. Sam seems to trot so fast past his day, we can barely get to know him. It’s a won­der his wife is able to hand him some fruit and cook­ies be­fore he heads out the door again.

Everett gives us some slap­stick re­lief in “Find­ing Billy White Feather,” in which a man takes a jour­ney to find the writer of a note left on his back door. “Liq­uid Glass,” which fea­tures cars and a me­chanic and his garage to ex­cel­lent ef­fect, reads like a slap­stick thriller. “Graham Greene” is the most mov­ing story and, fit­tingly, it is the last one. Everett gal­va­nizes an old woman’s re­quest to see her long-lost son and the pro­tag­o­nist’s com­pul­sion to help into a mo­ment that tran­scends our ex­pec­ta­tions. The woman, Roberta Cloud, says to the pro­tag­o­nist: “I’m one hun­dred and two years old. I’m go­ing to die and I want to see my son one last time. I haven’t seen him in a bunch of years, maybe thirty.” The pro­tag­o­nist as­serts that he is not a de­tec­tive, but still he feels driven to do some­thing. Af­ter some mis­cel­la­neous wan­der­ings, when he re­turns to Roberta’s deathbed, the mo­ment is at once mag­i­cal and real. This is what Everett has been work­ing to­ward in this col­lec­tion — to fuse fac­tual ex­pe­ri­ences with those that can­not be de­scribed or put into words. It is a lofty goal, and in “Graham Greene,” he fi­nally achieves it. — Priyanka Ku­mar

The litany of events is re­lent­less: Wives leave hus­bands, a teen be­comes preg­nant, and there is al­most al­ways the loom­ing threat of vi­o­lence.

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