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 inability to deny 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 compelled 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.