If Groucho Marx and Richard Pryor became mathematics professors and decided to collaborate on a spoof of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, they might come up with something like Percival Everett’s Dr. No (Graywolf).
Everett borrows his title from Fleming and the movie, as well as the basics of the spy thriller, but the rest is the fruit of his astonishing imagination. His earnest narrator is a Black man named Wala Kitu, a distinguished professor of mathematics at Brown University who specializes in the study of nothing. Even his name means “nothing”—Wala in Tagalog, Kitu in Swahili. (He chose the name himself—originally, he was Ralph Townsend, the infant prodigy who narrated Everett’s earlier novel Glyph.)
Despite Kitu’s years of studying nothing, his conclusions remain elusive: “I work very hard and wish I could say that I have nothing to show for it.”
The book kicks off when a billionaire with the oddly allusive name John Milton Bradley Sill offers Kitu $3 million to help him find and steal nothing—an essence that Sill, who is also Black, is sure has terrible destructive powers. Of course, if they do steal it, they’ll have nothing to hide.
Sill’s great ambition is to become a Bond villain, but unlike those characters, his is not a motiveless malignancy. He wants to avenge the murders of his parents by white supremacists who were covering up the conspiracy to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr.
America, he tells Kitu, has given him nothing, and he intends to give it nothing in return.
So Kitu becomes a sort of involuntary and improvisational Bond, hired by Sill but determined to stop him. Sill, meanwhile, has the trappings of a Bond villain—luxurious lairs around the globe, a private jet and his own submarine, a sexy android henchwoman and a mind-reading butler. He even co-opts Kitu’s colleague, a differential topologist with a great body and a jokey name, although it’s a math joke—not Pussy Galore but Eigen Vector.
Kitu is utterly unprepared to play Bond. He’s a 35-year-old virgin on the autism spectrum who doesn’t know how to drive, and his best friend is Trigo, a one-legged bulldog, with whom he has deep philosophical conversations in his dreams.
Everett wraps this uproarious story around serious subjects, from systemic racism to the nature of reality. Nothing is immune from his humor and brilliance. Well, maybe nothing.
Read more about Dr. No:
Balakian winner Jennifer Wilson, The Atlantic
Molly Young, New York Times
Patrick Condon, Star Tribune