Dr. No, a satirical spy novel by Percival Everett, reviewed by Adam Camiolo

Dr. No, the satirical spy novel by Percival Everett, is uncommonly funny, ridiculously smart, and has a serious score to settle. It is, in short, quite good.

The book follows the misadventures of Professor Wala Kitu, a theoretical mathematician whose name is Tagalog and Swahili respectively for Nothing Nothing. Wala specializes in Nothing, an abstract entity that is also a tangible destructive force. His particular set of skills draws him into the crosshairs of a mysterious billionaire named John Milton Bradley Sills, who is looking to transform himself into a self-styled “Bond villain.” Sills’ plan is to steal Nothing from Fort Knox and use it to topple the United States Government once and for all. After Sills hires Wala to become his Nothing consultant, Wala, his triple amputee dog Trigo, and their brainwashed friend Professor Eigen Vector find themselves lost in a labyrinth of infinite wealth, corruption, and betrayal. As they attempt to escape Sills’ clutches, Wala realizes the fate of the world (or maybe just Quincy, Massachusetts) may hang in the balance.

With a backlog of over thirty novels, including the warmly regarded I Am Not Sidney Poitier and the critically lauded The Trees, Everett has made a career of cloaking heavy subjects and complex characters in genre disguises and absurd humor; and Dr. No is no exception. Beneath its absurd spy-caper veneer, Everett uses the well-tread in new and exciting ways. Having both a Black hero and villain are enough to make this novel stand out amongst the usual espionage fare, but Everett takes the opportunity to question what it means to save or destroy a world so broken by economic and racial disparity.

Everett’s incisive commentary is made even sharper by his genuinely hilarious prose. At the risk of overexplaining a joke, Nothing (Everett’s doomsday de jure) is worth singling out as a guiding principle and funniest part of the book. In his world of double meanings and double agents, the dialogue of Dr. No often descends into a firefight of banter around Nothing. Despite being a gag that dates as far back as the Odyssey, the repetition and obfuscation of nothing becomes so overwhelming and tumultuous, it almost always works. Generals, supervillains, and mathematicians argue over nothing with a droll Leslie Nielsen-ian delivery:

“Professor, think of it this way. The country has never given anything to us and it never will. We have given everything to it. I think it’s time we gave nothing back. What do you think?”

“I’m a mathematician.”

“That’s what I’m counting on. Get it?” With that rather lame pun that I actually didn’t get, as he put it, he left.

Without context, it may look simple, but as the plot continues to twist and turn, the oddity of Everett’s duplicitous dialogue only multiplies.

Another fascinating standout is John Milton Bradley Sills, who, like all good Bond villains, hasn’t just stolen the show; he’s shrunk it, kidnapped it, and dangled it over a volcano. Despite his similarity to some uber-wealthy villains, Sills’ Blackness adds a layer of complexity that separates him from his 1% peers. Righteously aggrieved over his father being murdered by the government for witnessing the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sills has inherited unimaginable wealth,  which, coupled with his charm and nihilism, has made him almost all-powerful. Concerningly for Wala and the world at large, his actions are driven by boredom and a bottomless well of pettiness rather than any urge for societal change. He is the kind of villain who builds nuclear submarines and murders politicians with the joie de vivre of a suburban dad taking up home brewing. As his actions become more monstrous over time (specifically his abduction and mistreatment of the female main character, poor Dr. Vector, which is perhaps treated too lightly in the narrative), Sills remains a consistently transfixing character.

With Sills, Everett asks us to imagine a world where the incredibly rich and the incredibly bored are permitted to run amok, demolishing anything that offends them or acquiring by force anyone who strikes their fancy. Impossible to otherwise imagine, I’m sure. Money, Everett demonstrates, can warp morality, laws, and even race. In an all-too-familiar scene, Wala Kitu is pulled over by a white police officer who radios in requesting authority to arrest our hero. However, the officer quickly discovers that his superiors have found Sills’ bribery far more convincing than the department’s inherent racism:

The officer turned away from me, put his mouth against his device, and said “He’s Black. He really doesn’t have a license.”

“Let him go.”

“He’s Black.”

“Do you copy?”

“Copy that.” The trooper looked at me, but sort of through me. He was terribly confused and, indeed, so was I.

“Thank you, Mr. Kitu, you can go.”

“Just like that?”

“I know, right?”

Behind every zany twist in Dr. No is the obscene wealth of Sills, helping drag the world closer and closer to total annihilation. For the villains of Ian Fleming and Percival Everett, only one real question remains for those with unimaginable riches: What’s left when you’ve already conquered the world? If the mid-life villainy of John Milton Bradley Sills is to be believed, there is only one answer: Nothing.

Dr. No, by Percival Everett. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, November 2022. 232 pages. $16.00, paper.

Adam Camiolo (@upandadamagain) is a writer, and occasional firefighter, who lives in New York. His work can be found in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Daily Drunk, The Foreign Policy Book Review, Heavy Feather Review, and he contributes to Poparatus.com. 

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