Monday, June 29, 2009

Percival Everett does it again

Several years back author Percival Everett was on the cover of Poets & Writers magazine, about the time I was trying to see how many books I could read in a year (answer: 72 if I don’t have a job for a few of those 12 months). While perusing the library looking for slim books to up my count, I found a book with his name on it. I don’t think it was all that thin of a book, but I thought “Hey—this is the guy from the magazine” and I took it home. And I’m glad I did because I found my new favorite author.

I had never heard of him before that P&W cover story, and to this day, I'm fairly certain none of my friends know who he is. Which means, of course, I’m not doing my job in convincing them to read his books. Or maybe I just know that his writing is not for everyone. Sure, his novels are some of the smartest funniest works out there. But not everyone likes smart and funny. No offense.

My first Everett novel was Erasure, about Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, a writer of experimental novels that don’t sell. His editor begs him to write something that will sell, focused on black life. So Ellison writes a joke, a parody of what the editor wants, basically as his way of saying “screw you.” Of course, it’s not taken that way. Rather, everyone thinks it’s a shocking and realistic portrayal of the African-American experience. And so it does become a bestseller. Everett’s novel is a critical examination of the state of both publishing and race relations. And it’s very funny.

Since that time (I’m guessing early 2004), I’ve been reading two or three of his books each year. Which means I’m about halfway through, as he’s written somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25. Usually I don’t read them new because I’m cheap (or maybe poor). So I get them at the library. But I had a gift certificate to my favorite northcoast bookstore (Northtown Books in Arcata), which I’d been saving for a special occasion (saving the certificate, not the bookstore). And when I heard that Everett had a new novel out, there was the occasion presented.

His latest is called I am Not Sidney Poitier after the lead character in the book. No, the character is not Sidney Poitier—he’s Not Sidney Poitier. Due to his mother’ death, Not Sidney ends up with a huge number of shares in TBS, Ted Turner’s company. In fact, without parents, Not Sidney ends up living with Ted Turner. Well, not exactly. He lives on the same estate, but rarely sees Ted. He’s mostly left to his own devices, though Ted often provides random non sequiturs to the young Not. The novel follows Not’s travels as he confronts racism, wealth, and more, and his life somehow parallels the scenes from Sidney Poitier movies (though at one point Not Sidney has a few interesting meetings with a college professor named Percival Everett).

I won’t say much more about this work, but I’m not sure why Everett isn’t more well known. I feel he’s just as good at bending genre conventions as someone like Jonathan Lethem. Don’t get me wrong—I love Lethem’s works, they're brilliant (though maybe I’ll save that for another post). But for his wide range of styles and content, for his humor, and for his biting satire, I’ll take a Percival Everett novel any day