Saturday, October 30, 2010

He is Not Sidney Poitier

He is Not Sidney Poitier. That is, his name is "Not Sidney." WTF, LOL?


But seriously folks, this is a very unserious serious read, good and all that too. What's more, I'd count "I Am Not Sidney Poitier" among the funniest books I've read all year. And Percival Everett is my kind of fiction writer, equal parts Joseph Heller and Ishmael Reed, with certainly enough originality to be all his own (if you'll forgive me that cliche).

Still, that's not saying enough. Everett writes like he's not even trying; I don't mean he makes writing look effortless; but I do mean that it's as if writing this novel was as enjoyable for him as it is to read. Is there a greater issue buried in the obfuscation of subtext? Something to do, maybe, with the high-minded literary themes ascribed to Authors of the capital A variety. Possibly there is, but the novel is written in such a way that those themes, questions of race and identity, for example, are relegated to the side, and so are beside the point. The point is, as far as I can tell, amused bemusement.

Not Sidney is never certain of what to make of his world. Racially, he's of a historically marginalized and mistreated people. By inheritance, he is extremely wealthy if bizarrely named. And so before I say something like the novel speaks of a search for identity, I will preempt such ideas with the conclusion that it is about not identity. About the person and not the greater community to which one belongs. All of this incongruence seems to negate itself, as with the specifically relevant example of Not Sidney Poitier being named what he's named while profoundly resembling Sidney Poitier, as gets mentioned repeatedly by numerous characters, including Not Sidney, throughout the narrative. What of the outlier? Of the man without a country, a community, a place? Hard to say, Everett seems to say, but lets put him through a hilarious series of hellish turns and watch how that all pans out.

Spoiler-laden Plot Synops: Not Sidney is the product of a hysterical pregnancy. His mother is a savvy investor (despite her hysteria and other afflictions) who gets in on Turner Media investment early in the game, becoming massively wealthy in the process. She dies. Ted Turner has become friends with the family, and with no one else to see that Not Sidney is more or less looked after, Turner invites Not Sidney to live in Atlanta, in close proximity to Turner's estate. (He refuses the possible scrutiny of a "Webster" or "Diff'rent Strokes" - type situation by insisting that he will not adopt and take in Not Sidney as his own ward.)

Not (and I refuse to get into the fact that every use of "not" in this post isn't meant as a pun, unless otherwise stated, I guess) surprisingly Turner, as written by Everett, quickly becomes one of the story's best characters, irrespective of his limited involvement in the story on the whole.

Percival Everett himself, in a meta-fictional turn, makes an appearance as a character, as a self-deprecating professor at Morehouse College -- which is a school Not Sidney eventually buys his enrollment at for various reasons I won't bother to explain. Read the book if you want to know. True fact: Percival Everett is a real-life professor at University of Southern Cal, so says my copy of his novel. Pleonasm is the term for categorization of redundant expressions like "true fact," which itself falls under the umbrella of tautology, but forget all that.

Apropos of nothing in the way of plot, here's a noteworthy dialogue exchange involving all three characters, Not Sidney, Everett and Turner:

Ted looked at his thumb. "What do you call it when you get that painful bit of nail on the side of your cuticle and you can't help but push it up and make it hurt more and you never have a clipper with you?"

"I never knew what that was exactly. Is that what I'm supposed to call a hangnail?" Everett asked.

"I guess that's what you call it," Ted said.

"Your right, though. It is really annoying," Everett said. "I always get them before I'm about to have sex for some reason."

"Would you two shut up?" I said.
And that's the sort of defining irreverence that colors this bizarre plot, one that involves things like a strange form of hypnosis called Fesmerization, after its creator/discoverer, that Not Sidney finds and employs often, crimes Not Sidney does not commit, ass hole black fraternity members, racist redneck police officers, seductive history teachers, and a mostly despicable family of black Republicans.

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