One of the most talented contemporary novelists writing in English publishes his fiction with Graywolf Press in St. Paul, rather than with New York City-based behemoths such as Simon & Schuster or Random House. A new Percival Everett novel is cause for celebration at Graywolf and among his readers, so this review will celebrate "I Am Not Sidney Poitier."
Some of his novels are better than others -- a truism for any author -- but all are worth reading. (I have indeed read all of them.) Everett, who also teaches at the University of Southern California, is wildly inventive, yet somehow manages to connect with readers who don't consider themselves primarily consumers of "experimental fiction."
Describing any of Everett's novels in a few hundred words is difficult, because the story lines sound outlandish when summarized. The protagonist of the new novel was born with the last name of Poitier, and, like the Hollywood actor, is a person of color. The birth mother, unconventional to say the least, bestows the name "Not Sidney" on her son. He is orphaned at 11, wealthy because of an unlikely investment made by his mother. As he grows, he resembles the actor more and more. The physical resemblance complicates an already complicated situation. When asked his name, the young man replies, accurately, "Not Sidney Poitier." Readers can imagine the verbal pathways such an answer might instigate.
Everett is black, and I have seen his fiction placed in the "African-American literature" section of bookstores. Most of his novels grapple with race and racism to some extent. But to call Everett a "black novelist" is absurdly reductionist. His themes and story lines are universal. Probably no satire or other form of humor is universal (laughter is extremely personal), but Everett's words make me laugh often.
The primary supporting characters that help make "I Am Not Sidney Poitier" universal are Ted Turner and Percival Everett. Yes, a Ted Turner who lives in Atlanta, owns a cable television empire and acquires professional sports teams. Yes, a Percival Everett who is a professor. The author warns readers not to confuse his creations, however, with living human beings.
His way with words can be grasped by reading the author's note: "All characters in this novel are completely fictitious, regardless of similarities to any extant parties and regardless of shared names. In fact, one might go as far as to say that any shared name is ample evidence that any fictitious character in this novel is NOT in any way a depiction of anyone living, dead or imagined by anyone other than the author. This qualification applies, equally, to the character whose name is the same as the author's."
Steve Weinberg is a biographer in Columbia, Mo.