Monday, August 2, 2010

He is Not Sidney Poitier

I've read nine books so far on this vacation, upon whose last week I am now launched. By the end the tally will probably be 10 or 11. That's less than last year if I remember right, but actually this is a good thing. It means I got off my butt and did a thing or two instead of just staying put and reading reading reading. So I'm content.

I'm more than content--I'm ecstatic--at my most recent read. I Am Not Sidney Poitier by the prodigiously talented and highly subsersive Percival Everett.

Subversive of what? Of literary convention, social boundaries, artistic sanctimony. This is one wild ride of a novel. Fall-out-of-your-chair funny, but then, while you're picking yourself up off the floor, you find yourself wading up through layers and layers of meaning and commentary. There are broad satire, harsh parody, wry sarcasm, anger, weariness, sadness, all conveyed on the same page, the same paragraph, even sometimes within the same sentence. There's in-your-face near-slapstick comedy wedded with hit-your-heart complex subtlety. How does he do it? I haven't a clue, but Everett, as we already knew, is a masterful writer. As well as a profound thinker about this society we live in, U.S. culture and history. Especially about race, racism, and, as he zeroes in on it here via the misadventures of his young protagonist whose name is Not Sidney Poitier, societal images and perceptions, portrayals and distortions of Black men.

Look, there's a hell of a lot going on in this novel, that's mostly what I want to convey here by way of urging to you to jump on and take the ride for yourself. You'll be surprised to find where it takes you. For me, and I felt something similar with some of Everett's previous work, including the incredible Erasure, there's so much going on that I'm afraid I might have missed some of it. One thing I did catch, and that flat-out wowed me, was the way Not Sidney seems to be living (and sometimes dreaming) his way through the filmography of the actor whose name he does not share. I fear I missed some of the movies covered, but the ones I recognized were "No Way Out," "The Defiant Ones," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "Lilies of the Field," "Buck and the Preacher," and "In the Heat of the Night."

If you follow this blog you'll know that I tend to eschew plot summaries when I write about books I've read, because the he-did-this-then-he-did-that seems to me to be the least important information to convey to potential readers. In the case of I Am Not Sidney Poitier, which if it were an ordinary book you might classify as a bildungsroman, the main character Not Sidney's journey, both literal as in from Los Angeles to Atlanta to D.C. to Alabama and so on, and surreal as in his journey through Sidney Poitier's film roles, is so interwoven with the book's thematic concerns that the only way to get a sense of it all, of the plot and the thick weave of meaning behind the plot, is to read it. So do. He is Not Sidney and you should read about his life.