Percival Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier (Graywolf, 2009)
Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a veritable “who’s on first” labyrinth of identity, cultural criticism and familial torture. Terrifying, terrifically hilarious and outlandish, Everett has given us the character “Not Sidney Poitier,” whose adventures through adolescence into adulthood serve as an allegory for a seemingly loud manifesto about identity and race. Sections woven through memory and dreams as told by “Not Sidney” glow within the narrative, creating a carefully planned shining snowglobe, purposefully canvassing American and human history. Celebrity cameos are surprising but integral pieces of plot, and Everett’s remarkable ability to carry a story as told like legend while peppered with such outlandish and finite detail can leave a head spinning. Throughout this book, his seventeenth, Percival Everett’s distinct voice and mastery of the modern novel are ever-present. We are generously given shifts in perspective, humor in unexpected places, unexpected entry points for jarring, unforgiving brutal moments of reality. Everett is flexing his ability to write. He set out to make a point, and he did it loudly, as he has before and no doubt will again.
“Not Sidney” is orphaned by his mother, after having been in her womb for two years, and inherits an unnamed and unending supply of money thanks to her keen investing skills in Ted Turner Industries. The money involved is so great, Ted Turner himself takes Not Sidney in, and a star who is Not Sidney Poitier is thrown into a snake pit of ups and downs so deep, he begins to dream in nightmares. Waking dream states continue throughout the plot while Not Sidney is molested, thrown in jail, sent to school, forced to build a church and later solve a murder. Within the extreme map a young man’s life highlighted, are the facts: Not Sidney is doomed to be exploited from start to finish and Everett, lovingly, tortures the poor kid to prove some very heavy philosophy.
An orphaned, wealthy, neglected, beat up andout of place boy becomes a man while the world tries to take advantage of him, force him into submission and leave him little room to search for his mother, himself or anything other than the tasks constantly put before him. Amidst all of this, shining rays of writing. So much beauty, nightmares, revisiting America’s evilest past lives. “Moonlight.” “The women wept, the men wept.” “Moonlight.”
In addition to Ted Turner, Bill Cosby and a myriad of more name brand characters, most interestingly, and quite brilliantly, Percival Everett makes a grand appearance in the novel, playing himself. The work is a first person narrative told through the eyes of Not Sidney, but around page eighty-eight in the nearly two-hundred fifty page novel, Everett introduces himself as a character. An important one, at that, Beginning with a conversation between Not Sidney and Everett, discussing Bozo The Clown, and later, identity. “I managed to register for all of my classes just as all the other freshmen so managed…I decided to get into an upper-division English course titled the Philosophy of Nonsense taught by some guy named Percival Everett.”…”Are you a sheep, Mr. Poitier?” “No,” I said. “I don’t think so.” “Most sheep don’t think they’re sheep. I wonder what they think they are. Pigeons, maybe.” Everett then goes on to admit to his character that he is “a fraud, a phony, a hack.”
Amidst all of the nonsense is a very lovely use of a very fun writing device and it was refreshing to see a writer taking so much liberty with his own image. It also felt bizarre when Not Sidney repeatedly called the writer for advice throughout the rest of the book. Bill Cosby’s class lecture on self-loathing due to “selling pudding pops to the white man” was hysterical and a welcomed break from the dark narrative, or perhaps shadowing it in charcoal deeper, but with a softer hand. Not Sidney’s strongest defense is his ability to “Fesmerize.” Fesmerizing is a concept he reads about in a self-help book, involving a person staring at their opponent hard enough until they are wooed by the powers of intellectual seduction. Many times throughout his journey, Not Sidney failingly attempts to Fesmerize people. Extreme wealth provides Not Sidney the ability to move fluidly about the country, but brings him trouble at every turn. It feels like one afternoon he takes a right and is then in the circus, another hour later, he takes a left and is swimming in mermaid tank, forever surrounded by an extreme subtext of loneliness, and the inability to fit in to any situation. A candid, at times rude young man, poor Not Sidney just cannot seem to get a break. Or, rather, cannot seem to learn from each of his dire situations. An odyssey of a life being lived by a young man who needs a chance to reflect and is not given enough time to really stand still and change his fate, Not Sidney is a heartbreaking character, expertly drawn. The book is a summer must.