December 2004

Michael Schaub

fiction

A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond: A Novel by Percival Everett and James Kincaid

Here are two things I've learned from seven years in arts journalism: (1) Never ask a writer where he gets his ideas. (2) Never ask a musician to describe what kind of music she makes. (3) Never insinuate, in writing, that your subject is a cocaine addict, hoping everyone will get the joke.

I've only been dumb enough to make two of those mistakes. The only one I'll confess to here happened when I interviewed what might have been the world's most boring alterna-crap band for my college newspaper, and I asked the lead singer, innocently enough, how she described her band's sound. (I'm not going to name the band, but I'll point out that they insisted their name spelled with all lower-case letters, if that tells you anything about them, which it should.) I had to sit through ten minutes of exaggerated soul-searching before she finally decided on "rock-groove from the soul canyon."

Writers, similarly, hate being asked where their ideas come from, which is fair enough. There's no good answer to the question anyway, and it's usually pretty obvious to begin with. For Percival Everett, who grew up in South Carolina, it was presumably hard not to think about Strom Thurmond, the racist senator who almost defined the state for the 20th century. Indeed, Everett's aborted 1989 address to the South Carolina state legislature was the keystone moment in the successful fight to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol building. So that explains that.

The whole experience could have led to a really earnest, really solid, really boring autobiographical novel. Instead, Everett and coauthor James Kincaid (like Everett, a USC professor) discuss Thurmond and his legacy in what might be the weirdest possible way -- as an epistolary novel that also touches on the publishing industry, sex, loneliness, and right-wing historical revisionism. Who knows? That really earnest veiled-memoir thing could have earned Everett the Pulitzer or National Book Award that pretty much everyone who's ever read him thinks he deserves. But since the authors opted to do their own thing and publish on a small, independent press, they'll just have to settle for knowing they've written one of the funniest, most insightful American novels in years.

The rise of email might eventually obsolete the epistolary novel, or at least make it much more of a pain in the ass to write. Few people write letters anymore -- just wait two weeks, and there will be a column in your local newspaper about how tragic that is. Everett and Kincaid get around the conceit (the book seems to be set shortly before Thurmond died in 2003) with liberal use of interoffice memos and transcribed conversations, neither of which have totally died out yet. There are letters here, though the writers tend toward the quirky and old-fashioned -- exactly the type of people who might shun email, faxes, or whatever other mode of communication is coming next. (Text messages, maybe? Good God, I hope not.)

Everett and Kincaid have dreamed up one of the strangest casts of characters you'll see. The main catalyst of the story is Barton Wilkes, an aide to Thurmond who is shepherding one of the senator's projects -- the proposed history book of the title -- throughout the publishing process. Wilkes has his problems, chief among them a growing distance between him and reality. He's a Tennessee Williams throwback, given to flowing purple prose, weird gentility, and a hair-trigger temper. He approaches Simon & Schuster about publishing Thurmond's history, where he's initially dismissed, but shortly assigned to Juniper McCloud, an editor's assistant whose boss, Martin Snell, is equally unhinged. Eventually, USC professors Everett and Kincaid are hired to ghostwrite the book, while dealing with Wilkes' mood swings, McCloud's growing sexual confusion, and a few uncomfortable meetings with Thurmond himself.

That might sound convoluted, but that's only about a quarter of it. It has to be hard to juggle several disparate storylines, especially when your characters are as eccentric as these are. But the novel, strangely, is extremely readable. Everett and Kincaid have each character's voice down perfectly. That might have been easy with their own characters, but it's not easy to write a Thurmond that's not either an exaggerated strawman or a comic caricature. Yet the senator comes across as more complicated than most people would assume. The authors are careful not to paint Thurmond as blameless, or especially sympathetic, but he's unmistakably human. There are no devil horns or white robes or, for that matter, easy age jokes. Everett and Kincaid clearly know the arguments of racists and segregationists like Thurmond, though it's equally clear that they don't buy it.

But this isn't a polemic by any means. The authors are equally concerned with the lives of the characters, many of whom are desperate, lonely, and depressed. And it's their interactions through the mail that form the real backbone of this novel. The last section of the novel is unexpectedly moving -- by setting the reader up for a punchline, and then forcing him to actually care, the story becomes jarring and almost shocking. What separates Strom Thurmond from most comic novels is this type of subtle compassion, this refusal to sacrifice characters for a cheap laugh. That takes wicked strong restraint in a genre that doesn't traditionally call for subtlety. As funny as this book is -- and it's unbelievably funny -- Everett and Kincaid don't forget that it's also a serious venture. It's not the type of book that seeks to teach a lesson, and thank God for that. The world is in desperate need of less polemic fiction. But there's a call for understanding and for humanity in the pages of this book. It's hard to define; it's impossible to miss.

The book itself is a strong argument that everyone needs to start taking independent publishers much more seriously. Everett has a history of taking his fiction to small presses; he and Kincaid chose the wonderful New York-based Akashic Books for this one. I'm not sure whether the major presses are ignoring Everett, or he's ignoring them, but you can't afford to miss out on any of his fiction. Start with this book -- I can't really say it's "from the soul canyon," but it might make you believe in the power of humor, and of fiction, again.

A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond: A Novel by Percival Everett and James Kincaid
Akashic Books
ISBN: 1888451572
312 Pages