September 2009

Kate Munning

fiction

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

It's a tough business, being defined by what you are not. But this is the lot of Not Sidney Poitier, the awkwardly but aptly named, indescribably wealthy orphan fumbling through an absurd, cultureless American landscape in the "post-racial" era that is anything but.

Not Sidney is the protagonist of Percival Everett's latest novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier. His mother, an intelligent but unhinged single woman in lower-middle-class Los Angeles, hits the jackpot after investing in Ted Turner's budding media empire. After she dies when he is 11 years old, Not Sidney finds himself whisked away by Turner to live on the periphery of his massive Atlanta household, not as part of the family, but nonetheless well cared for by a series of housekeepers and tutors.

As a young man with no real home or family, with his immense wealth a closely guarded secret, Not Sidney gets nothing but ridicule and a series of beat-downs because of his name and outsider status. It doesn't help that as he grows older, it's clear that Not Sidney Poitier is the spitting image of Sidney Poitier. This garners him loathing from his male peers and fawning attention from young and older women alike.

Not Sidney is decent enough -- he's smart but languid, empathetic but not overly moral. He drops out of high school and buys his way into college at Morehouse, but he is kind, sensible, fallible; he speaks his mind and recognizes the absurdity of his situation and his interactions with those around him. Bonus: He can sometimes control the behavior of those around him using the technique of Fesmerization, which he learned from a book in the library.

Upon creating the sympathetic Not Sidney, Everett then goes and throws him to the lions. It's a nasty business being smart and sane, as it is being a black man in America today. The poor boy inspires pathos even while interacting with absurd, pastiche, and sometimes downright cardboard characters. Some of these folks you might recognize, such as Bill Cosby, who rails about Pudding Pops and the responsibilities of black men in the same breath. Then there's the character of Percival Everett, a plump Mad Hatter of a literature professor who is vaguely supportive of Not Sidney but spouts only nonsense.

Most of the characters are little more than animals, driven by their vice, prejudice, and basest desires. A schoolteacher preys on Not Sidney's ingenuousness, while the parents of his first girlfriend initially vilify him for his dark skin, then scheme to snare him once they find out he's rich. The saddest victims, from an abandoned, dirt-poor blind girl to the neglected, middle-aged development officer at Morehouse, turn out to be interested solely in hating and rutting. And the parade of vindictive, racist cops, prisoners, and even nuns is enough to make one's head spin, so much so that the mere appearance of a friendly, nonthreatening diner waitress prompts a sigh of relief.

But this isn't a downer of a book by any means. The writing is so sharp it will make you wince and laugh at the same time. I Am Not Sidney Poitier is postmodern, no doubt, but its tone is more of a Kurt Vonnegut satire than a Delillo or Pynchon tome. Everett's storytelling can't be oversold; this is superbly written, crisp and quick-paced, punctuated with pools of simply gorgeous prose. Above all, it's damn funny.

"There were people out there looking for me, wanting my fifty thousand dollars. I knew they would kill me for it and I wondered if in fact they already had. As we stepped out of the makeshift morgue I thought that if that body in the chest was Not Sidney Poitier, then I was not Not Sidney Poitier and that by all I knew of logic and double negatives, I was therefore Sidney Poitier."

Not Sidney's coming of age could be perceived as a 21st-century response to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Although defined by what he is not, Not Sidney remains clear-eyed and seems to have a firm idea of his nascent identity, even as other characters project their expectations and bigotry onto him. Racism makes him feel self-conscious, but not worthless; in his dreams he is a protestor, a voice of reason, and always a survivor. Perpetually put down and compartmentalized, Not Sidney's identity is determined to some degree by who is looking at him. Strangely, Everett may also be talking about the fluidity of identity even as he skewers the rigidity of race and class in America today. The title character spends much of his time introducing himself and trying to explain who he is -- or rather, who he is not. The ultimate joke is that his fundamental premise could be totally wrong: Maybe, just maybe, he really is Sidney Poitier.

 

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 1555975275
272 Pages

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