I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Percival Everett. Graywolf Press. 272pp, $16.00.
The central joke, it must be said first, gets old in a hurry. The protagonist of Percival Everett’s newest novel is in fact named Not Sidney, and coincidentally his mother’s last name is Poitier. And by pure chance, the guy happens to look exactly like the star of In the Heat of the Night. So the boy inherits not only a lifetime of Abbott & Costello-worthy introductions (“My name is Not Sidney.” “Then what is it?”) but also quite a bit of racial and cultural baggage. He nevertheless narrates the novel with a sort of charming emotional remove, which helps to reign in the frequently cartoonish novelistic inventions around him; Everett mocks celebrities, white people, black people, southerners, novelists, educators, even himself, so it helps to have a steady voice holding it all together.
As a series of set pieces, I Am Not Sidney Poitier is intermittently entertaining and often quite funny. As a novel, however, and especially as a satire, it never quite coheres. This is partly because Everett never makes it clear who or what he’s satirizing. He inserts himself into the action, as Not Sidney’s creative writing professor and an expert on nonsense literature, which is about as clear a statement of purpose as we get. There was a similarly all-encompassing satirical impulse in Everett’s superior 2002 novel Erasure, but that book’s anger and personal detail grounded the proceedings in something emotional. I Am Not Sidney Poitier gives us no such insights or flashes of moral seriousness, and as such we’re left with nowhere to stand.
The novel can be great fun, however, particularly in its early chapters, when it most resembles a pop-literate version of a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century picaresque. From its opening mention of a “hysterical pregnancy,” and Not Sidney’s later description of himself as “a fighter of windmills,” it’s clear we’re in a classic Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote mode. Everett carries this torch ably, particularly in Not Sidney’s relationship with his surrogate father, Ted Turner, who takes the boy in after his mother (an original shareholder in the entrepreneur’s then-nascent Turner Broadcasting Company) dies in childbirth. Not Sidney’s name is bowdlerized affectionately by Turner, who schools “Nu’ott” in the niceties of broadcast shares, supply-side economics, and proper sexual behavior. Everett’s Turner is a fantastic creation, this novel’s equivalent of Fielding’s Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones. He takes his patriarchal role seriously and he cares about Not Sidney, but he’s also a great verbal invention. Like Fielding, Everett draws this character almost entirely through dialogue and monologues, and much of his speech is hilarious and oddly psychologically probing. Expressing his distaste for the Diff’rent Strokes model of rich, white adopted fatherhood, Turner goes off:
“Society, some like to call it culture these days, shouldn’t be subjected to that kind of pernicious and deleterious rubbish, the Arnold and Webster model. That’s why I’m going to take over television and air that trash every day several times a day instead of only once a week. That way we’ll all become desensitized to its harmful and consumptive effects by sheer overexposure. That’s what I mean by jingles. They’ll become meaningless and innocuous little ditties.” He popped a stick of gum in his mouth and offered one to me. “It’s cinnamon. Have you ever been sailing, Nu’ott? Of course you haven’t. I love sailing, the bright sun on your face, the sea smell, that breeze running through your hair.” He looked at me. “My hair anyway.”
This characteristic logorrhea reveals depths to this character that many in the book, including Not Sidney, are not afforded. We see his odd combination of old-fashionedness, aloofness, and true civil concern. We see the unlikely pairing of McLuhan-esque media awareness and the entitled ambition of a born capitalist. And nearly every bit of Turner’s speech flows just as richly.
Not Sidney, however, remains a cipher, and one who seems uninterested in his surroundings, at that. He is factual and clear in his narration, but rarely forthcoming or even engaging. Waking up from an unexpected tryst with his girlfriend’s sister in their family’s garish brownstone, he seems dubiously implacable: “I sat up and slowly remembered my encounter with Agnes and wondered how it would play out.” And while this quality adds a further level of comedy, and helps dampen the farcical characters around him—a fitness-obsessed Jane Fonda, her horny niece, a white female teacher who forces herself sexually on Not Sidney, the Mad Hatter Everett character—it also gives credence to the impression that nothing is really at stake. Not Sidney strikes out from his privileged beginnings and runs afoul of racist southern police and an equally narrow-minded affluent black family, but no character bursts with life like Turner, and thus there’s no one to balance the flat narration with any degree of passion.
It’s clear that Everett’s not aiming for passion, though—he’s after something more elusive and allusive, namely a tour through various American subcultures’ interpretations of and reactions to blackness. Thus a Sidney Poitier look-alike is deemed “too dark” by both Georgia rednecks and a D.C.-bred, Ivy-educated black family. These situations end up implicating Not Sidney in his own miniaturized versions of In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, respectively, just as a misadventure with a group of foreign nuns recalls Lilies of the Field.
This is all great pop-aware fun, and the novel ends, like Erasure, with the protagonist accepting a mainstream-bestowed award, this time for “Most Dignified Figure in American Culture” at a conspicuously Oscar-like ceremony. But Everett’s insistence that all racial projections are self-projections isn’t a particularly new one. He has obvious fun delineating Sidney Poitier’s role in the public consciousness, but the absence of stable plotting or firm character development grows more glaring as we read on and discover that the novel’s underlying social observations never really expand or deepen. Not Sidney’s early assertion, “I was, in life, to be a gambler, a risk-taker, a swashbuckler, a knight,” turns out to be both incorrect and beside the point. The events of his life are instead decided by others, whether his mother or Ted Turner, a series of predatory females or the Podunk police force of Smuteye, AL. This is doubtlessly the thematic rationale for Not Sidney’s comically unexcited narrative voice, and for the movie-referencing structure, but the sacrifices in characterization and emotional depth are too steep considering the relative safeness of Everett’s greater point.
The observation that Sidney Poitier was variously seen as a societal menace and a model of public dignity is certainly one worth revisiting now, when an almost suspiciously mild-mannered black president has nevertheless drawn incredible racist ire from his detractors. But Everett never makes the leap for political relevance, and Not Sidney doesn’t even really engage in the considerably political tumult of his early-70s zeitgeist. Instead, Everett seems content to entertain, which may be enough for people who remain enamored of his cardboard world for all 240 pages. But the novel feels dispassionate, even contented, and I kept wanting Everett to take his satire more seriously. The scenes keep coming, the cinematic references keep piling up, but I Am Not Sidney Poitier never moves beyond its title joke or its premise.
John Lingan is a writer living in Baltimore, MD. He is the managing editor of Splice Today.
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