Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Book Report: I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett
Been wanting to read this one for a while, since The Believer gave it a 2010 best book award. They made it sound funny. It was funny.
Here's the deal: The narrator/hero of the story is a young man named Not Sidney Poitier (as in his last name is "Poitier" and his first name is "Not Sidney"). His mother died when he was young. She'd bought a lot of shares in Turner Broadcasting, and Ted Turner sort of adopts Not Sidney and raises him, more-or-less. Turner's full of absurd wisdomless wisdom. He's the most non-paternalistic father figure I've come across. Most of the conflict in the book comes from three situations:
1. Not Sidney tells people his name is Not Sidney and then has to explain.
2. Not Sidney makes ill-fated attempts to drive from Atlanta back to Los Angeles, where he was born.
3. Women with various motives attempt to have some kind of sex or another with Not Sidney.
Happily, Mr. Poitier can "fesmerize" certain people, which, like it sounds, is like mesmerizing them. He uses this ability to get out of some unpleasant situations, but he can't control it all that well. Also, Mr. Poitier is ridiculously wealthy thanks to his mother's investments, but this proves to be a hindrance when he tries to actually use it to do things. Also, he looks very much like the movie star Sidney Poitier. So he's got some things going for him to sort of balance out the perils of being black in the South and being named Not Sidney Poitier.
The big take-away from the book seems to be this: It's hard to be black in the South if you're Not Sidney Poitier (or not Sidney Poitier for that matter). Things just seem to work against you. The deck is stacked.
Like I said, it's a funny book. Everett is a really sparing storyteller, though not exactly precise. The story is messy and uneven and seems unsure of itself at times. A character named Percival Everett makes an appearance about half-way through to offer professorial guidance to Not Sidney, but his guidance is largely nonsensical. He's not much help, really--comic relief in an already pretty funny comedy. Is Everett saying he's lost the ability to steer his own character? Maybe. I'm rarely sure what's going on when an author inserts himself into a story.
Anyway, it doesn't matter. The messy looseness of the book lends it a sort of honest sincerity that a story about a character named Not Sidney Poitier needs. It's a recognizably absurd world Not Sidney inhabits. So, absurd as his name and biography is, he's not exactly out of place in it. And neither is Percival Everett. And neither is anyone else, really.