Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A History of the African-American People (proposed) by Strom Thurmond: As Told to Percival Everett & James Kincaid

I was very pleased to have remembered a fact about Senator Thurmond, probably gleaned from an NBC or CBS TV show such as the West Wing or The Good Wife, that set me in good stead for this rather entertaining if random "novel", if one wishes to call it such. In fact, although it might be fiction in form**  it could be read as a eviscerating if glib critique of academia, publishing, right-wing historical revisionism, senatorial aides and humans in general. But I was telling you about my fact, yes. Here it is:

He died as he lived, standing on his head...*
At 24 hours and 18 minutes, Strom Thurmond holds the record for the longest filibuster by a single senator in US history.

A filibuster (first made popular*** by Cato the Younger in the Roman Senate), for those that care, is where a vote on a proposition, in a parliament or senate, is delayed or entirely obstructed by a member talking non-stop about anything he chooses. In this case, Senator Thurmond unsuccessfully attempted to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957. What a gaseous old windbag, but what stamina!

During the course of this book, I was entertained by several other new facts about Senator Thurmond I learned courtesy of Messieurs Everett and Kincaid;
a) He was a redneck
b) He was a lecherous redneck
c) He was a prehistoric, lecherous redneck
To be fair, that's pretty much all you might need to know in order to enjoy this book on an historical level. I admit, my American Political History could be brushed-up somewhat but this lacuna did not prevent understanding or amusement. In fact, having been in search of more eBooks by Everett as a result of discovering The Impossibly by Laird Hunt and Everett's contribution thereto and finding only this and one other I'd already read, I was willing to take a chance on anything I found. This had the least probable or promising title I had ever read, I'm sure you might agree. Allied to another fact in so far as I knew nothing about James Kincaid whatsoever, I was really out on a limb before I even started.

Am I digressing? Let me just state this - I knew Everett was black. I knew he was from South Carolina. I didn't know, however, that he once refused to continue a lecture at South Carolina State House because of the presence of the Confederate flag. I am learning so many new things!

So, what we have here, to return to the issue at hand, is a highly unlikely book. Of course, post-modern irony spotters will have got the joke quite some time ago. And that is pretty much what this book is - one long running joke, about the fact that Senator Strom Thurmond, outspoken critic of civil rights and racial equality, might wish to write a book about the history of the African-American people. Equally unlikely is the fact that the bulk of correspondence is made up of letters - actual letters - from the pens of the various crack-pot letter-writing cast - including both Everett and Kincaid, at times Strom Thurmond, a senatorial aide, named Barton Wilkes, with delusions of grandeur and chief protagonist (or antagonist) , a slightly crazed editor at Simon & Schuster and his unfortunate assistant, the assistant's sister, and a rival editor who enjoys using violence to conclude arguments. It does lead me to wonder how long the epistolary form might survive in modern times, even more so that it's on my eBook reader, but then I only have to look at Texts From Dog to curtail that avenue of inquiry. Still, as is often the case, humour disguises a keen disgust and critical insight, quite in keeping with Everett's oeuvre. Somewhat like a dried up scone used as a vehicle for cream and jam consumption. 

And what liberal use of toppings the authors make! 

Enough filibustering - please read this book. You need not even leave the house as you can download the thing and read it on your [INSERT EREADER DEVICE BRAND NAME HERE]. It's funny, sarcastic, acutely observed satire, and also has several (I hesitate to use the word, but can find no alternative) love interests to maintain the human perspective and challenge concepts of rational behaviour. There are people out there for whom this was a missed opportunity for national recognition but whether it deserved the National Book Prize or not, it IS long overdue a wider audience. I flatter myself by thinking I might be the means to deliver this...

* Not true - he died in bed aged 100 - but try telling Everett and Kincaid that.
** In truth, it would be more accurate to call this a fictional epistle
*** I doubt it was popular among the Roman senators, whose business, by Senate rules, was to be completed by dusk or else abandoned. Cato could talk the heat out of a fire.

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