I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

I am also not Harry Belafonte.
I found Percival Everett through a typical, but at the time exciting, bookselling ploy of massively discounting select titles, in this instance to 99p, to add units and value to transactions at the till point. Thus Erasure was the first Everett novel I read. His smouldering anger and furious hilarity stuck me instantly, and although I can claim no kinship or even shared social or cultural experience, I decided I had found someone with whom I felt somewhat aligned. In typical gluttonous fashion I quickly picked up a shit-load of his other work, including two I've reviewed here: A History Of The African American People... and Damned If I DoI loved the Will Self-esque humour of 4-year-old Ralph in Glyph, the anger of Ralph Ellison added to the parodying of the publishing industry in Erasure, and the absurdity of Ted Street, headless and suicidal, in American Desert. It was something I realised I longed for in contemporary American fiction; a writer with clarity, using humour to unpick our interwoven assumptions, received and innate, about race, class, and accepted wisdom, but without resorting to slapstick. 

I Am Sidney Poitier is a return to form. I say return, and form, because I have a faulty understanding of the parabola of his work, coming in at the middle as I have, missing out on his earlier parody of the western, God's Country from 1994, and having read his first novel, Cutting Lisa in the middle of my own discovery. Nevertheless, what we find is a character named, implausibly, Not Sidney Poitier, by his 'crazy' mother for reasons unknown, a mother whose seemingly speculative investment in Ted Turner's media stocks turned them both into multi-millionaires, albeit secretly. Not only does Not Sidney share Mr Poitier's surname, he also shares his features, so much so as to lead to speculation concerning his parentage, all of which are vaguely dismissed by Mrs Poitier, who takes the secret to her early grave. Not Sidney is taken under the wing of Ted Turner himself, and so the story unfolds. He is arrested on an impromptu road trip through Georgia, for driving whilst being black, escapes chained to a 'cracker' who would rather drink moonshine with a blind hill-billy girl than start a new future in Atlanta, winds up solving a murder mystery in Smuteye, Alabama (so named because of the prevalence of a corn-blighting fungus which is harvested and eaten by the inhabitants - in Ted Turner's fictional opinion, not half bad, more like three quarters bad), and attends a black college only to be too black for the coffee-and-cream co-eds and their parents (that is of course until they learn he's filthy stinking rich). Throughout, each time Not Sidney closes his eyes he dreams of lives past, where he or maybe not he faces slavers, haters, and pernicious freedom. Not Sidney is defined by that which he is not - not white, not poor, not Sidney Poitier, not part of the mainstreaming culture (or lack thereof) - but remains sure of himself and succeeds in retaining the reader's sympathy despite (or maybe because of) occasional inclinations to indulge his animosity towards hypocrites. 

Bookslut references Kurt Vonnegut in her as always excellent review from a few years back, and I tend to agree with her, which only adds to my sense of spiritual homecoming when I read Everett. It is a brilliantly comic satire, particularly of the author himself who appears as a lecturer in the Philosophy of Nonsense, aptly spouting the same when asked for advice or help. Perhaps I lack the appropriate discourse to discuss the politics of race, but the sentiments of arbitrary prejudice and exclusion chime nonetheless. I love it when I read a novel that is so clearly bigger than me, that pushes my horizons that bit further out, and as a comedy of miscommunication, a clean, approachable story such as I've come to expect from the author, I can't recommend it enough.

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