Spotlight Small Press chooses a small press publisher, invites bloggers to choose a book from that publisher’s catalog and puts up a schedule of when the reviews will be posted. This month the spotlight is on Graywolf Press. Based out of Minnesota and distributed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Graywolf is a nonprofit that publishes “novels, short stories, memoirs, essays, as well as poetry”. I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett is my first dip into one of their books.
Lucky me! – and I say that with complete sincerity.
Not Sidney Poitier (“Not Sidney” is his first name) reminds me of a twenty-first century Candide. Born to an eccentric mother, who also happened to be a brilliant business woman, he finds himself the recipient of two legacies after her death. A name that complicates his life and a stock portfolio worth millions. He owns so many shares in the Turner Communications Group that Ted Turner becomes his guardian. The story gets off the ground when Not Sidney decides to leave his sheltered life (he and Ted share adjoining mansions) and see something of the world. He spends the rest of the novel nonchalantly wandering a landscape inhabited by screwballs and stereotypes.
I confess that the first few chapters of I Am Not Sidney Poitier had me confused. I didn’t know what to make of the novel or where it was going. And then Percival Everett entered the story – as a character – and I straightened up and began paying attention. Suddenly he was showing me something – perhaps something a bit post modern – but something nonetheless. Everett has a style that reminds me of Tom Robbins (which has been happening a lot lately, by the way). He has the same sharp sense of language, satire and irreverance. But to my mind he puts it to better use than Robbins ever has. His protagonist navigates between the two extremes of the race conversation, and Everett deals mercilessly with both sides. No matter how ridiculous the scenario initially appears, he always manages to pull it back into sharp focus so that the reader can see the truth beneath the spectacle. And somehow does this without burdening the narrative. Everett is as much a ringmaster as an author, keeping his audience captivated and amused as he directs their attention to one extravagant performance after another.
There is a lot of clever symbolism (for lack of a better word) in I Am Not Sidney Poitier. The first and most obvious is, of course, making the main character Sidney Poitier’s doppelgänger. But I also enjoyed the character Percival Everett – a professor at Morehouse College who teaches an English course in the Philosophy of Nonsense – which left me questioning (not surprisingly) what exactly were the author’s intentions. And then there was the ending, which I won’t spoil. I’ll only say that it is charmingly ingenious and I loved it.
I already have a list of people I’ll be recommending I Am Not Sidney Poitier to. It’s a remarkably entertaining novel, which allows it to reach out to a broader audience than more traditional satires might. And Percival Everett – the author, I can’t speak for the character – has written and published 17 other novels. None of which I’ve heard of and all of which I’m looking forward to discovering.
Thank goodness for small presses.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, St. Paul, (2009)
ISBN: 978 1 55597 527 2