All too often, when the words “Great American Novelist” come up, they’re used in conjunction with white guys writing about suburbia. Think John Updike in the 20th century, perhaps Jonathan Franzen in the 21st.
I have a better candidate: a writer who has been producing not just novels, but poetry and short fiction for better than 25 years. A writer who has been exploring American culture in ways that get beneath the default mode of white suburban guys like your Biblioracle.
His name is Percival Everett, a distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California. His recently released “So Much Blue” is just the latest in a string of books that, if there were any justice in the world, would be known as classics.
Everett’s work is hard to classify, which perhaps explains why he isn’t better known. My feeling, though, is that Everett isn’t recognized as a great American novelist because he takes on the black experience in a way that owns its American-ness, a stance that is sometimes at odds with a literary establishment that positions African-American literature as something “other.” In Everett’s novels, black Americans are centered on the page, rather than pushed to the margins.
“Suder,” Everett’s first novel from 1983, exemplifies his work. Suder is Craig Suder, a professional baseball player for the Seattle Mariners experiencing a terrible slump. That premise launches the main character into a series of picaresque adventures primarily involving Suder’s interest in and pursuit of jazz music. Every page feels strange and unexpected.
“Erasure” (2001) explores the pigeonholing that black artists like Everett experience. In this satire of publishing, a critically acclaimed but limited-selling writer, Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, writes a parody of “ghetto” literature under a pseudonym. His parody is misunderstood, taken instead as genuine. It becomes Monk’s best-selling book, and very funny and strange complications ensue. The book’s subtext can be read like a manifesto for Everett’s own work: a refusal to play an expected role defined by his race, and also a deep exploration of race in America.
“I Am Not Sidney Poitier” (2009) is about an orphan named Not Sidney Poitier who happens to bear a strong resemblance to the famous actor and who is quasi-adopted by Ted Turner. Perhaps Everett’s most overtly comic novel, Not Sidney’s name provides much fodder for Laurel & Hardy-style dialogue, but the satire is sharp without descending into shoulder shrugging absurdity for the sake of absurdity. The novel is made from American stuff: wealth, celebrity — and their limits.
“So Much Blue,”was released earlier this month, and its tone is reflected by the title. Told in overlapping chronologies, it covers the life of a successful painter, Kevin Pace, reflecting on a harrowing trip to El Salvador in 1979, an electrifying affair in Paris with a young mistress when his children are young, and a domestic crisis with his teenage daughter as he hits middle age. Pace has been working on a large canvas, hidden from everyone in an outbuilding on his property. It is both inspired by and the source of trauma, but Kevin doesn’t fully understand where it comes from — or why he must hide it.
When Updike was working with this material, somehow it reflected the “world we live in.” If that was true of Updike, it’s doubly true of Everett, who is a far superior observer of the world.
Fighting words? Try something by Everett and then tell me I’m wrong.
I dare you.
John Warner is the author of “Tough Day for the Army.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read next based on the last five books you’ve read.
1. “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George
2. “Camino Island” by John Grisham
3. “A Great Reckoning: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel” by Louise Penny
4. “The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story” by Douglas Preston
5. ” Saints for all Occasions” by J. Courtney Sullivan
— Peg C., Chicago
For Peg, I’m relying on some help from Mrs. Biblioracle, who recently read “News of the World” by Paulette Jiles and said that it would be a good choice for someone in need of a deep, emotionally satisfying story.
1. “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt
2. “Jar City: A Reykjavik Thriller” by Arnaldur Indridason
3. “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles
4. “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds” by Michael Lewis
5. “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” by Alice Munro
— Anne L., Chicago
An interesting mix of reading. I’m going to lean in to the thriller strain and recommend “Since We Fell” by Dennis Lehane, who is one of the most consistently satisfying writers we have today.
1. “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything” by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
2. “The Plains” by Gerald Murnane
3. “Doctorow: Collected Stories” by E.L. Doctorow
4. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind” by Yuval Noah Harari
5. “The Enigma of Reason” by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber
— Robert R., St. Charles
For Robert, I’m picking a slim classic of a kind of love story: “Turtle Diary” by Russell Hoban.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle!
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write “Biblioracle” in the subject line.
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