Percival Everett: The great American novelist you should read now

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.

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