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Hilarious Strut Through Badlands Of Race And Class

Percival Everett has been publishing continuously since 1983. His work spans multiple genres, including novels, short stories, poetry and a children's book.
Percival Everett has been publishing continuously since 1983. His work spans multiple genres, including novels, short stories, poetry and a children's book.

In 2001, Percival Everett's novel Erasure garnered wide acclaim from critics, bringing the works of one of the country's most interesting writers to the attention of many new readers. A satire on race and academia (among other things), Erasure told the story of a black English professor who writes a vulgar parody of what is assumed at large to be the "authentic" experience of young black men. His thug-life pulp, "My Pafology," is taken as gospel and becomes a best-seller; complications ensue.

I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Everett's new novel, picks up, in a way, where Erasure left off. It, too, looks at racism and its inherent absurdities (a theme shared by many of Everett's 19 books). Fueling this picaresque, absurdist tale is the confusion fomented by the mere presence of its narrator — a wealthy black teen who bears a striking resemblance to the striking pop icon of poise and dignity, Sidney Poitier.

Born in Los Angeles to a loving, if perhaps insane, mother who shares the famous actor's last name, Not Sidney Poitier (his given name) is the good-natured embodiment of intelligence and unflappability — both of which he's going to need after his mother dies when he's 11, leaving him a mint. She also bequeaths him the friendship of Ted Turner, the media mogul, who's never forgotten the $30,000 investment Not's mother put into a fledgling Turner Broadcasting System. Ted comes for Not Sidney (or "Nu'ott," as he drawls it) and installs him in the mansion he occupies with the aloof, alluring Jane Fonda.

What follows is a freewheeling coming-of-age of sorts (without giving anything away, it's more like witnessing an apotheosis) and one of the funniest, most original stories to be published in years. Everett has written a delicious comedy of miscommunication. From his narrator's unfortunate, hostility-inducing name to Ted Turner's constant non sequiturs, confusion reigns in this journey through the perception-warping, soul-twisting badlands of race and class.

Adding to the reader's delight, Not Sidney, to hilarious, ironical effect, re-enacts parts of Poitier's most famous movies — In the Heat of the Night ("They call me Mr. Poitier," Not Sidney tells a prying lawman), The Defiant Ones (on the lam, manacled to a white prisoner) and Lilies of the Field (the nuns replaced by hard-up Pentecostals). These set pieces unfold not just in the gothic South amid poor rednecks, as might be expected, but also in the world of elite higher learning amid economically comfortable black students. As it turns out, the premise for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner works just as well if the girlfriend's family is rich, conservative and black — but light-skinned.

A deadpan satirist, Everett pulls and tugs at the truth that economic privilege and skin tone can determine a person's value. To come out ahead, black Americans have to aspire to being 'not black,' to erase their identities and become color-free. As the novel shows, it's a predicament that can be both painful and ridiculous.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Oscar Villalon is book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. A member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, he's also a long-time juror of the California Book Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. His writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer, and his reviews have aired on KQED's The California Report. He lives with his wife and son in San Francisco.