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Percival Everett, in and out of fiction

THE WRITER'S LIFE

July 12, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds | Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

Percival Everett doesn't spend a lot of time considering his body of work. Instead, says the 52-year-old author, whose new novel "I Am Not Sidney Poitier" (Graywolf: 272 pp., $16 paper) came out last month, "I think about writing one book at a time. It's not that my books are non sequiturs -- after all, you can't hide from yourself. It's just that I know something when I start and less when I finish."

This zen-like approach might explain why, even after 21 books, Everett is not exactly a household name, even in Southern California, where he has lived and worked for many years. (He is a professor of English at USC.) Beginning with his first novel, "Suder," in 1983, he has written about baseball, Vietnam, Greek myths, cowboys, Native Americans, revenge, genius and hate crimes, among other subjects, all the while inserting himself, Zelig-like, into his own work.

He's not in it for the money, or even the fame. And that makes him pretty relaxed about it all. "There's nothing at stake," he says, sitting back among the cushions of a sofa in his high-ceilinged Los Angeles apartment. "I can't affect what readers think."

This sense of cool distance is the tone of "I Am Not Sidney Poitier" -- a book about identity without the Sturm und Drang that usually accompanies books about identity. That makes it a thoroughly modern novel, in which the protagonist triumphs not by asserting his will over the world but by achieving a quiet comfort with his true nature, independent of race or class or religion or politics. It's a book about how much we don't know.

The narrator's name is Not Sidney, as in Not Sidney Poitier. His mother has named him that because their last name is Poitier and she wanted to avoid confusion. This is just the first of many ways in which the novel plays with the fixations of contemporary culture; a second comes when Not Sidney's mother invests all her money -- around $30,000 -- "in a little-known company called the Turner Communications Group that would later become Turner Broadcasting System." At one point, Ted Turner pays her a visit because she owns so much stock in his company and because she represents "the kind of grass-roots, if not proletarian, person he wanted to imagine his media world touching." When Not Sidney is 7, in 1975, she dies in her sleep, leaving him to become "filthy, obscenely, uncomfortably rich." Turner invites Not Sidney to live in one of his houses.

Lest this seem like the stuff of a traditional bildungsroman, Everett has something completely other than that in mind. "To Turner's credit," he writes early in the novel, "even he was not comfortable with the scenario of the rich do-gooding white man taking in the poor little black child. Television was polluted with that model, and it didn't take a genius to understand that something was wrong with it. My situation was somewhat different as I was in fact extremely wealthy as a result of my mother's business acumen."

Turner is a wise, avuncular presence, appearing now and then to offer oblique advice. One spring, he visits Not Sidney at college and offers the following: "Enjoy your break. And remember, be yourself. Unless you can think of someone better."

Not Sidney's other erstwhile mentor is one Percival Everett, professor and king of the koan. Everett's answers to Not Sidney's earnest questions are even more oblique than Turner's. "You want to know why people are so [messed] up?" he asks Not Sidney, who is upset after a weekend with his girlfriend's snooty parents. "It's because they're people. People, my friend, are worse than anybody."

Is this Everett the writer, or Everett the character? Or is the line between them irrevocably blurred? It's easy to imagine Everett having some pointed fun with his readers, wanting to keep everyone on their toes. Among his students, he has a reputation for not suffering fools, while his editors know that if they talk about marketing his attention will fade fast. "I am paid," he is fond of saying when asked about teaching, "to write books and hang around smart young people."

The eerie thing is that even after spending a few hours with him, his physical presence remains elusive; it's hard to remember what he looks like. Your mind tries to recapture the details but it's like trying to catch the character in "The Soupy Sales Show" -- the one who ran along the bottom of the screen. You think you saw him, but it's impossible to freeze the frame.

Everett teaches some fiction workshops, as well as classes in literary theory (Barthes, Derrida and others) and a film course. "I Am Not Sidney Poitier" is punctuated by dream sequences modeled after the story lines of Sidney Poitier's films. "Poitier was the safe choice of white Americans interested in film," Everett explains. "An iconic, beautiful, sensuous dark man; politically progressive, someone who always kept a safe sexual distance from the camera and the story."

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