I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett
The protagonist of Percival Everett’s latest novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, is called Not Sidney Poitier. Got that? He’s not Sidney Poitier, he’s Not Sidney Poitier – his name is a negative. His mother, after an unusually long gestation period, called her eventual offspring Not Sidney and his entire young life has been spent in calmly deflecting questions about his name.
Percival Everett’s novel is a coming of age narrative with an absurdist twist. As in his 2001 novel, Erasure, the writing is threaded with commentary on blackness and black American identity. Though Not Sidney is not Sidney Poitier he does look uncannily like the Oscar-winning Hollywood statesman who is the embodiment, to many Americans, of safe, acceptable blackness, and the physical resemblance only increases as Not Sidney grows up.
When he is eleven, Not Sidney’s mother dies and, since the identity of his father is unknown, he becomes an orphan. Fortunately his mother, being a business savvy woman, had invested most of her savings in a budding media company and subsequently become one of the chief shareholders in CNN; as a result Not Sidney is invited to live on Ted Turner’s Atlanta estate.
He discovers that is mother’s investment has made him unfathomably wealthy (so rich, his actual total wealth changes by the hour). This does not stop him being a regular punching bag for schoolyard bullies infuriated by his passive demeanour and distinctive name, and so the well read Not Sidney acquires hypnotic powers in lieu of more conventional self defence skills.
These prove only intermittently useful, for almost the very second he leaves the confines of the Turner estate he is arrested, solely on the grounds of having the wrong skin colour, and ends up on the run while chained to a white convict. He escapes, eventually, and makes it to college, where his lighter skinned girlfriend invites him home for Thanksgiving, resulting in a skewed riff on Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner? in which his girlfriend’s conservative parents fret over his ‘darkness’ but then soften their attitudes when they discover he’s loaded. In a nice subversion of the source material, Not Sidney then realises his girlfriend is really not such a catch, and is in fact using him for his shock value, so he lets the family know exactly what he thinks of them.
Even though Everett employs many devices that could be labelled postmodern, his novel’s sheer narrative tug counters - and even occasionally eclipses - his experimentation. This is a highly readable book, with a thriller’s insistent rhythm, and though it’s possible to register the various levels on which a scene is working (there are numerous references to Poitier’s work – to A Patch of Blue, The Defiant Ones, and the racially dubious, Clark Gable-starring 1957 film, Band of Angels and, of course, In the Heat of the Night), this never gets in the way of the need to know how Not Sidney will extract himself from the various predicaments Everett pitches him into, the various encounters with Deep South stereotypes.
As well as the character of Turner, who is presented as an amiable if easily distracted figure - in no way a paternal stand-in – Not Sidney also encounters an academic by the name of Percival Everett, a sometime novelist who teaches a college course in the art of nonsense and makes weighty and erudite statements that are, for the most part, entirely devoid of any real meaning.
While the novel is very funny, it’s also acute in its examination of the expectations and pressures related to being black in America, it doesn’t however replicate (not that it’s attempting to) the emotional charge of Erasure. In that earlier novel there was a real sense of poignancy in the way the protagonist, Thelonious Ellison, was gradually obliterated; the way he was taken over by a character of his own creation and forgotten by those he held most dear. I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a snappier, sharper piece of writing, though more episodic in structure, and Everett really has to shove and jab and twist his story in order to squeeze in all the film references – he ends up resorting to dream sequence for the Band of Angels interlude. But while this new novel is less weighted with anger and loss than its predecessor, the central character’s fate is in many ways the same: he loses track of what makes him Not Sidney Poitier; already a negative, something more of him gets lost and he ends up becoming what he has always been at pains to point out he is not.