Thursday, January 21, 2010

review: I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

I Am Not Sidney Poitier
by Percival Everett

Graywolf Press, 2009

I feel kind of stupid for not knowing who Percival Everett was before this book. Not that I KNOW him now, but now I’m a bit more familiar, and I want to explore his back catalog, maybe take on Glyph or Suder or that beastly-sounding Strom Thurmond one. But here we are with I Am Not Sidney Poitier, an ironic statement if any, especially since the kid’s name is Not Sidney Poitier. Of course having a name as “Not...” anything would be a nice set up for a lot of cheap laughs and “Who’s on First?” montages, but of course Everett chooses the name of the most powerful African-American actor, so all of those sequences are not only more confusing, but more meaningful.

Not Sidney’s birth is a great mystery, there is no reason to believe that he was conceived by Sidney Poitier, though he might have been or his mother may have conceived him by her own thoughts, her own special form of “Fesmerizing,” a hypnosis tool that gets Not Sidney out of some sticky situations in his youth. Not Sidney’s mother dies early on, but she’s smart enough to invest heavily in a broadcasting company started by Ted Turner and leaves Not Sidney tons of cash and names Ted Turner his pseudo-guardian. Not Sidney lives with Ted Turner, but pays him rent and Turner serves him as a father offering non-sensical advice, only trumped later by one of Not Sidney’s professors at Morehouse College, Percival Everett, who teaches the philosophy of nonsense.

If all of this sounds funny it is, but the extra layer are the situations that Not Sidney finds him in, all vaguely familiar of the real Sidney Poitier’s acting career (a weird double entendre of not Sidney, because really, that’s not Sidney in those movies, it’s Sidney as an actor....and I digress), so Not Sidney is arrested for being black, is handcuffed to a white prisoner, goes home for Thanksgiving with a lighter black classmate who only wants to use him to prove him a point to her family, then ends up in Smuteye, Alabama and must solve a murder and build a church for nuns.

In the midst of this, Not Sidney is hit on by older women who believe he may be the real Sidney Poitier, because as fate would have it, Not Sidney looks eerily similar to Sidney, and all this involves a lady obsessed with bells and the words “Mr. Tibbs.”

In equal parts Forrest Gump and O Brother Where Art Thou, Everett’s book is funny on the surface level just for the comments by Ted Turner, but the linguistic wrangling of the allusions (and he never mentions a movie!) and situations provokes deeper questions about fame, race and identity in the South, without beating anything “stereotypically” Southern over us--I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a fresh way to approach the old issues, old issues that not only look absurd and nonsensical, but actually are.

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