Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Beginning of a Great Adventure

It's not until fairly recently that I became aware of Percival Everett. Never mind that his first novel came out 40 years ago and that he's written over thirty books. Sometimes, somehow, you just don't come across a writer no matter how good that writer is. It was on some website a couple years ago that I happened across a piece on his novel Erasure, published in 2001, and the description of the book's plot so grabbed me that I kept it in my mind afterwards, and when I heard that a film adaptation of the novel was coming -- American Fiction -- I decided to read Erasure before seeing the film. I did both in the last month and was not disappointed in either. The book is a very funny look at race, stereotypes, the writing world, and a few other things, and it is also a sharp and poignant family drama. The film, with Jeffrey Wright as the main character, the novelist Thelonious Ellison, is an excellent adaptation. It's a film that is faithful to the book and that condenses some plot points from the novel well. It also, in one important character at least, adds a bit of nuance that is appropriate to a story taking place now, not twenty odd years ago. A success on all counts, in my view, as is the book. 

After finishing it, the book, I mean, I had that pleasing feeling you get when you've read someone who to you is new and who you want to explore further. And in this case, as I said, there's much to explore, since Everett has been and continues to be prolific. What's better for a reader than that? You've found an author you didn't know about, like that person's writing a lot, and see that you have so much more of their stuff to choose from. And Everett is nothing if not protean. You look through his list of titles and the descriptions of what the novels are about and you see a startling level of variety: satires, western-set stories, plots involving crime, fictional biography, and narratives derived from Greek mythology, to name a few. There's much genre mixing and, clearly, a refusal to hew to conventional forms and reader expectations. My only dilemma after Erasure was where among all this to start. But after a visit to a bookstore and some browsing among his books on the shelf there, I chose So Much Blue, a novel of his from 2017.

So Much Blue follows its narrator, Kevin Pace, a married middle-aged painter with two children, through three timelines. One, "Home", concerns his doings more or less in the present and with his family; the second, "Paris", is set in the near past where Kevin had an affair, and the third, "1979", is about something he and his best friend experienced while in war-torn El Salvador many years ago. The three timelines alternate in a flawlessly told story centered around, in each unfolding strand, secrets. Secrets of various types that Kevin holds from those close to him, including, of course, his wife, You have a combination of a domestic novel, a tense and grimy novel of adventure and intrigue, and a tale of a somewhat world-weary and highly self-critical artist. All this, and at the book's center you have something you do not see, a painting that Kevin has been working on for years and refuses to show anybody, including his best friend and his wife. What we do know about the painting is that it has a lot of blue in it, but that's about it. He gives a few clues as to what it looks like, and we understand that his reasons for not showing the painting to anyone has to do with events he's gone through that have affected him strongly. In each of the three plot threads, suspense develops very well from the drama Kevin is involved in, and each unfolds with utter verisimilitude. This is a person's complex life you are involved in, and you are absorbed fully. There's a good deal of wry wit in the telling as well, even in its darkest moments. It's a read I thoroughly enjoyed, and on finishing the book, I said to myself that Percival Everett is now two for two for me. Two for two, and there's a rich assortment of choices from him to go to next. Again, what better for a reader than that, to make for yourself this kind of "discovery".

As the saying goes, onward.


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