I Am Not Sidney Poitier A Novel

Percival Everett

Graywolf Press



272 Pages



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Not Sidney Poitier is an amiable young man in an absurd country. The sudden death of his mother orphans him at age eleven, leaving him with a strange name, an uncanny resemblance to the famous actor, and, perhaps more fortunately, a staggering number of shares in the Turner Broadcasting Corporation.  Percival Everett's hilarious new novel follows Not Sidney's tumultuous life, as the social hierarchy scrambles to balance his skin color with his fabulous wealth. Maturing under the less-than-watchful eye of his landlord, Ted Turner, Not get arrested in rural Georgia for driving while black, and sleuths a murder case in Smuteye, Alabama, all while navigating the recurrent communication problem: "What's your name? a kids would ask. "Not Sidney," I would say. "Okay, then what is it?"  


Praise for I Am Not Sidney Poitier

"Percival Everett made news 20 years ago at the South Carolina State House, where he stopped in the middle of a speech—he had been invited by the Legislature—and refused to go on because of the presence of the Confederate flag. This gesture initiated a controversy that resulted, several years later, in the flag's removal. For this Everett will be a footnote in American history. His work, however, deserves much more attention than a footnote in American literary history. Is any American writer as undervalued as Everett? Does anyone in America write funnier books? Such questions come to mind with Everett's 17th novel and latest tour de force of purposeful nonsense, I Am Not Sidney Poitier . . . As always, Everett relies upon capriciousness to ward off reductive interpretations. And as always, his capricious style accords with a serious purpose—in this case a provocative exploration of the unstable nature of African American identity. The name 'Not Sidney' suggests an identity with origins in a negative truth—he is viewed not for who he is, but against who he is not. As indeed was the original: Sidney Poitier, the movie star himself—shimmering on the silver screen, his Bahamian accent erased—was from the start a reflection of African American pride and compromise, and of the wider culture's hopes and fears. Constantly shifting modes, from comic realism to tall tale, from recounted dreams to refashioned movie plots, Everett's hall of mirrors narrative presents African American identity itself as rooted in contradiction."—Gregory Leon Miller, San Francisco Chronicle

"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."—Oscar Villalon, NPR

"Everett has always displayed a formidable imagination (his novel Glyph concerns hyperintelligent infants), and his absurdist sense of humor has garnered him a reputation as an ‘experimental’ writer. It’s easy to see why the author calls that a ‘bullshit label’: Though his work defies literary norms, it’s fun to read and comes laced with sturdy social commentary. In his novel Erasure, a black author accused of writing ‘too white’ ultimately finds financial success by writing a parody of ghetto fiction. With its deeply layered hero—who is both like and not like the movie star he’s named (or not named) after—I Am Not Sidney Poitier continues some of Erasure’s themes: Both books are interested in race and the expectations that surround it. And like its predecessor, I Am Not Sidney tackles its subjects with satirical gusto. In one of the most evocative scenes in the book—a riff on the Poitier classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—Not Sidney is brought by his white girlfriend to her parents' house. There, our hero skillfully deals with his girlfriend’s callow father, her horny sister and extended bouts of squirm-inducing awkwardness. This scene borders on farce, but Everett notes that it’s not any more ludicrous than the film itself. 'Why would this 40-year-old, really handsome, internationally acclaimed physician be interested in this 20-year-old idiot, who just happens to be blond?' the author says about the film. In Everett’s version, Not Sidney loses all interest in being acceptable, and the results are pure comic gold. Even as he brings in issues of bigotry, sexual molestation and murder, Everett effortlessly entertains. 'If you can get someone’s attention and confidence by having them laugh, you can pretty much do with them what you will,' he says. And so he does. Unlike Poitier’s screen image, Everett’s book is a less polite beast, and refuses to be shy about speaking its mind."—Drew Toal, Time Out New York

"How does a name define a person? Does a negative name define a person negatively or simply not-define him? Percival Everett plays the trickster with those questions (among many others) in this exuberant novel charting the tumultuous journey of Not Sidney Poitier from birth to maturity. Named by a mother considered hysterical by most, Not Sidney Poitier is a classic American innocent: he is kind enough not to dismiss terminally stupid people he encounters but smart enough to know what is really going on. In rural Alabama, he meets several people with the name of Scrunchy. When he, an earnest black man at the mercy of racists, asks if they had lived there long, one replies, 'I heard tell we was on the Mayweather.' Everett has so much fun with other people's vanities and foibles that he can't resist making fun of himself (or a fictional version of himself) too. Percival Everett appears as one of Not Sidney's professors, teaching 'The Philosophy of Nonsense.' What is nonsense? What is learning? What is a class? What is a professor? Not Sidney is so confused by the class that he challenges the teacher. Everett (the character) gleefully admits, 'I'm a fraud, a fake, a sham, a charlatan, a deceiver, a pretender, a crook,' with one breath and takes it all back in the next. Not Sidney's college career is only one among many great comic set pieces in this novel. There's also Thanksgiving spent with the family of Not Sidney's light-skinned black girlfriend in upscale Washington, D.C. The mother is a climber; the father is a prosperous attorney; they both vociferously oppose equal-opportunity programs. Neither likes Not Sidney (he's darker than they prefer) until they discover he's very, very, very rich. Added to the delicious Thanksgiving mix are lusty sibling rivalry and a preacher more interested in relishing side dishes than saving souls. A late night call to Professor Everett (the character) is an opportunity for Everett (the author) to opine: 'Thanksgiving fell in a third category--one big glorious lie to put a good face on continental theft.' In this literary world, you laugh but you're also going to think. Not Sidney learns more during that Thanksgiving than he did in all of the weeks of 'The Philosophy of Nonsense.' He also learns that his mother was smarter than people realized (Ted Turner in a fictional cameo knew it from the get-go); her hysteria, some readers may surmise, was probably more along the lines of righteous anger. The world Not Sidney experiences is certainly filled with events to fuel anger; that world is also so ridiculous you could die laughing. How to balance fury and laughter to live a life? How to be fully Not Sidney Poitier? These are the questions that make this comic romp so satisfying."—John McFarland, Shelf Awareness

"It's a tough business, being defined by what you are not. But this is the lot of Not Sidney Poitier, the awkwardly but aptly named, indescribably wealthy orphan fumbling through an absurd, cultureless American landscape in the 'post-racial' era that is anything but. Not Sidney is the protagonist of Percival Everett's latest novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier. His mother, an intelligent but unhinged single woman in lower-middle-class Los Angeles, hits the jackpot after investing in Ted Turner's budding media empire. After she dies when he is 11 years old, Not Sidney finds himself whisked away by Turner to live on the periphery of his massive Atlanta household, not as part of the family, but nonetheless well cared for by a series of housekeepers and tutors . . . Upon creating the sympathetic Not Sidney, Everett then goes and throws him to the lions. It's a nasty business being smart and sane, as it is being a black man in America today. The poor boy inspires pathos even while interacting with absurd, pastiche, and sometimes downright cardboard characters. Some of these folks you might recognize, such as Bill Cosby, who rails about Pudding Pops and the responsibilities of black men in the same breath. Then there's the character of Percival Everett, a plump Mad Hatter of a literature professor who is vaguely supportive of Not Sidney but spouts only nonsense. Most of the characters are little more than animals, driven by their vice, prejudice, and basest desires. A schoolteacher preys on Not Sidney's ingenuousness, while the parents of his first girlfriend initially vilify him for his dark skin, then scheme to snare him once they find out he's rich. The saddest victims, from an abandoned, dirt-poor blind girl to the neglected, middle-aged development officer at Morehouse, turn out to be interested solely in hating and rutting. And the parade of vindictive, racist cops, prisoners, and even nuns is enough to make one's head spin, so much so that the mere appearance of a friendly, nonthreatening diner waitress prompts a sigh of relief.  But this isn't a downer of a book by any means. The writing is so sharp it will make you wince and laugh at the same time. I Am Not Sidney Poitier is postmodern, no doubt, but its tone is more of a Kurt Vonnegut satire than a Delillo or Pynchon tome. Everett's storytelling can't be oversold; this is superbly written, crisp and quick-paced, punctuated with pools of simply gorgeous prose. Above all, it's damn funny . . . Not Sidney's coming of age could be perceived as a 21st-century response to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Although defined by what he is not, Not Sidney remains clear-eyed and seems to have a firm idea of his nascent identity, even as other characters project their expectations and bigotry onto him. Racism makes him feel self-conscious, but not worthless; in his dreams he is a protestor, a voice of reason, and always a survivor. Perpetually put down and compartmentalized, Not Sidney's identity is determined to some degree by who is looking at him. Strangely, Everett may also be talking about the fluidity of identity even as he skewers the rigidity of race and class in America today. The title character spends much of his time introducing himself and trying to explain who he is—or rather, who he is not. The ultimate joke is that his fundamental premise could be totally wrong: Maybe, just maybe, he really is Sidney Poitier."—Bookslut

"In his 2001 novel, Erasure, Percival Everett conjured up the unforgettable Thelonius 'Monk' Ellison, a middle-class writer of challenging fiction who enjoys a decidedly quiet (think polite applause) career until, fed up with a publishing industry and reading public interested only in 'authentic' black voices and 'authentic' black experience, he writes a pseudonymous send-up of street fiction that he thinks is absurd and that the rest of the world thinks is genius. In the wake of this gambit, he finds himself splitting time between dressing up as the supposed ex-con author of the street novel Fuck, and dealing with his actual mother’s mental deterioration, his actual sister’s murder, and his actual brother’s decision to come out of the closet. In his latest marvel of a novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Everett has again created a protagonist who lives a kind of double life: on the one hand, he is 'Not Sidney Poitier,' a kid with a weird name and buckets of money trying, with some measure of success, not to avoid taking the lead role in his own life; on the other hand, he is indeed Sidney Poitier, the glittering (if dated) embodiment of what, according to the invidious grotesqueries of cultural assumption and inertia, blackness can and should be. Everett explores this premise through a picaresque series of comic situations. Because Not Sidney’s late mother was a major early investor in CNN, he is brought up in the home of media mogul Ted Turner, where he studies the unreliable secrets of mind control and spends a fair amount of time ogling Jane Fonda. Following his arrest in rural Georgia—simply for being black—Not Sidney makes his way to college, where he finds himself in a relationship with a young woman who brings him home to her snooty, conservative D.C. family, who get themselves into all varieties of tizzies because of how 'dark-skinned' (compared to them) he is. Anyone who has seen Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner will recognize the source of the hilarious Thanksgiving dinner scene that ensues, but will also see how ingeniously it has been transformed.  Not Sidney is aided and abetted in his journeys through the minefields of American expectation, ugliness, and absurdity by a cadre of beautifully sketched characters, including Turner and a rotund professor of 'Nonsense Philosophy' named Percival Everett (not quite to be confused with the author of I Am Not Sidney Poitier). This latter, a charming trickster figure of the first order, provides both mortar and pestle to Not Sidney’s already softening belief in the world as a comprehensible entity: 'What does this have to do with nonsense?' I asked, grasping the levels of my question as I asked it. 'Precisely,' [Everett] said. Then he looked at his watch. 'It shouldn’t matter where you are, the cat’s in the kitchen, the dog’s in the car. There’s an elephant singing plinkidee czar, and the old man is strumming the same old guitar.'  Although it is frequently, gut-grabbingly hilarious, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, like Erasure, is more serious meditation on the exigencies of the self than comic send-up of an America gone wildly off the rails. And whether or not Not Sidney will ultimately embrace his inner (or perhaps outer) Sidney, it is clear by novel’s end that he is the one who must gaze up into the bright spotlight that has been tracking him, who must turn to his audience and decide whether or not to take a bow."—Laird Hunt, The Believer

"Driven by the most sidesplitting dialogue this side of Catch-22, Everett's latest tells the story of a young man named Not Sidney Poitier who bears an uncanny resemblance to the famed actor and is adept at deploying a hypnotic technique called Fesmerism. When Not Sidney is young, his mother dies, but not before becoming an early investor in Ted Turner's enterprises. The boy then moves to Atlanta, into the home of Ted Turner. Despite his vast wealth and celebrity looks, when Not Sidney ventures out into the world as a young adult, he faces bizarre, stinging and potentially deadly forms of racism. While Not Sidney comes across as a likable and thoughtful soul, he's the perfect foil for the fictionalized Turner's stream-of-consciousness non sequiturs ('I've never been struck by lightning. You?') as well as the logical absurdities that pepper the speech of his university professor who happens to be named Percival Everett. Not only is the novel smart and without a trace of pretentiousness, it shows Everett as a novelist at the height of his narrative and satirical powers."—Publishers Weekly

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Percival Everett is a distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of seventeen novels, including The Water Cure, Wounded, and Glyph.

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  • Percival Everett

  • Percival Everett is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of seventeen novels, including The Water Cure, Wounded, and Erasure.