Sad and Boujee

Percival Everett. So Much Blue. Graywolf Press, 2017.

One of the great, unsung heroes of the 1970s is a black cowboy by the name of The Loop Garoo Kid, the hero of Ishmael Reed’s 1969 novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. In Reed’s tall tale, a brilliant spaghetti-noir—A Fistful of Dollars meets Killer of Sheep—Loop Garoo is a wandering cowpoke who also happens to be a fiercely independent experimental novelist. Early in the novel, The Kid gets ambushed on the edge of the desert by “Bo Shmo and the neo-social realist gang.”

“The trouble with you Loop is that you’re too abstract,” their leader declares, “far out esoteric bullshit is where you’re at. Why in those suffering books that I write about my old neighborhood and how hard it was every gumdrop machine is in place while your work is a blur and a doodle.” Loop keeps his cool and answers his truth: “No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.” The neo-social realists have no answer to this, and “being not very original,” decide to discipline Loop by smearing jelly on his face and burying him up to his neck in the sand.

Loop Garoo’s fix is that of all writers struggling to define themselves against a tide of assumptions about who they are and how they ought to exercise their craft. But he’s also very specifically an avatar for the figure of the black writer in America, struggling to outrun the ambushes of racist strictures—the demand that one focus relentlessly on “how hard it was” in the “old neighborhood” or face accusations of betrayal and questions of authenticity, while simultaneously be ignored if one deviates from the expected script. In short, it’s the old canard that the black writer faces a zero-sum choice between political responsibility and alienated indulgence. I suppose it is for this reason, along with the Western theme, that the perilous path of the Kid reminds me of no other contemporary writer more than Percival Everett, a writer whose thirty-year career has produced a dazzling and prolific array of experimental novels, short stories, and poetry that have won him something of a near-legendary reputation himself, an outsider roaming the American West where he has long made his home.

With Everett the appearance of a new novel is always an unpredictable affair, and even longtime fans and followers know they have to be prepared to, well, get thrown for a loop. The plot of So Much Blue, Everett’s latest, braids together a story out of three narrative arcs pursued in alternating chapters—a dynamic triptych sequencing the life of a mildly depressive, post-middle age painter named Kevin Pace. One strand follows Pace’s homelife on a comfortable property (“very arty and New Englandy”) in Rhode Island (summers on Martha’s Vineyard), with a focus on his parenting struggles as the father of two teens and marital troubles with his wife Linda. A second recounts the evolution of an affair conducted in Paris ten years earlier with a 22-year-old French woman named Victoire. The third takes us back to El Salvador in 1979 and a rescue mission set during the opening phase of the country’s civil war, when Kevin (the novel sticks to first names) joins his friend Richard on a desperate bid to find Richard’s brother Tad, a “fuckup” who has gone missing and is possibly caught up in drug trafficking. The novel holds these three apparently incongruous storylines in suspense before gradually and deftly revealing how a set of nested secrets entwines them.

The novel opens with the Paris affair, a seamless sequence of familiar images and plotting filtered through Kevin’s dry and ironic gaze. In a bit of soliloquizing, he admits that “the only thing extraordinary,” about his affair is, “that I would admit to something so pathetically clichéd.” He meets Victoire at an exhibition in the museum at the Jardin du Luxembourg. Victoire is blond and attractive and has, Kevin thinks, “perhaps the whitest skin I had ever seen.” Kevin ponders the hue: “Was she zinc white? Titanium? I decided she was flake white, with all its lead danger.” Victoire is a watercolorist, and a student at the École des Beaux Arts, yet somehow possesses the means to have a small apartment conveniently located right around the corner from the museum. She also has a thing for older men. Wandering through a gallery together the lovers lapse into competing clichés. He is the wizened and weary older artist with deep thoughts: “I’ve come to dislike museums . . . it’s where art comes to die.” She plays the role of the whimsical siren: “You’re afraid of us” she warns provocatively, only to segue into an open invitation: “I have nice tea at my flat.” “Do you?” “It is Iranian tea.” Compounding her role as the ideal side-girl, Victoire reassures Kevin that she doesn’t mind that he’s married with children, that she wants nothing from him, and that she’s in love. She is sexually available, and—perhaps to add a touch of Gallicism—we learn that her mother is happy to meet this older married black man and does not disapprove of the relationship.

In a characteristic Everett move, Kevin’s race is only glancingly evoked in the novel. The first overt mention of it unsurprisingly comes from The Bummer, a character in the El Salvador section who is the walking embodiment of crude explicit racism. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you’re a nigger,” he warns. When Kevin’s son Will asks him what he wanted to be when he was growing up, we learn that Kevin had an uncle Ty who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, an illustrious heritage deflated by the knowledge that “Uncle Ty was a fucking asshole.” One of Everett’s great achievements has always been his unassuming portrayal of characters that defy the grotesque strait-jacket of racialized characterization, which so much of American fiction (or American culture in general) simply can’t give up. But racial invisibility is as pure a fantasy as racial stereotype, and Kevin’s effortless gliding around Paris with Victoire adds to the already strained plausibility of a frictionless fantasy. But then an unfortunate (and sometimes unnerving) flatness extends to all the characters in the book. Linda is the intelligent, busy wife who worries quietly about her marriage and is frustrated and out of touch with her teenage daughter April. Richard is a reliable wingman buddy who is loyal, dependable, and honest: “I call a spade a spade.” (“Careful,” Kevin interjects in a rare misfire in their banter.)

The El Salvador material feels like the least realized of the novel’s threads. Kevin and Richard rent a Cadillac and (on a tip from the American Embassy) make contact with The Bummer, a hillbilly Vietnam-vet-turned-mercenary who has retreated to El Salvador where he can keep up his unsavory lifestyle and lie low, possibly to avoid prosecution for war crimes: “Every fuckin’ slant I saw, I killed, what do you girls think about that.” The Bummer promises to help them find Tad and a good part of the novel follows the trio into the Salvadoran hinterlands as signs of the civil war rumble in the background and The Bummer tirelessly calls into question his companion’s virility while greasing his long gun. The feel of these passages is cinematic, heavy with buddy dialogue and well-established sets: a roadside cantina is described as “so much a cliché that it wasn’t one”; a dramatic encounter occurs at a little village in a jungle clearing; a sprint to the airport is held in suspense by the traffic of an angry street demonstration. In this respect it can sometimes read like a loose adaptation of Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Salvador (featuring James Woods and Jim Belushi in a Camaro), with even less of an interest in the political and historical context, aside from a few scattered and generally comical references to the looming presence of the CIA. Everett has written tightly constructed, atmospheric thrillers before. One of his most recent, Assumption (2011), set in a small town in the New Mexican desert, is also arguably his best. So it’s all the more surprising that El Salvador in this book remains such a blank canvas.

Perhaps Everett felt he needed a vivid counterpoint to the domestic drama. The novel certainly treads more assuredly on home turf (the Rhode Island sections are simply labeled “Home”), where intimate vignettes from contemporary bourgeois American life are rendered with wry irony but also a reserve of compassion: the way a partner in an unhappy couple will hang fire, as a sushi dinner turns into a tactical verbal engagement; the distinctive tone kids fall into with their parents on the phone when they’re tired; how to deal with your friend the art gallery director when he’s snorted one too many rails. The most enthralling scene in the novel is a rare moment when we get to see Kevin Pace acting as a responsible father, as he catches up to and takes care of his son Will, who has tried to walk home after school in the middle of a snowstorm.

Like Reed before him, Everett is a writer alive to the paradoxes and traps of an artist’s life, so it is particularly strange that he reduces the mind of the painter to a world literally conceived in terms of painting. In what comes to feel like a tired mannerism, Kevin never misses an opportunity to whip out his (exquisitely refined) palette or namedrop a blue-chip artist. Considering his “guilty guiltlessness” as he lies in bed with Victoire, he muses, “if this feeling were a color, I considered, it would be the orange threads of slightly diluted saffron.” Elsewhere, a road in El Salvador wet with stones “looked like a Pollock.”

The color blue naturally receives special consideration. Recovering from a traumatic encounter with death, Richard asks Kevin to describe the sky overhead. “I would call that a very light manganese blue,” he responds. At a vernissage in Paris Victoire arrives “wearing a cerulean coat covered with white clouds, after Magritte but missing the overcoated men in bowler hats.” Later on a lonely walk around the city Kevin sees, “the blue of rain, how it tinged the darkness of night sapphire and how Alice blue made lavender the leading edge of morning.”  (“Alice Blue,” if you were wondering, is an ultra-pale and almost green azure, like the core of an ice floe.) In the middle of a crucial, action-packed scene, Kevin stops to notice, unforgivably, that the body of a dead Salvadoran man, “looked like a drawing by Käthe Kollwitz.”

Everett has long evinced a passion for the visual arts, and for abstract painting in particular. His novels, and even more especially his poetry are peppered with allusions to Masters Old and New. The poetry collection, There Are No Names for Red, a collaboration with Chris Abani, features some of his own illustrations. But expressing the vision of the abstract artist is not the same thing as having a keen interest in the form. Naming the right set of colors is just putting a kaleidoscope to the eye: it’s fun and dazzling, but it doesn’t cohere into a vision of the world. Nor can curation ever be effectively neutral, which invites a whole new set of questions that don’t get considered here. It would be wonderful if Norman Lewis and Alma Thomas were recognized for their contributions to Abstract Expressionism in the same way that Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner are—but that would be a different country.

One is left with the impression that the abstract artist working on his masterpiece, the artist struggling with hidden secrets in his past and unavowable passions (or extinctions) of the heart in the present, exists here so that we can notice the pockets of emptiness and swatches of incompleteness in the frame, the lurking stains behind the figure of success and mastery who apparently has it all. This mood of tense masculine anxiety—a Miles Davis kind of blue—is the true subject of the novel. It is a testament to Percival Everett’s enormous talent that despite its weaknesses, So Much Blue does succeed in meshing its wildly different parts into a whole. There is underneath the stilted search for effects, a genuine feeling for the colossal pressure closely guarded secrets exert, the mysterious process of erosion that allows intimate relationships to cohere and quickly fray, or conceptions of self to shift under the pressure of sudden revelation.

This sense of humanistic concern pulsing underneath intellectual fireworks of extraordinary and sometimes overwhelming intensity suggests affinities with David Foster Wallace, a writer of roughly the same generation whose engagement with postmodernism passes in part likewise through a passion for philosophy, particularly the kind of ordinary language philosophy dominant in the American university in their student years. Like Wallace, the young Everett was consumed by problems in logic and linguistics and gravitated toward Wittgenstein, before eventually pulling away to pursue creative writing instead. Traces of that intellectual penchant (or nerdiness) can be found throughout Everett’s writing. The protagonist of Glyph, Baby Ralph, is a genius (think Stewie from Family Guy) who spews out the Western canon and simultaneously its deconstruction. The working title for Percival Everett by Virgil Russell was apparently “Frege’s Puzzle,” a classic paradox in semantic theory. Asked if he admired the famous “Incompleteness Theorem” in formal logic, Everett told the Paris Review recently, “If I could write something like Gödel’s proof, I’d be happy.”  

This is not to say that Wallace and Everett’s projects are exactly aligned, though I think they certainly complement each other. But the greater problem is that they are seldom read together, or by the same people. Indeed, those who ardently prize Wallace’s difficulty and experimentation and tout his achievement seldom seem to have read much, if any, of Everett’s work and therefore cannot know whether it ought to be considered for such accolades.

Neglect is a fate all experimental writers risk, but if they happen to be black it can seem almost impossible to avoid. Everett always intended to chart his own course. He picked the novel up where Ishmael Reed had taken it, but pivoted away from Reed’s zaniness toward a prismatic allegorical realism, a constant reinvention of form designed to grapple with the vertiginous ends of America’s violent and often contradictory racial, economic, geographic, and sexual epistemologies—a project consonant in many ways with Wallace’s, but evidently not one that could generate the same kind of popular appeal.

This is a shame because Everett brings something to the contemporary American novel that is—in part since Wallace’s early death—sorely missing: utter fearlessness in placing demands upon a reader combined with real compassion for ordinary people. Everett’s prose may not have the ionized finish prized by fellow icons of postmodernism and metafiction like Don DeLillo or Tom McCarthy. But he possesses something crucial that neither of them do: an extraordinarily deft capacity for rendering human foibles without contempt—getting characters on the page that are painfully recognizable and yet free of pathology, never reduced to being mere pawns in an overarching authorial conspiracy. His metafictional layering never feels gratuitous or indulgent as it sometimes does in others. Rather, in his hands it serves what are usually thought to be the traditional ends of realism—a serious and capacious humanistic rendering of the adventure of ordinary life (and more often than not of black lives), which he treats with an unsentimental dose of lucidity reminiscent of Margo Jefferson’s crisp essayistic stitch.

So my reservations about So Much Blue must be set against the record of a master artificer who in the space of thirty-four years has produced eighteen novels—nineteen if you include his epistolary office thriller, A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid (2004), not to mention some four collections of short stories, and more recently several collections of poetry. It’s a long career that’s been built against the grain. In the teeth of the kind of stupidity and prejudice encountered by Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, the protagonist of Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, whose attempt to get his own novel published exposes, under a blistering and exquisitely handled satirical blade, the pitiful cultural lies we tell ourselves about race and all that we “know” about it.

Within the arc of Everett’s career Erasure reads as the culmination of a decade of literary experiments—in retrospect perhaps a bit too obsessed with the scholasticism of high theory in the academy, but nevertheless a wonderful suite of metamorphoses borrowing from every corner of the universe of language in order to self-fashion a radical and perpetually unpredictable voice: a postmodern Henry Box Brown always reenacting his evasion of the plantation confines erected by the limited taste and enduring whiteness of the (corporate) American publishing industry’s conceptions of what African American literature is, and how it will sell.

And so I would beg you to go to your local bookstore (almost all of Everett’s work has been published by small independent or university presses) and ask for his first novel, Suder, and discover the tender yet restrained magical realism of Craig Suder’s adventures across the country which lead him (among other places) to the forests of Oregon, where he lives on “Ezra Pond” with an elephant named Renoir, and (with a nod to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon), eventually learns to fly. Revisit The Water Cure, and its indictment of the moral turpitude of America in the Bush years. Pick up the Shandyesque adventures of Not Sidney Poitier, the misfortunately named foundling adopted by Ted Turner and hero of the rollicking I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Read, teach, and share his justly celebrated short story “The Appropriation of Cultures,” a parable that could not possibly be more timely. Consider the extraordinary Percival Everett by Virgil Russell a storying retold in between the lines of other stories exchanged between a father and his son caring for him in a hospice—a novel I think is likely to stand out eventually as a contemporary masterpiece.

As for Kevin Pace and his bourgeois blues, it’s possible I’ve missed something. Everett is an inveterate trickster, and one can never be sure where the Borgesian game of literature begins or ends with him. If you take a look at the book jacket to his novel Glyph, you’ll find a photo featuring Everett and Thelonius Monk—his mule—side by side staring back at you. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if So Much Blue isn’t a prank. Everett’s sly signifying on a white mainstream America he secretly loathes even as it painlessly ignores him; a cool answer to its swooning embrace of the upmarket scripts and scene-changes of “prestige television” with all its glossily repackaged and ever seductive clichés: the secret affair in Paris; the south of the border that is always and forever Narcos; a way of acknowledging that he knows damn well most of his readers, as soon as they’ve put down with a sigh the last pages of their semi-genuflection into the dip of current “cultural” fare will put on Netflix.

Either way it seems all but certain that this book won’t receive the estimation it merits, nor help to garner Everett the kind of recognition and awards he so richly deserves. For those who count themselves among his dedicated or occasional followers, So Much Blue will neither make nor break Everett’s reputation, built as it is upon an extraordinary body of work, a great fund of invention that—however neglected by contemporary readers—will undoubtedly prove an enduring wellspring for writers, particularly black ones, in the coming years. In the meantime, we can eagerly await the next reinvention, the next raid into the desert of contemporary American fiction by our black Lone Ranger—that long hour of sunset in the West when the Kid rides again.