Percival Everett doesn’t spend a lot of time considering his body of work. Instead, says the 52-year-old author, whose new novel “I Am Not Sidney Poitier” (Graywolf: 272 pp., $16 paper) came out last month, “I think about writing one book at a time. It’s not that my books are non sequiturs -- after all, you can’t hide from yourself. It’s just that I know something when I start and less when I finish.”
This zen-like approach might explain why, even after 21 books, Everett is not exactly a household name, even in Southern California, where he has lived and worked for many years. (He is a professor of English at USC.) Beginning with his first novel, “Suder,” in 1983, he has written about baseball, Vietnam, Greek myths, cowboys, Native Americans, revenge, genius and hate crimes, among other subjects, all the while inserting himself, Zelig-like, into his own work.
He’s not in it for the money, or even the fame. And that makes him pretty relaxed about it all. “There’s nothing at stake,” he says, sitting back among the cushions of a sofa in his high-ceilinged Los Angeles apartment. “I can’t affect what readers think.”
This sense of cool distance is the tone of “I Am Not Sidney Poitier” -- a book about identity without the Sturm und Drang that usually accompanies books about identity. That makes it a thoroughly modern novel, in which the protagonist triumphs not by asserting his will over the world but by achieving a quiet comfort with his true nature, independent of race or class or religion or politics. It’s a book about how much we don’t know.
The narrator’s name is Not Sidney, as in Not Sidney Poitier. His mother has named him that because their last name is Poitier and she wanted to avoid confusion. This is just the first of many ways in which the novel plays with the fixations of contemporary culture; a second comes when Not Sidney’s mother invests all her money -- around $30,000 -- “in a little-known company called the Turner Communications Group that would later become Turner Broadcasting System.” At one point, Ted Turner pays her a visit because she owns so much stock in his company and because she represents “the kind of grass-roots, if not proletarian, person he wanted to imagine his media world touching.” When Not Sidney is 7, in 1975, she dies in her sleep, leaving him to become “filthy, obscenely, uncomfortably rich.” Turner invites Not Sidney to live in one of his houses.
Lest this seem like the stuff of a traditional bildungsroman, Everett has something completely other than that in mind. “To Turner’s credit,” he writes early in the novel, “even he was not comfortable with the scenario of the rich do-gooding white man taking in the poor little black child. Television was polluted with that model, and it didn’t take a genius to understand that something was wrong with it. My situation was somewhat different as I was in fact extremely wealthy as a result of my mother’s business acumen.”
Turner is a wise, avuncular presence, appearing now and then to offer oblique advice. One spring, he visits Not Sidney at college and offers the following: “Enjoy your break. And remember, be yourself. Unless you can think of someone better.”
Not Sidney’s other erstwhile mentor is one Percival Everett, professor and king of the koan. Everett’s answers to Not Sidney’s earnest questions are even more oblique than Turner’s. “You want to know why people are so [messed] up?” he asks Not Sidney, who is upset after a weekend with his girlfriend’s snooty parents. “It’s because they’re people. People, my friend, are worse than anybody.”
Is this Everett the writer, or Everett the character? Or is the line between them irrevocably blurred? It’s easy to imagine Everett having some pointed fun with his readers, wanting to keep everyone on their toes. Among his students, he has a reputation for not suffering fools, while his editors know that if they talk about marketing his attention will fade fast. “I am paid,” he is fond of saying when asked about teaching, “to write books and hang around smart young people.”
The eerie thing is that even after spending a few hours with him, his physical presence remains elusive; it’s hard to remember what he looks like. Your mind tries to recapture the details but it’s like trying to catch the character in “The Soupy Sales Show” -- the one who ran along the bottom of the screen. You think you saw him, but it’s impossible to freeze the frame.
Everett teaches some fiction workshops, as well as classes in literary theory (Barthes, Derrida and others) and a film course. “I Am Not Sidney Poitier” is punctuated by dream sequences modeled after the story lines of Sidney Poitier’s films. “Poitier was the safe choice of white Americans interested in film,” Everett explains. “An iconic, beautiful, sensuous dark man; politically progressive, someone who always kept a safe sexual distance from the camera and the story.”
The dream sequences allow Everett to explore aspects of Poitier’s experience that are not so safe -- the sources of his distance and dignity. “There’s a freedom of absurdity in dreams, enjoyed by drunks and babies,” Everett says as he hugs his son Henry, 2 1/2 , who has just returned from a walk with his mother, the novelist Danzy Senna. The couple also has a 1-year-old named Miles.
Henry is given to wild dreams. Everett has learned to let him wail before trying to soothe him. He’s interested, as both a father and a writer, in how we edit our dreams and our everyday experience to make sense of the world, in “how we make meaning.” This is not plot, exactly, but something Everett calls “the inner thread of the story.” Like Robert Coover, his friend and professor at Brown, where Everett got his MFA in the early 1980s, he is interested in hyper-reality. “My books tend not to be chronological -- sections don’t follow each other logically. But I hope the overall impression is a continuous story.” He laughs. “Unplotted. Fiction is an illusion, after all, a pretty cool trick. A lot of my work deals with people out in the world. My job is not to report real things but to make the fiction sound real. The beauty is that even when we know these tricks and recognize them, they work anyway.”
Surely, writing about identity involves a certain sleight of hand. For Everett, though, it’s more a matter of feeling his way into his novels. “I have a feeling about it,” he says, “but I can’t articulate what it looks like. I begin with a sense of weight. Then I find somebody, and I become that character. I inhabit that character.”
When I bring up Not Sidney’s innocence and truthfulness -- which verges on naiveté -- Everett almost betrays himself. “It’s sad that we think because he’s painfully honest, he’s naive,” he says, ever-so-slightly protective of his character. “We take his modesty and conflate it with innocence.”
As for how “I Am Not Sidney Poitier” does, “I hope the book sells, but I am constitutionally unable to participate,” Everett says. Like many authors, he does not usually read reviews, although when he does, he prefers the bad ones because he learns more. For the most part, he finds reviews generally uninteresting and likens them to movie trailers.
“I make my money in France and Italy,” Everett says. We talk about the earnest streak in American literature, a preference for clear morals and clear plot lines. Everett’s books are anything but linear or predictable despite the fact that he studied mathematical logic and philosophy in college.
In much of his work, we get the not unpleasant sense of being mocked, of having our core beliefs taken apart by a mischievous author. But Everett is not in the business of judging.
“All thinking is good,” he shrugs. “It sure beats an absence of thought.”
Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.