I Am Not Sidney Poitier
(Graywolf)Back in old radio days, they used to do a number on the Jack Benny show which went as follows: Dennis Day would say, "You know my in-laws are Irish?" Benny: "Oh really?" Day: "No O'Reilly." This --- a sleeper joke --- turned up randomly in each show, much to the delight of the audience (and the juvenile that was me, at home, alone, on the floor).
That's the sort of trope that runs through I Am Not Sidney Poitier. It all starts, presumably, because his eccentric mother named him "Not Sidney Poitier." So we get endless teapot dialogues, like this, between Not, his girlfriend, Maggie, and her old boyfriend:
He paused at my name.
"Then what is your name?" he said.
"My name is Not Sidney."
"Not is a part of Not Sidney's name," Maggie said.
"Knot, with a k?" he asked.
"Not with a k," I said.
"That's what I said," he said.
"N-O-T," Maggie said.
"Not my name is not Sidney. My name is Not Sidney. Call me Not Sidney." Though he was the one being dense, I was the one in the middle, feeling stupid, trying to explain the unexplainable. And for no good reason.
"Not so, Not Sidney," the reader may think. Also: Anywhere along here you could have changed your name. But to our relief, you didn't, so every thirty or forty or so pages we get to go through this Oh-really-O'Reilly routine with you all over again.
The book might have been called What's in a Name? (Or, maybe, even, What's Not in a Name?) When Not Sidney gets nabbed for being a black in Alabama, he gets chained up to another prisoner, a genuine red-neck, named Patrice. On Not Sidney's second attempt to flee the south, his car gets stalled in Smuteye, Alabama. He ends up in a cafe with a waitress named Frump. Diana Frump.
When he sits down at the counter, she says, "You name's not Sidney Poitier, is it?" because he does, we find out, look exactly like the young, handsome Sidney Poitier. So Not Sidney thinks, "What a question she had put to me without even knowing what she was doing, and so I answered truthfully the question she didn't know she was asking. 'It is.'"
§ § §
Not Sidney himself is a kind of a funny, dispassionate Candide. When he decides to go off to Morehouse College, he signs up for a course titled "the Philosophy of Nonsense," taught by Percival Everett, who shares the same name as the author of I Am Not Sidney Poitier. When Not Sidney goes to visit the professor, Everett says, "Anybody ever tell you that you look like Harry Belafonte?"
The word games are great, the characters almost perfect ... although the rednecks do seem to be a little mid-1950s. Ted Turner turns up as Not Sidney's step-father, and babbles cheerfully on about whatever pops into his head. It's all great fun.
Besides being a master of nonsense, Everett (the author, not Not Everett) also kills off a character who looks exactly like Not Sidney. He confirms this by arriving in Smuteye, and ending up in jail, doing push-ups. Not Sidney says, "My first thought was that he could not possibly have done sixty-four push-ups. My second thought was an affirmation of my previous suspicion that Horace's [the sheriff's] murder suspect was Everett."
Everett did, of course, murder the character who looked not unlike Sidney Poitier. That's an author's prerogative. He is, after all, not only one of the stars, but he made it all up, including characters named Ted Turner, Not Sidney, Percival Everett, and Diana Frump. Oh, really? No, O'Reilly.
We are glad that Everett included himself in this romp, but he could have chosen to leave out the dream sequences that appear here and there in the novel ... and go on far too long. In fact, despite all its virtues, I Am Not Sidney Poitier has a bit of the feel of a sausage, with an author who picks up where he wants, grinds it out, and cuts it all off when he gets tired, around page 234. Since this is Everett's seventeenth novel, that may not be too far from wrong.
"How are you, Mr. Poitier?" Everett said.
"You realize you're in here for murder," I said.
"My friend Billy told me as much. Who did I kill?"
"Me," I said.
He looked me up and down. "I didn't do a very good job."
Oh, yes he did. A bang-up good job. Despite all the noms de plume.--- Richard Saturday