Everett, Percival. So Much Blue. Greywolf, Minneapolis, 2017. NF; 7/17.
This is a charming story, and it changed me. Percival Everett is quite a guy: 61 years old, distinguished English lit professor at USC, author of over a dozen novels and short story collections. By coincidence as I was reading this he was one of the interviewed authors in Paris Review, so we know he’s a philosopher as well as writer. Here he has a real character confront his imperfections, which are similar to those of his country and the world.
We see that character, a painter called Kevin Pace, in three different plot lines at different times in his life. In the present he’s married with an older child and a teenager, keeping in his studio a huge secret canvas that he doesn’t show anyone. Years ago he remembers a trip with his best friend to Central America, and we also hear about an affair, in his early middle age, with a young woman in Paris. There are a lot of secrets: the painting, what happened in El Salvador, the affair, his daughter’s pregnancy, and how he feels about his wife. I wondered halfway through whether the three stories were going to connect, and I think they did.
The Paris Review interview was partly about philosophy. Our author is a Wittgenstein fan, and I liked the suggestion that Wittgenstein debunks his sometime profession as not being about answering great questions but about having fun with making-of-problems for itself and solving them. This idea appeared in Julian Barnes’s Nothing to be Frightened Of and maybe narrator Kevin is having that kind of fun too, a bit.
Kevin is hard not to like. He has a sense of humour. He reflects that he’s not genuine and too preoccupied with effect (“I sounded like a good friend was supposed to sound”). He deals with being black pragmatically and without much attitude. He has problems with alcohol and worries that he’s not that good a father to his adolescent daughter. As the Paris affair proceeds “… this lack of guilt about what I was doing with this woman with whom I clearly saw no future left (him) with, well, guilt.” I like being encouraged to imagine someone who without being maudlin is relentlessly self-critical.
I just finished finished In the Land of Eternal Spring and I wonder if something about civil war in Central America is in the American atmosphere like California wildfires these days, poisoning the country into self-analysis and excoriation about bad national behaviour. In Eternal Spring too we had a young American in over his depth and changed for life by his experiences in a chaotic dangerous place.
And like that young guy being a Fulbright Scholar, a whiff of New England pretense in So Much Blue put me off a bit. Our Kevin is an artist and the iconic centre of the story is a huge canvas. The best friend he knocks around with in El Salvador is an Old English literature academic. Fair enough, Everett properly lives in that world, but I wondered what it would have felt like if the great graphic secret had been pornography and the travel buddy a construction worker. And the kid in Eternal Spring a confused young hitchhiker trying to find himself. But that’s just me.
It’s also me who had another kind of reaction to this triptych novel. It made me sad: like nostalgic and sentimental. Kevin’s secret experiences moved him and then changed his character and world without his knowing it until much later.
And isn’t that how it happens? Like the ending of this novel we don’t get to know what changes are going to add up to at the time we’re living our lives. We only have this welter of events going on, banal or wonderful or horrifying. And then we get old. And here we are (if we are in America) past our prime and also that of our country. Looking back for everyone, events mean something they didn’t when they were happening. Like driving down the coast from Vancouver to San Francisco in the glorious United States of the 1960s say, and only now understanding how wonderful that was and that that history, its and ours, is gone forever. Sad.
Good for Percival Everett for pulling it all together with more than a touch of class. This one is a good read and plenty of serious fun. 9.0/9.1.