I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett: ‘An overlooked genius’

Cover imageI’ve borrowed that subtitle from Courttia Newland’s introduction to Percival Everett’s novel, first published in the US in 2009. Newland stumbled upon Everett’s Graceland in a second-hand bookshop in London and went back for a copy of Erasure, the book that introduced me to this inventive, smart, very funny novelist. He’s prolific, too, but few of his novels are available here in the UK so I jumped at the chance of reviewing I Am Not Sidney Poitier. It’s the story of the eponymous Not Sidney whose prescient mother invested in Ted Turner’s broadcasting company, leaving him already rich at the age of seven when she dies in suburban Los Angeles.

Not Sidney has no idea who his father is. His mother gave birth to him after a surprisingly long gestation, raising him to be a sceptical reader and curious. Ted Turner visits shortly before she dies, keen to thank the woman who saw a future in his fledgling company. He takes Not Sidney in when he’s left orphaned, setting him up with his own staff in a wing of his Atlanta mansion from which Not Sidney gazes at Jane Fonda, Ted’s wife. Ted and Not Sidney spend lots of time together, Ted unleashing a seemingly ceaseless discursive monologue from which Not Sidney is eager to learn. At the age of fifteen, Not Sidney decides to drive to Los Angeles, landing up in gaol, guilty of being black in rural Georgia. Back in Atlanta he decides to go to college where he joins Professor Percival Everett’s Philosophy of Nonsense course, taking on the frat boys before dropping out. Intent on seeing his mother’s grave, Not Sidney sets out for Los Angeles, once again, this time making it to Alabama before another encounter with the law. The final episode of this picaresque adventure finds Not Sidney at a Hollywood awards ceremony, distinctly unsure of what’s going on. Throughout it all his fortune continues to grow just as his resemblance to Sidney Poitier becomes more pronounced

There’s a great deal of slapstick fun to be had with Not Sidney’s name in this novel which will have you chortling out loud. Everett narrates his story in Not Sydney’s voice, beginning in characteristically wacky fashion with a two-year gestation. He’s an engaging narrator, sharp yet naïve, intelligent and cultivated in stark contrast with the ignorant bigots lampooned by Everett, convinced of their own superiority despite all evidence to the contrary. The Percival Everett of the novel is a star turn, an academic who’s legitimised the spouting of impenetrable nonsense by turning it into a course which both bamboozles and awes his eager students. A very funny novel with serious points entertaingly made, it’s been a welcome distraction from our current global predicament. Everett is the author of over thirty novels five of which I’ve now read and thoroughly enjoyed. I’d love to think more might be published here in the UK.

If you’re keen to get your hands on a copy of I Am Not Sidney Poitier, you can order one direct from Influx Press. They’re a small publisher who will, no doubt, be struggling in these difficult times.

Influx Press: London 2020 9781910312537 287 pages Paperback

15 thoughts on “I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett: ‘An overlooked genius’”

  1. Turns out I had this author confused in my mind with Ishmael Reed. I *have* read one Everett book, but it was an uncharacteristic one (a 2015 poetry volume). I like the sound of this one, and have also had American Desert recommended. Do you have a favourite?

  2. Gosh, I don’t think I would have given this a second glance ordinarily. But you clearly enjoyed it so much that I will definitely give it a go. I had not even heard of PE before – any overlooked genius deserves further investigation!

  3. Sounds wickedly sharp–quintessential Everett. I’d love to read my way straight through his oeuvre. Starting with this one by the sounds of it! (Also, thanks for drawing my attention to Influx Press. They have other amazing authors too!)

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