Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Not Sidney Poitier - review

An unusual one. A word I had heard a few times but never knew the meaning of until last year was "picaresque" - it means an episodic adventure with an unreliable hero. I think this is one of those.
Using the character who is born (after a two year pregnancy) and named Not Sidney Poitier Everett uses his rites of passage to humorously explore race, class, money and education in modern 21st Century America. And it is very funny in places especially with the understated wit of Not-Sidney. I am not sure it succeeds in everything it is trying to do though.
N-S's mother dies early on in his life and in essence he is adopted by Ted Turner whose company NS has made a fortune from. The portrayal of Turner is surreal (dreams play a big part in the novel) but hilarious a bit like a minor Simpsons character. But Turner flits in and out of the book as NS goes to school, college, home with his girlfriend, gets arrested for being black, escapes, gets arrested again and solves a murder!
I think each chapter is meant to centre around a Sidney Poitier - who NS grows to look more and more like by the end he is indistinguishable - rmovie which is quite a clever device. I spotted the Defiant Ones, Guess who's coming to Dinner, the Heat of the Night, to Sir with Love and er the one about the nuns! All of these took place in the 60s when America was having to deal with race in a central way. Poitier won an Oscar then I guess for many white Americans Poitier was the only interaction with a black person they had. By fast forwarding it 40 years and throwing it up in a crazy refracted way Everett is showing how much or how little has changed through the years. There are some twists the disapproving parents of NS 's girlfriend are light skinned African Americans rather than Tracey and Hepburn. The college he attends is nearly all-black. But the ignorance of racism is still fairly universal.
I also think it is a novel about identity -this is particularly evident in the closing speech. What does a name mean - how does it affect the way people interact with you.? There is also a degree of existentialism in the way Sidney self reflects constantly at his actions - it reminded me a little of Camus - honest!
Along with Turner and Jane Fonda a real person featuring in the novel is the author himself. I am not sure this device works well, at all. I think a few writers have tried it. There is quite a self indulgent bit where he (as character) reflects on the nature of the novel and in particular his most successful work : Erasure. Also his annoyingly obscure lectures are well annoying.
But having said that it is ambitious and at least it tries to do something a little different. So a funny writer with a semi-experimental work that doesn't quite come off.

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