I Am Not Sidney Poitier
By Percival Everett. Graywolf Press, 272 pp, $20, paperback
Adopted ward of TV mogul Ted Turner. Self-taught hypnotist. Detective investigating his own murder. Ironic philanthropist. Multi-multi-millionaire. There are many remarkable ways to describe the hero of Los Angeles–based writer Percival Everett’s 17th novel, and that’s not even counting his legal name: Not Sidney Poitier. A name like that would be a problem for anyone, but for Not Sidney it’s particularly challenging—because he looks more like his Hollywood namesake with every passing year.
His mother died young, but thanks to her long-shot investment in the then-fledgling Turner Broadcasting System, Not Sidney winds up both filthy rich and in the custody of the network’s eccentric founder. But Everett’s delightfully aloof Turner acts as more of an unhinged life coach than a surrogate parent, giving Not Sidney a combination of insight and left-field non sequiturs. “College would be great for you,” Turner tells him early on. “A time for searching and growth, for exposure to new and uninteresting subjects. I think that they should be called tax cells instead of brackets.”
With its madcap pace and constantly shape-shifting plot, the book reads in many ways like a 21st-century picaresque romp. At its core is Not Sidney’s quest to understand himself and the world around him, but circling around his calm centre is a whirlwind of hijinks, witty repartee, and off-beat supporting characters. Everett writes with impressive zeal and concise wit, and part of the fun comes from the sheer malleability of the timeline: a dream sequence can stretch on for 10 pages, while a scene where Not Sidney falls into a deep pit, handcuffed to a racist escaped prisoner, is wrapped up in a few tidy paragraphs.
Adding to the mischievous tone—and making for some of the book’s most gleeful moments—are appearances by real-life figures like Turner, Bill Cosby, and even a professor named Percival Everett, who teaches a perplexing but well-attended course in the philosophy of nonsense.
In less-agile hands, this story would buckle under the weight of its own quirk, but Everett sells his surreal dismantling of social and racial taboos so enthusiastically that the whole caper becomes almost plausible.