May 2010

The Believer Book Award

The Fifth Annual—Hereby Presented To

I Am Not Sidney Poitier
By Percival Everett


Percival Everett’s seventeenth novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, is a wickedly funny, stunningly imaginative, and wholly original book that addresses, head-on, sex, racism, religion, and wealth in America. Did we mention it’s really funny? Yes. Did we mention it’s really hard to put down? Not yet. Now we have.

The novel follows the travels and travails of a young man whose last name is Poitier, and so is named by his mother “Not Sidney.” Due to his mother’s investments (she put every penny she had in Ted Turner’s nascent media company), he ends up inheriting an obscene amount of money and also attracting the attention of the charming Turner. (Jane Fonda makes an appearance too—in a bikini, on a boat.) In a tribute to Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Everett writes a surprising and hilarious account of Not Sidney’s visit to his light-skinned college girlfriend’s house for Thanksgiving. There, he is frowned up on by her parents—his skin is too dark—and becomes the sexual target of his girlfriend’s sister.

With a name like a Zen koan, Not Sidney creates a ripple of paradox in the heart of racist America. He does not redefine race relations and is not one the greatest actors of his generation, but he can hypnotize unsuspecting friends, seductive teachers, and fellow prisonmates—through a self-created technique called Fesmerism. I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a model of capturing satire without cynicism. Everett refers to his Not-Hero as his “fighter of windmills” and, like Cervantes, absurdity is his best defense against the unfightable, unjustifiable nonsense of culture.

An Excerpt From “I Am Not Sidney Poitier”:

The troubling truth took the form of a flashing blue bubble atop a black-and-white county sheriff’s patrol car. I watched as the nine-foot-tall, large-headed, large-hatted, mirror-sunglassed manlike thing unfolded from his car, closed his door, and walked toward me—one hairy-knuckled suitcase of a hand resting on his insanely large and nasty-looking pistol, the knuckles of the other hand dragging along the ground. I had a thought to be terrified, and so I was.

He said to me through the completely rolled-down window of my yellow and mostly blue Toyota Corolla, “Hey, boy.” Those were his exact words, though I cannot capture adequately his inflection. It was not a greeting as much as a threat, somehow a question, certainly an attack. His dented badge said Officer George, and I found that funny.

“Officer,” I said as a greeting and as a question.

He took my greeting as a smart-ass remark, which it might have been, I don’t know. But I could tell from his depthless eyes that he didn’t like it. I imagined his eyes as blue lifeless marbles even though I couldn’t see them, hidden as they were behind his mirror lenses, but I assumed they matched the rest of his features. He said again, “Hey, boy.” More threatening this time.

“Sir?” I said.

“Okay, boy, first thangs first. Why don’t you let me see your license and registration?” But it was not a question.

I leaned over to reach into the glove compartment for my registration, which was as bogus as my license, and at that point I was startled by shouting, though I could not make out clearly what was being said. It sounded like, “That thar be far nuff, nigger! Sitch on back straight and git out the veehickle!” This was punctuated by the brandishing of his huge pistol. That I heard clearly.

“I was just reaching for…” I tried to say.

“Y’all done heard me na, boy! Move na! Move yo black ass. Na, git out chere, raght na!”

My first thought was this man sounds like Jesse Jackson. My second thought was not to mention my first.

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