icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Review: James by Percival Everett

James is the 22nd book I read by Percival Everett. When I was at book #18, I met the man when he spoke on a panel here in NYC where I live. I'd brought my copy of Erasure for him to sign. I'd chosen carefully—the newest looking of his books on my shelf. I wanted to present him with something pristine.


After the panel discussion, I crept out of the audience, around the circle of panelists' chairs, and, like a teenager with crush, smelling my own sweat, I said, "Mr. Everett, would you sign my book?" He couldn't have been more affable. And as he wrote, I blurted, "I've read 18 of your books." "Oh, so you're the one!" he joked, a line I sensed he used a lot to those of us in what was then a small cult of fans. Undeterred, I further blurted, "When I first discovered your work, I felt like my head exploded."


He smiled kindly and handed me my paperback, fully aware that I was as in love with him as a reader can be from only an author's books, and I didn't know what to do with the feelings.


Every one of Everett's books is different, but having read so many, I feel like all of them have led to James. James is far more accessible than a lot of his other books, and it is perfectly timed to convey his essence to the huge audience he has "suddenly" evoked due to a movie based on Erasure that he had virtually nothing to do with. (I have not seen it because I like the edge in his books, his anger, his uncompromising intellect—even when it is over my head—and his refusal to mitigate any of it with anything that would make his work more accessible, and I've heard that the movie softens all that.)


What is Percival Everett's essence?


For me, it is the thing that made my head explode on first contact: he is absolutely himself. He refuses to fit into any box, under any label designed by someone else. There is loneliness to this kind of a life. A loneliness that can become a choice because at some point you know that nobody—or very few people—will see you as you know yourself to be. (He writes about this in not only Erasure, but in I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Dr. No, God's Country, and many of his short stories.)


In James, he has parsed this out for the masses, using Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn as a launch pad.


Why this book now?


Because it's legal—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written in 1884, is now in the public domain. But more importantly, perhaps because the masses are now open to hearing that Black people are and always have been individual people with individual thoughts, ideas, and peculiarities just like all human beings.


This sounds obvious, but in our country it is anything but—proved by the stereotypes that make Black men "dangerous" and all the other notions that weave through our culture.


As in many of Everett's books, James disarms us with humor. There are the fools, the clowns whose cruelty is matched only by their idiocy. As in one of my favorite of Everett's short stories, "The Appropriation of Cultures" (in his anthology Damned If I Do), there are ingenious absurd yet logically-obvious-except-nobody-has-thought- of-them plot twists. There is the unpredictable picaresque journey (I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Dr. No). And there is also an undertow of "yearning to be seen and known." (I wrote about how subversive this is in the book-within-the-book of Erasure; I have no idea if Everett would agree with my take, but it's what I felt.) This is what gives Everett's books a subliminal heartbeat . . . and it hurts—in a good way.


New in this book, although there are aspects of it in other books, is the utter exhaustion of the code-switching Black people have learned by necessity by the time they have social interactions. And, here, that is married to the exhaustion of living in a slave culture of "duplicity, dishonesty or perfidy (195)" where you can't tell who is telling the truth or who might act like an ally but turn out to be the worst kind of enemy. But because of Everett's genius, reading James is never exhausting and always entertaining.


And for me, the newest aspect of this book is a full pulsing catharsis—set up by the ending of his remarkable God's Country in 1994, delivered in an almost mythical form in 2021 in Trees, and finally, in James, experienced through the heart of a man who loves his wife and young daughter, who loves the son who didn't know him as a father, and loves life enough to fight for it.


Oh, my heart!

Post a comment

Peace Lovers Unite

Last night was the second time in my life that I've gone to a synagogue. I'm an Ashkenazi Jew ethnically, but was not raised in any religion. I liked the music and the welcoming atmosphere, but the language was foreign and any references to "God saving us" don't resonate with me.




I'm really glad I went because following the service, there was an enlightening discussion with two representatives of an organization called Standing Together: an Israeli Jew named Alon-Lee Green and an Israeli Christian Palestinian named Sally Abed. For me, the most compelling stuff was this:


After a long discussion of the actions of Israel's right-wing government that has not only indiscriminately bombed Gaza and had a dual system of rights—civil law for Jews; military law with no due process for Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, Sally eschewed "the middle way."


When there is an oppressive authority, one must call it out and reject its binary message: "us or them." The middle way is not an option.


Suddenly lightbulbs popped on in my head.


Imagine it like any container. A jar without a top, for instance: The opening to freedom and joining the atmosphere is right there, but a very tiny portion of life who is dedicated only to holding power, blocks the opening. Because they are proportionally so small compared to who is being contained, they have to use pressure to cover the space, and they press down.


As with any contained matter, eventually the pressure makes it explode, fracture. The more this happens, the more the small group exerting the pressure must press to try to contain us.


When we fracture into binary groups, "us and thems," the oppressive force has an easier time staying on top because it has created chaos among us and there is no cohesiveness pushing back.


The oppressive force does not care about any of the groups. Their sole interest is their position, and the fractured "us and them" groups feed them.


The only way to change this whole dynamic is to wake up to the fact that it is happening. Then refuse to take part in it. Even if you are looking into the eyes of somebody who is rejecting you because you do not agree with them—the eyes of somebody who believes you are their enemy—look with soft eyes, insisting on the truth of our oneness, and at least then there is the chance that they will see and wake up to their own humanity and desire for peace and freedom.


The morning following the October 7th Hamas attack on Jews, Standing Together organized a meeting at the only space that would accept them—a mosque. Sally was supposed to make a speech. Instead, she got up on the stage and broke into tears. As she wept, so did everybody else. Everybody in the mosque cried and cried, feeling their common grief: Jews and Palestinians. And for a brief time, there was oneness.


Let's feel our grief together. And our joy. We all have it. That is the only way to dethrone the bogus "leaders" who choose killing and bullying.


Wake up!

Be the first to comment

Review: Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think about Race and Identity by Michele Norris

Our Hidden Conversations is an almost 3 lb., 9.5x7.75-inch, 471-page world of all of us. I didn't believe I could finish it in the space of a library loan, so I posted an early review to Goodreads, which I'm replacing with this one now that I have indeed slurped it down well before its due date.


This is us. This is everybody—all races, genders, the whole mess.


The book is packed with remarkable stories, history, analysis, and real-people quotes. (It's the perfect follow-up to Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, which I just reviewed.)


From a section by author Michele Norris:


"I find it deeply ironic that there is such a fierce battle to evade and erase historical teachings about slavery because, in the time of enslavement, there was such an assiduous effort to document and catalog every aspect of that institution, much in the way people now itemize, assess, and insure their valuables. The height, weight, skin color, teeth, hair texture, work habits, and scars that might help identify anyone who dared to flee were documented. The menstrual cycles of enslaved women and their windows of fertility—because producing more enslaved people produced more wealth—were entered like debits and credits in enslavers' ledgers." (178)


Michele Norris's commentary is wise, compassionate, objective, and elucidating, and the effect of all these stories—they came out of Norris's The Race Card Project which invited people to send postcards with 6-word thoughts on race—is to showcase how much we all have in common. Everybody is pained by being judged and put in boxes they don't identify with, asked ignorant questions, insulted by others' lack of understanding that they are even being insulting.


Everybody is in this book, and so that includes plenty of White people who tell their stories of difficulty and deprivation. There are first-person accounts of the struggles we have at other people's assumptions, biases, and projections. Black, White, Native, Arab, Middle Eastern, Asian, mixed-race people and families, adoptees and adopters, gay people, people with disabilities, poor people, White men who are turned down because of being White men. Nobody is left out. And it seems that most of us believe that nobody but similar people with difficulties really understands what we face.

 Read More 

Be the first to comment

My Antipathy for My Antipathy

My article "Tulsa 1921: The Trauma Continues" about my family history research and the Greenwood, OK, massacre of a neighborhood known as "Black Wall Street" was just published on Mukoli: The Peace Magazine, produced by the School of Conflict Management, Peacebuilding and Development at Kennesaw State University.


When I posted the link to the article on social media, I accompanied it with an old Polaroid of me and Mom, stating that it seemed appropriate. It is a lovely photograph that is in many ways a lie. (Read the article to understand that.) And I urged all of us to be brave enough to tell the truth.


There was a lot of good feedback from people, and one friend cited a New York Times article about the way the Tulsa Massacre started; the Times piece was far more simplistic, cut and dried, than my understanding. (Again, read the article to understand this more.) And my knee-jerk defense of what I'd written—as well as my defensive feelings—brought up a whole other story. Hence, this blog.


My friend was "puzzled by [my] description [at the end of the article]: "rumors about what was probably an innocent disagreement between two people spread like a virus"—a white elevator girl and a black janitor had an altercation which ignited a terrorist attack.


I replied:

If you read Krehbiel, which I only recommend if you want to dive into all reports ever recorded, he presents absolutely everything. The book is more like a research report of every archival source. He reports theories and then says, but they were wrong, and reports other reports. So I condensed everything, attempting to do it accurately when so many things were hearsay. Some reports say the two knew each other, may have even had a relationship; some say they argued and she yelled when he grabbed her arm; some say he tripped and grabbed her arm and she yelled. The point is, the explanations of what really happened were as viral as the internet today is, to the point where it's a game of Telephone and the truth no longer matters in the hurricane of rage that takes over.

But still I couldn't let this go. After much contemplation, I realized what was niggling at me was my friend's blanket acceptance of simple explanations she'd read, when the whole truth includes many truths. And I replied once more: Read More 

Be the first to comment