Emerg­ing por­trait in ‘Blue’

Per­ci­val Everett’s new novel paints a worth­while, cap­ti­vat­ing and com­plex ‘com­ing of mid­dle-age’ story

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Wal­ton Muyumba Muyumba is on the board of the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle and is a pro­fes­sor at In­di­ana Univer­sity.

So Much Blue

Per­ci­val Everett

Gray­wolf: 236 pp., $16 pa­per

When we meet Kevin Pace, the pro­tag­o­nist-nar­ra­tor of Per­ci­val Everett’s new novel, “So Much Blue,” he’s 56 years old and has found the space and medium for fash­ion­ing him­self fi­nally. Since the bulk of this kind of mea­sur­ing hap­pens in the “unas­sail­able pri­vacy of the soul,” as James Bald­win names it in “No Name in the Street,” we might think of Everett’s novel as Pace’s mem­oir or con­fes­sion. Everett’s com­plex ex­po­si­tion of­fers Pace’s pri­vate self, his se­cret self, to us through three in­ter­laced nar­ra­tives that tele­scope Pace’s present, his near past and dis­tant past: “House,” “Paris” and “1979,” re­spec­tively.

In May 1979, while grad­u­ate stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, Pace, a painter, and his best friend, Richard, a me­dieval­ist, travel to Cen­tral Amer­ica. They leave their Philadel­phia digs in search of Tad, Richard’s drug-deal­ing brother. They track him down in El Sal­vador, then on the brink of civil war. What Pace ex­pe­ri­ences on that trip re­ar­ranges him ex­is­ten­tially. Though am­biva­lent about his re­la­tion­ship with his girl­friend, Linda, Pace is so trou­bled that he pro­poses mar­riage, hop­ing it will save him from the un­speak­able trau­mas that breach his sleep.

I mar­ried Linda. She was happy. I was con­tent. We set about life. Years passed and my ar­rested devel­op­ment stalled our hav­ing chil­dren. But all of us fi­nally de­velop and I did too and so we did have chil­dren. I loved both my daugh­ter and my son. I felt nor­mal. I felt safe. But the dreams per­sisted. I drank too much on oc­ca­sion but was al­ways ex­cused, dis­ap­peared on oc­ca­sion but was for­given.

In the late 1990s, while help­ing his gal­lerist in Paris launch an ex­hi­bi­tion of his works, Pace — 46 years old, on-the-wagon, a suc­cess­ful ab­stract painter and stu­dio art pro­fes­sor at Rhode Is­land School of De­sign — “dis­ap­pears” into a three-week af­fair with Vic­toire, a young French wa­ter­col­orist. Plan­ning all along to re­turn to Linda and their chil­dren, Pace’s new ro­mance of­fers him psy­cho­log­i­cal re­lease, the free­dom to re­veal the se­cret self he can­not at home. Back in Rhode Is­land, both miss­ing his 22year-old lover and ac­knowl­edg­ing that his af­fair is a cliché, Pace ini­ti­ates a large-scale, au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal paint­ing that some call his “mas­ter­piece” even though he keeps the piece hid­den from view.

This in­tri­cately struc­tured novel opens 30 years af­ter the Sal­vado­ran ex­pe­di­tion and a decade beyond Pace’s Parisian pec­ca­dillo. The mid­dle-aged Pace wants lit­tle else than to tuck him­self away in his pri­vate back­yard art stu­dio, an out­build­ing de­signed specif­i­cally for his still in-process paint­ing. No one can en­ter Pace’s workspace, nei­ther his fam­ily mem­bers nor Richard. Nailed along one stu­dio wall, Pace has stretched a can­vas “twelve feet high and twenty-one feet and three inches across.” “This is my paint­ing,” Pace ex­plains, “col­ors on raw linen.” Work­ing with pow­ders and lin­seed oil, Pace mixes a pal­let of blues — “ph­thalo blue, Prus­sian mixed with indigo ... cerulean blend­ing into cobalt” — for his ab­stract im­age, a paint­ing large enough to reckon all se­crets about El Sal­vador, Paris, fam­ily life and him­self. His nar­rat­ing and paint­ing are not nostal­gia driven. Rather, out of the chaos of his ex­pe­ri­ence, he’s ar­rang­ing an ab­stract form that al­lows him to weigh his per­sonal his­tory pri­vately and iden­tify him­self in the present. Though no one else has seen the paint­ing and it has a name that he keeps se­cret, Pace hopes that what’s emerg­ing from the blues is a leg­i­ble por­trait of him­self.

While my syn­op­sis makes “So Much Blue” seem lin­ear, Pace’s sto­ry­telling is more like a three-suit deck of cards shuf­fled so that a card from each suit ap­pears al­ter­nately, each card its own short story. With 25 books of fic­tion and po­etry to his name, Everett doesn’t have the broad au­di­ence his writ­ing de­serves. Nonethe­less, among his fans, he has a rep­u­ta­tion for writ­ing hu­mor­ous, philo­soph­i­cal, in­no­va­tive and for­mally chal­leng­ing works such as “Era­sure” (2000), “I Am Not Sidney Poitier” (2009) and “Per­ci­val Everett by Vir­gil Russell” (2013).

In “So Much Blue,” two sec­tions (“1979” and “Paris”) have pro­gres­sive plot­lines arc­ing to­ward re­vealed se­crets. But “House” has no plot and shifts into its own past in or­der to il­lu­mi­nate a new se­cret an­i­mat­ing the Pace fam­ily’s present. Writ­ing in straight­for­ward, seem­ingly ef­fort­less prose, Everett puts th­ese se­crets in con­ver­sa­tion. He cre­ates sus­pense by sub­tly with­hold­ing in­for­ma­tion.

Everett has done this be­fore; it worked in “As­sump­tion,” (2011), with the pro­tag­o­nist, a sher­iff, try­ing to solve a mur­der mys­tery. It’s harder to pull this off with Pace, who we ex­pect, as nar­ra­tor, to have con­trol of the story he’s telling and its mean­ing. The crosstalk and sus­pense Everett cre­ates switch­ing among “So Much Blue’s” nar­ra­tive tracks de­lays both rev­e­la­tions of the se­crets and how they ex­plain each other. Pace must first earn con­trol of each short nar­ra­tive burst be­fore he can learn the truths they hold col­lec­tively.

In “Sal­vador” (1980), Joan Did­ion writes that when she ex­pe­ri­enced de­mor­al­iz­ing, hu­mil­i­at­ing fear in post-rev­o­lu­tion El Sal­vador, she rec­og­nized “the ex­act mech­a­nism of ter­ror.” Sim­i­larly, Pace must iden­tify and nar­rate his ter­ror in that coun­try to launch his paint­ing. Yet he wants to ward off any easy com­par­isons be­tween paint­ing and sto­ry­telling: “A paint­ing has many sur­faces. To say that a paint­ing is like a story is a pedes­trian ut­ter­ance, not al­to­gether un­true, but unin­spired.” He knows that “the shapes in the paint­ing were unique el­e­ment in unique sit­u­a­tions ... or­gan­isms with vo­li­tion and a de­sire for self-as­ser­tion.” But he doesn’t press th­ese notions “beyond” his can­vas be­cause that would move him in con­tact with the world.

Though he means to keep the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal paint­ing to him­self, Pace won­ders if its pur­pose — a cer­tain con­nec­tive or ex­pli­cat­ing en­ergy — might be lost. “Ab­stract as it was,” the pro­tag­o­nist of­fers, “it was es­sen­tially a time line, sim­ple as that, but time didn’t move along it, there were no in­ter­vals, noth­ing changed, ac­cel­er­ated or stopped. The fact that it was se­cret served its se­crets, my se­crets, and sud­denly I un­der­stood at least one rather sim­ple per­haps ob­vi­ous fore­head-flat­ten­ing truth, that a se­cret can ex­ist only if its rev­e­la­tions, dis­cov­ery, even be­trayal is pos­si­ble.” Through his art, Pace earns an emo­tional in­tel­li­gence that un­bur­dens him from his se­crets.

At first glance, “So Much Blue” seems to be Everett do­ing what he’s known for: craft­ing a com­pli­cated, cere­bral but funny nar­ra­tive. Early in the novel, how­ever, Pace re­calls his grand­fa­ther’s ap­praisal of one of his ap­pren­tice can­vases:

It was medium-sized can­vas, per­haps three by four feet, with lots of greens and blues, the col­ors ap­plied be­side each other in rough, quick strokes, a sphere of ocher and In­dian yel­low loosely mixed with white try­ing to erupt near the cen­ter. Sten­ciled across the bot­tom of the can­vas in a fairly straight line was the word de­pic­tion in low­er­case let­ters. My grand­fa­ther smiled at me, said, “I like it. But Kevin, do any roads lead home from irony?”

This cri­tique im­pli­cates the mas­sive can­vas Pace is in the midst of cre­at­ing and the novel it­self. “So Much Blue” presents Everett, one of our pre­em­i­nent nov­el­ists, a nonpareil iro­nist-satirist, turn­ing away from the fa­mil­iar ter­rain of his re­cent fic­tions. On this new turf, how­ever, a prob­lem arises for the au­thor: Though ironic art may not lead the pro­tag­o­nist home, irony is a ba­sic com­po­nent of the kind of self-cri­tique that will. Yet this cru­cial el­e­ment — nec­es­sary to the char­ac­ter’s devel­op­ment and re­al­iza­tions about se­crets and art — is lost in the shuff le some­what. Nonethe­less, cap­ti­vat­ing and plea­sur­able, es­pe­cially those pages de­voted to El Sal­vador, “So Much Blue” is a “com­ing of mid­dle-age” story worth gaz­ing into.

From Per­ci­val Everett

PER­CI­VAL EVERETT has a rep­u­ta­tion for writ­ing hu­mor­ous, philo­soph­i­cal, in­no­va­tive and for­mally chal­leng­ing works of fic­tion.

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