In Other Words So Much Blue by Percival Everett
There are three revolving stories in Percival Everett’s So Much Blue, each with the same protagonist — the painter Kevin Pace, seen at different stages of his life. Each stage has its own section, one taking place recently (“House”), one set a decade ago (“Paris”), and the third in El Salvador nearly 40 years ago (“1979”). The three periods spin in a dizzying waltz time — one, two, three; one, two, three — and then swirl together at the end in a slightly off-balance pirouette. The tales reveal various sides of Kevin, some of them unexpected. These experiences pile on over the years, and the book becomes an expression of Faulkner’s idea that the past isn’t dead and isn’t even past. “No ghost is born overnight,” Kevin muses.
In the “House” chapters, Kevin is fifty-six. As a painter, he’s enjoyed “a rather brief period of success” that has allowed his family to live comfortably. His professional studio, where his work is on view and available for purchase, is open to the public. “Some are good,” he says of his paintings. “Some not so.” His private studio, as big as a barn, houses a single work — a huge abstract painting created solely from shades of blue. He’s been working on it for six years and hasn’t let anyone see it, not his wife or his children or his best friend, Richard. Its size and its inspiration spur consideration of its dimensions, or, as a mathematician friend explains to him, “the constituent structure of all space and its relation to time.” It’s a statement that defines Kevin’s life as well as Everett’s storytelling structure, with its revolving emphasis on place and period. We’re told the painting is “splashed with guilt” and “scratched with shame.” Its hues suggest blues music, blue moods, and nothing but blue skies. Kevin knows them all. Everett, overplaying blue’s weighty connotations, expects a lot of the color. In return, it gives him more than a clever title.
The “Paris” chapters follow an affair Kevin had with a twenty-two-year-old woman when he was forty-six. The story takes a predictable path, from the coincidental meeting of the soon-to-be lovers to their first awkward rendezvous to Kevin meeting his mistress’s mother and introducing both his mistress and her mother to Richard. Kevin blames his inattention for his problems here and in the 1979 story. “I was not observant, was not taking my surroundings fully.” Kevin ends up in El Salvador when Richard asks him to help look for his brother, who has gone missing in the early days of the country’s civil war. Kevin claims to take friendship very seriously. “If you are my friend and you need me then I will find you.” The young men have little idea how to proceed. They meet a soldier of fortune named The Bummer who takes them on a series of seemingly unconnected adventures and drinking binges in a road-rough rental Cadillac. The dangers of navigating a country filled with rebels and paramilitary factions are more serious than they first imagined.
Everett, the author of the novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier and the satire (with James Kincaid) A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid, is known to range across genre and setting in his more than 25 books. The stories in the 2015 collection Half an Inch of Water are set around the mountain West, and his 2011 novel
Assumption follows a country detective based in fictional Plata County, New Mexico. So Much Blue is an East Coast story, even as it bounces between Paris and El Salvador. Kevin, raised and educated in Philadelphia, spends summers on Martha’s Vineyard with his wife, son, and daughter. Race gets little notice in the story other than a brief moment when Kevin tells us that Richard believes having a black buddy makes him acceptable.
Kevin knows his intellectual shortcomings. “I have no idea what true is. I come by my ignorance honestly.” He considers himself to be “a significant and singular failure as both a husband and a father” and knows that he’s become a cliché in Paris — the man who loves his wife and children and their life, yet indulges in an affair. In El Salvador, age twenty-four, he’s dangerously naive. A serious flaw in his thinking emerges when his daughter shares her pregnancy with him but asks him to keep the secret from Mom. In a story in which friendship is said to supersede all else, Kevin must consider honesty in terms of loyalty and necessity. He is practiced at keeping aspects of his life, like his big blue painting, hidden from everyone else. Maybe he needs to share. Everett’s final swirl seems to reach for an obvious conclusion, and readers might wish for more of Kevin’s story — say, 10 years in the future. It’s hard to let someone go when you’ve been brought so close to them. — Bill Kohlhaase