In Other Words So Much Blue by Per­ci­val Everett

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

256 pages

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

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