There it was, on the NPR Book Reviews page: So Much Blue by Percival Everett. And then it popped up in the New York Times, and I was so intrigued, because clearly, here was a writer of stature, with thirty books to his credit, including short stories, novels and poetry, and while this, his latest book had gathered praising reviews across the board, I had never heard of him.
On the back of the novel’s cover, I read statements like:
“If you haven’t read Percival Everett, you are missing out on one of the great novelists of our time.” (The New Inquiry)
And: “In a more perfect world the novelist Percival Everett would dominate the bestseller list to such a degree that they would need to give him his own category…The man is practically A Goddamn National Treasure.” (The Awl)
Wanting to know more about him, I went back online. If it’s possible to be opinionated without saying much, then that’s exactly what Everett is, at least in the interviews I’ve read. He’s a slippery, reluctant interviewee who holds strong opinions about art and literature and many other subjects that can seem intellectual and ornery at the same time. In a recent exchange in the LA Times, when asked to comment on the focus of his novel, Everett answered:
“I never speak to what my work might mean. If I could, I would write pamphlets instead of novels. And if I offered what the work means, I would be wrong. The work is smarter than I am. Art is smarter than us.”
I find him willful, but his honesty makes me smile. And that, too, is found in his work. So Much Blue was a delightful read, an easy read: it’s ironic and witty, accessible and erudite, literary and genre-bending. Everett’s prose is clean and precise, pared-down and unsentimental.
So Much Blue consists of three separate stories woven around its protagonist, Kevin Pace, a fifty-six-year-old successful abstract painter with a wife, Linda, an adolescent daughter, April, and younger son, Will. The narrative travels along three timelines: the present, in chapters always titled Home, which centre around Kevin’s family life and his studio; and the past, which unfolds in chapters titled Paris, set ten years earlier, telling the story of Kevin’s affair with a beautiful, twenty-two-year-old aspiring watercolourist named Victoire; and also 1979, in which a twenty-something Kevin, a college student, sets off on a misguided mission to El Salvador—a country on the brink of a monstrous civil war—with his best friend Richard, hoping to find and bring home Richard’s wayward brother Tad, who has likely gotten himself into drug dealing.
While each of these narratives is self-contained (the El Salvador storyline is part Heart of Darkness, part The Year of Living Dangerously, and very much a thriller, featuring a mercenary known simply as The Bummer), each presents Kevin in a distinct light.
As the strands unwind, the author’s gifts as a storyteller become more apparent. So Much Blue is a novel about secrets, and how the weight of these is borne even by those who are not privy to them. Kevin is burdened by his hidden affair with Victoire and by the confidential matter his daughter April has sworn him to hide from his wife. But heaviest of all are the secrets he carried out of the rain forest of El Salvador. In his studio, there is a painting, a large canvas that he has been working on for a very long time, and which he hides from everyone while continuing to search for ways to have it destroyed immediately upon his death.
Kevin is a forthright narrator throughout the book, with a matter-of-fact way of expressing himself, and yet, as we walk with him in El Salvador, in Paris, and then in his home town on the East Coast, we begin to feel the walls that surround him. He’s an alcoholic whose drinking is noted and worries the people who love him. His friendship with Richard rests upon an unexplainable, unconditional loyalty. A palpable melancholy imbues his affair with Victoire, with whom he is sweet yet withholding; happy and transparently sad.
In the last few pages of the book, Kevin reaches a moment of insight that will perhaps, finally, help lift the burden of pain and grief that he has carried far too long:
“I was broken and felt unworthy of love, oddly not of being loved, but of loving. To love seemed so special and how could I achieve that?”
A few paragraphs later, Percival Everett’s restrained and thoughtful novel has reached its moving, sublime end.