Published:  12:54 AM, 30 July 2017

In 'So Much Blue,' a married painter spills secrets

So Much Blue by Percival Everett, Publisher - Graywolf Press in 2017

Gerald Early illustrates thoughts and behavior of a  creative heart that elaborates the writer

Percival Everett might have called his latest novel "Mood Indigo," after the famous Duke Ellington composition, or even "All Blues," after the composition by Miles Davis, but that might have given too much away - been a bit too obvious about the connection between color and creativity.

Everett is one of the more accomplished and prolific novelists on the scene over the last three decades. Satirical, wildly comic metafictions like "A History of the African-American People [Proposed] by Strom Thurmond" (2004), "I Am Not Sidney Poitier" (2009) and "Erasure" (2001) - novels for which he is best known - show not only Everett's fertile imagination but also his skillful ability to blend influences as disparate as John Dos Passos, Ishmael Reed and Robert Coover.

"So Much Blue" is a less exuberant book, telling the story of Kevin Pace, a 56-year-old painter working in a barn in Martha's Vineyard, on an enormous canvas "12 feet high and 21 feet and three inches across" that he will permit no one, not even his wife, Linda, or his best friend, Richard, to see: "The painting was mine, only mine, I wanted it to be only mine, to mean for me and for me alone." He began the painting nine years before, when his elder child was 7 and his younger was 3, after he had just returned from Paris, concluding a brief but passionate affair with Victoire, a watercolorist half his age, which he concealed from his wife.

The new canvas, as it turns out, is dominated by the color blue, with which Kevin is not comfortable and which he hardly ever used. "I could never control it," he says. "Regardless that blue was so likable, a color that so many loved or liked - no one hated blue - I could not use it."

He adds, "I sometimes hated blue." (According to the medieval historian Michel Pastoureau, blue polls as the favorite color in the Western world and has done so since the 18th century.) An earlier small painting, "Fledgling Blue," became "the seminal image of my large private painting." The reader never learns what this or any other of Kevin's paintings really is - that is, what any of them look like.

The novel contains three narrative threads: Kevin's affair with Victoire in Paris; his time at home in New England, at "the edge of the country or the edge of town," as he works on his giant blue canvas and his ill-tempered 16-year-old daughter reveals to him that she is pregnant; and, finally, his story of accompanying his friend Richard to El Salvador in 1979, when the country was on the brink of civil war, in search of Richard's older brother, Tad, who "had been in and out of detention, prison, abusive relationships, and an assortment of drug rehab programs" and had not been heard from in seven months.

Despite the violent odyssey of El Salvador and the sexual odyssey of Paris, this is actually a bourgeois domestic novel, in which everything finally collapses into the home, as the tripartite narrative structure finally resolves into several chapters called "House." A reader is likely to think that the Salvador chapters may be simply a reimagining of "the ugly American":

A psychotic, PTSD-addled war veteran as the mercenary; Richard and Kevin as the blundering, well-meaning liberal innocents; and Tad as the exploitative outsider making nefarious deals. If there is something bluntly familiar about these characters, the same can be said for Kevin's daughter, April, the spoiled, pouty, self-absorbed teenager whom he cannot truly understand but is oddly bound to by their shared knowledge of her pregnancy.

(April keeps her own secret, as she never reveals who the baby's father is.) Then there is Will, Kevin's even-tempered young son, and Linda, the smart, loyal wife who manages domestic life better than her husband.

The familiarity of these characters and their desires, all a concoction of Kevin's perspective, is, ironically, what makes the novel absorbing in its simplicity about bourgeois banality and the quest for expression. The book is also quite funny at times. "So Much Blue" is never quite what you expect, only close. (excerpt)


The reviewer is a journalist & chairman of the African and African-American studies department at Washington University in St. Louis. The write-up has appeared at  www.nytimes.com

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