Percival Everett blows the doors off with this beautifully constructed novel that holds secrets and mysteries in each of its three stories centered about Kevin, an oil painter living in Rhode Island with his wife and two children. I do wonder about Everett, who so gradually has become one of America’s most reliably exciting and unique novelists that his anonymity lasted long enough for him to enjoy some walking-around time without celebrity recognition. That’s probably well over now, if this enormously assured work of fiction garners the attention it deserves.
The work is studded with recognizable truths in the way of great literature but the writing is plain enough that we spot these easily, following his trail eagerly. Describing the way his children looked at him when he was drinking regularly and too much:
“No, I never flew into rages or stumbled late and noisily into dance recitals or yelled a little too loud and made inappropriate comments at soccer games, but I became acutely aware that I wore a sickly-sweet late evening cologne and I noticed how my children looked at my eyes, holding them for too long and looking away too quickly.”There is a paragraph less than fifty pages in which describes what happens in Paris when Kevin is visiting a museum on a day his wife is traveling. He happens upon a young woman, a watercolorist, who recognizes him and invites him somewhere they can talk comfortably.
“Very close of course was Victoire’s flat. She was, after all, a watercolorist and her apartment was full of them. Thankfully they were not portraits of cows, but there was a preponderance of empty parks and stark river scenes. There was a large window that overlooked a garden. In the middle of the garden was a broken birdbath and I felt a little guilty when I realized I was paying more attention to it than to the many works of art. I turned my attention to her work and found them well done, but ordinary.”This paragraph with all its conflicted feelings describes a true thing; I know this because it happened to me. I can’t remember now if I was the young woman or the older man. Perhaps I was the younger woman with the eyes of an older man.
Everett does this to us regularly: holds up our experience, or maybe his own, for us to acknowledge. He is always surprising and exact yet comfortable and intimate with us. Sometimes his sentences remind me of the clipped noir of Raymond Chandler or the deeply funny seriocomic social commentary of Joe Lansdale. But Everett is unique. Not only that; each novel is unique.
Almost every novel by Everett is different than the one preceding it, making it seem as though he were reveling in the breadth of the form, trying out methods, working a style. One has the sense of an oeuvre not unlike a fiction chapbook which showcases many forms of popular fiction but which is infused with a self-conscious humor, even parody, always within the realm of literature. It is American literature at core, worthy of study for the pieces Everett chooses to highlight. That standing outside the form is almost missing in this novel, but Everett is sly.
The novel's three strands, each thread in a different country, are widely spaced in time yet carefully braided into one narrative so that no one strand seems dominant nor gets lost as the other stories unfold. The interleaving is so well done it is a model for writers. The only overlap in all the stories is the main character, Kevin Pace; married, living in New England, two children, a painter.
Blue, the color blue, cerulean, cobalt, “the color of trust, loyalty,” ultramarine, blue leaning to green, Guillet green, emerald green. Kevin saw one painting done by the young French watercolorist which was outside her usual style, all done in blues and green running into blue, with a splash of blood red in one corner. It made him cry. It should have been done in oils. Blue was a color he could not control, and it reminded him of something, a secret.
This novel is about secrets, and upheaval, and finding a safe place, and the how paint can reveal truths we cannot speak. Everett is a painter besides being an author, and in 2010 he collaborated with the novelist Chris Abani to produce a journal of Abani’s poetry and Everett’s paintings.
This novel, coming after thirty or more earlier works, seems to bring all that earlier experimentation to glorious fruition. It’s a beautiful novel, full of energy, movement, truth, and color. So much blue.
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