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Reading Percival Everett

 | 
Claude Julien
, 
Anne-Laure Tissut

I. To Write and to Laugh

Getting to First Base: Baseball as Organizing Metaphor in Suder

Jacqueline Berben-Masi

Résumé

As a first novel, Suder’s promise shines through. Baseball provides an informative metaphor while jazz furnishes the ultimate clue in the wandering protagonist’s search for identity. Like many a bildungsroman, this book follows the thematic pattern of an underlying heroic quest. It is rife with intertextuality and nods at the author’s favourite literary models. The humor is sometimes a bit slapstick, but it is never gratuitous. Despite any shortcomings, the novel executes the implicit contract with the reader: in exchange for the latter’s suspension of disbelief, the author entertains and informs us in our everyday living experience.

Texte intégral

  • 1 The latter fiction (New York, Akashik Books, 2004) was written by two hands, the other writer/accom (...)

1Percival Everett’s first venture into fiction, a novel set against a backdrop of professional baseball, offers a preview of certain of the author’s later works in an idiosyncratically humorous vein. Grand Canyon, Inc (2001) and A History of the African-American People [proposed] by Strom Thurmond (2004)1 continue this unusual approach, at times in a satisfying manner for the reading public, at times in an schoolboy joke that alternates with what, in the context of the whole, seems like a parody of the modern literary scene. Which does not exclude the reader’s enjoyment. In the case at hand, Craig, an unpresupposing character, a professional and marital failure, strikes out on his own to come to terms with life and himself. We propose to look at the text for its form as consecrated genre, its literary techniques, and as a kind of offbeat testimony to American “heroes” sung and unsung, black, white or otherwise, from the playing field to the unpretentious night club to the abandoned family hearth.

2Taken from a step back, Suder is an intertwined story of two romantic quests, both in search of the freedom from conformity. In alternation, the implied reader first encounters the tale of the adult protagonist’s failing athletic career coupled with his haphazard itinerary towards self-discovery and self-fulfilment. The mythic quest follows the classic model of the voyage of eternal return beginning with the story of the adolescent hero’s coming of age. This account evolves alongside that of his seemingly mad mother’s search for her own right to respect, to free herself from the obsessions that haunt her existence. Played in counterpoint against one another, these two plot lines intersect through theme, metaphor, character, emotion, and achievement. There is ultimate triumph for the protagonists, whether or not their victory makes sense to an outsider. For the breed of common men and women, “succeeding” in a heroic sense is secondary to accomplishing a goal. Such do both mother and son.

3As in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the plot line proceeds from the hero’s motivated departure, his successfully meeting trials and acquiring a talisman, completed by the eventual fulfillment of his true nature as predicted during his childhood by recognition of and reunification with his “Bird” heritage, or consecration by the divine father figure. (The “Bird” in question is Charlie “Bird” Parker, the legendary jazz and blues saxophonist to whom the young boy is compared for his physical resemblance.) The familiar baseball metaphor of not being able to “get to first base” athletically or sexually can only culminate in “striking out” in a double sense, i.e., failing the test of successful manhood, but also setting out on a singular journey. Freudian undertones contribute to the pairing between the two strands of the adventure. On the one hand, there is the youth’s growing sexual awareness and an association between a baseball bat, the phallus, and masturbation or illicit sex. Together with the husband’s suspected infidelity, these elements indirectly account for the mother’s madness and her embarrassingly preferential treatment for the “good” son over the “bad,” ironically misidentifying which is which. Indeed, the protagonist’s relationship with sex becomes ambiguous as he sleuths out his father’s purported dallying and discovers him “not guilty,” even as he confirms his brother’s indulging in forbidden activities. This aspect is heightened by the sequences depicting a retarded adolescent who publicly masturbates thereby exacerbating young Craig’s sense of disgust with sexuality. The situation later results in an emotional and physical blockage that undermines his adult manhood until he finds release in full flight, naked as a jaybird, when, as confirmation of his vocation, he finally manages the elusive erection.

4Along the way, there are the multiple trials to be faced and overcome by father, mother, and child/man hero as the parental experience foreshadows that of the son. A baseball bat, a song, and the instrument that produced it are the only weapons that the hero can carry into combat. As for the elephant, Renoir, although he, too, might be a talisman, one must wonder whether he is intended to be a parody of the gallant charger bearing the hero into battle. (The little white girl Jincey does mount on his back.) Or is he a means of appropriating the pachyderm’s attributes of potency and power? His acquisition in two slapstick episodes threatening normal masculinity with the phallic bat and suggesting human traits in the animal (his ability to understand and communicate) seem drawn from an animated cartoon for adolescent entertainment. The same applies to the hiding of the animal by sawing an unlikely drawbridge out of the wall of the cabin that houses our post-Noah’s arc shared human and animal quarters. One is reminded of a Charlie Chaplin Little Tramp episode when the challenge of feeding the beast provokes the protagonist into committing petty larceny by stealing hay he could have purchased, but at a cost of revealing his identity and whereabouts. Of course, this act multiplies his pursuers, as does the elephant spore that intrigues hunters in the forest. Again, the coprophilia suggests an attempt to disgust and/or entertain at a very low level. We are in a realm of strange happenings that now and then exceed both the patience of a sophisticated reader and the experience of ordinary mortals; these are alternately the basest of animate comportment and the highest of spiritual experience. In a nutshell, Everett confronts the prosaic with the poetic. The sequence of events defies normality, but makes sense in the reader’s implicit pact of suspension of disbelief.

  • 2 One thinks of Walk Me to the Distance (1985), Frenzy (1997), or Cutting Lisa (1986), but also of th (...)

5Unlike some of Everett’s other books,2 racial identification is central to this work. The right to alterity is a question of tolerance, while the possibility of liberation from the constraints of one’s upbringing and the stereotypical trappings of prejudice require racial grounding of the characters. There is a great deal of “signifying,” or double entendre, most blatantly in the case of the white dentist, Dr. McCoy, exaggerated to the nth degree by his white hair, clothing, cars, office, pale blue eyes, and revivalist religion. He is indeed Malcolm X’s “white devil” personified, a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing who denigrates blacks even as he pretends to befriend the mother and abets her unbalanced behavior. One is reminded of Mr. Norton, the northern benefactor of the southern black college in Invisible Man, turned on by a taste of what he imagines to be typically degenerate “colored culture.” Indeed, to a certain extent, Craig is reminiscent of the naïve hero of Ellison’s classic, but with a different agenda.

6The language style, too, is unusual. It is significant to note that there is no recourse to black English, even if the dialogue occasionally falls into the colloquial vernacular. The style is stripped down, conversational, with a predominance of either simple or compound sentences whose clauses are minimally joined by the conjunction “and.” The use of the present tense in the adult passages sets them apart from the childhood sequences, but in addition echoes the tradition of reporting on a baseball game in the simple present tense. It also evokes the speech of everyday testimony or jokes. The standardization of “I say” to “I says” (the third person is more frequent than the first) is typical of the latter and sets the tone for the locker-room confidences we readers are meant to capture. The same is true for the “ain’t” that is as commonplace to lower middle-class white parlance as black. Baseball players are not noted for their university degrees in English, as few professional recruits from the college hopefuls ever finish their bachelor’s. The present for the adult sequences sets off the past tense (save for the dialogue) of the childhood scenes that format the paradigm. Though the adult Craig fears inheriting crazy genes in the present, the experience of his younger years belongs definitely in the past, is certainly formative, but not necessarily definitive. Sane or insane, a successful human bird or a suicidal maniac, the resolution of Craig’s story is left to the imagination of the reader.

7Admittedly, there is a bit of literary déjà-vu in this image of the hero as flying African with a gun-toting assassin on his heels: how not to recall Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which ends on precisely the same note. Like Morrison, Everett leaves the hero in the air, graced with the power, if the reader’s faith is great enough, to survive the experience of unassisted flight instead of crashing like Icarus to the ground. Here is a renewal of the myth of the flying Africans. Yet there is a crucial difference with Morrison’s novel and the legend. Instead of escaping to Africa, Craig leaps from a west coast mountain top, and his plunge into the unknown is a kind of reunion with the cosmos. Unlike Song of Solomon, there is no hocus-pocus magic in Suder. Nonetheless, here too, a song foreshadows the moment of self-realization: the purely instrumental “Ornithology” needs no words to serve as a clear parallel with

O Sugarman done fly away
Sugarman done gone
Sugarman cut across the sky
Sugarman gone home.... (Morrison 6)

8the song sung in the opening paragraphs of Morrison’s classic, whose riddle is only solved at the novel’s conclusion. Moreover, the doctor-father refuses any possibility that scientific white medicine can cure his wife of her madness. It is not black magic, but ingenious lay psychology that triumphs. In the end, it is the husband’s personal dedication and sacrifice that enable the wife to accomplish her goal and perhaps realize that she has not lost her man to an imaginary rival. Mother Kathy’s ultimate epiphany is a miracle of spousal and family love and devotion. Technically, it is a “home run,” the object to be attained in any baseball game, as she literally circles the town and jogs back home. Craig is not so fortunate with his own household. Perhaps indeed Charlie Bird Parker is his true spiritual father, and his “family” the “pet” elephant, released from an evil master and reborn “free” with a French name, Renoir, plus Jincey, a dangerously compromising white girl child. Even as a sense of foreboding lurks behind the association with Jincey, Everett undercuts the racist stereotype of the sex-craved black man eager to defile white womanhood as propagated by the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists. Rather, it is his paternal instinct as a good father figure that is manifested, a deed worthy of the neighborliness exhibited by the Good Samaritan. Once again, Everett undercuts the popular belief that black men are not apt candidates for parenthood; Craig might have left his own child at the beginning of his journey —a child who rejects him— but he recoups his paternal capital with Jincey. Note that she is an accomplice to his flying project and in no way seems to be an abandoned child at the moment of his flight, as we shall see below.

9The necessary catalyst to the tale is the jazz pianist, Bud Powell, who, as noted above, first notices a physical resemblance between the child protagonist Craig and saxophone virtuoso Charlie “Bird” Parker. It is he who plants the fascination with the Parker song, “Ornithology.” From there, the clues to Craig’s true nature as the heir to “Bird” multiply. The boy tenderly collects the dead sparrows his older brother shoots with his BB gun and vainly tries to grant them a kind of immortality. Adult, he plays the song “Ornithology” on the record player and on the saxophone he buys. Prior to his flying Leonardo-like exploit, he collects road kills to amass real feathers for the wings he constructs to fly, “that one step beyond” off Willett Rock. “One step beyond,” which, if we believe Bud Powell, is the true definition of jazz and the equivalent of travelling to France, the mystic land of freedom for post World War I African-Americans. If France is a mega symbol of the dream to be free, there is also a micro symbol: Powell first helps the boys adopt a stray dog, then symbolically unties it to let it roam unfettered, possibly condemning it to be shot by a neighbor, all in the name of freedom. Powell who knows all the jazz greats, but seems to suffer from a spate of artistic blockage, serves as a spiritual guide along the path, a Mentor figure.

10Other characters in Suder are equally functional to the novel, either advancing the plot or assisting the protagonist in realizing his destiny. Lou Tyler, the team manager and amateur taxidermist who stuffs dead animals for eternity, provides Craig the “time out” he needs as well as a hideaway. Sid, the “black” Indian, furnishes not only temporary shelter, but an important clue about the role of non-whites in major-league baseball and in American society as a whole: there is only room for so many talented dark men; the rest must uphold the myth of white supremacy. Again it is Sid who mouths the underlying philosophy of the need for fuzzy logic to fill out any given logical system: he paraphrases Gödel when he remarks, “You need a dash of illogicalness to make your life complete.” (86) Sid’s drive as psychopathic killer pursuing his prey adds the necessary element of danger to the adventure and pushes the story forward. His drug money enables Craig Suder to secure lodging, procure his enigmatic elephant, and escape to survival in the wilderness, the forest primeval. Albeit with certain feature comforts from civilization, as he sustains his strength on bacon and eggs, not wild roots and berries. Sid provides the motivation for embarking on the adventure trail, serves as a Death figure, and allows the “Bird” to make his flight by distracting the pursuing sheriff and enamoured Ugly Martha, who incongruously accuses the impotent hero of rape. Similarly, the nine-year-old white girl, Jincey, enhances Craig’s claim to hero status by enabling him to save her from an abusive mother; in addition, she helps him in preparing his flight and shocks him out of his Victorian sense of modesty. Her unconditional, unselfish, all-accepting love for him enables her to accompany and assist him in performing his culminating act of flight. She is the healing balm on the wound caused by the rejection of wife Thelma and son Peter, incapable of such understanding and empathy. Actually, no character in the novel seems gratuitous, even brother Martin’s paramour, Naomi Watkins, of questionable virtue despite her tender years: she plays a major role in raising Craig’s fear of loss of innocence. In addition, her light-skinned father has become rich by recycling the coffins he sells, duping his customers into paying permanently for services only temporarily received. Father and daughter jolt the young protagonist’s conscience with their “dirty” games. Naomi is off-bounds. Out of bounds. Determining who is friend and who is foe is one step on the way towards maturation and self-fulfillment.

11Aside from the nostalgia of that adolescent period of grace between innocence and its loss, of the baseball games and players idolized by a nation’s youth, of the heroic quest underpinning the films we watched from the Western to Star Wars, the attraction of Suder is its iconoclastic humor. The image of mother Kathy, in her incongruous sweat suit of an overcoat and high top sneakers, running off her extra pounds to win anew her husband’s heart tweaks the heartstrings even as it brings a smile to the lips. Like the film Amarcord, recognition of the first encounters with the sexual dimension makes us laugh at ourselves. Popular culture’s animated cartoons and slapstick comedies transferred to print create mirth, uninhibited by political correctness or do-gooder sensitivities. Nothing is sacred: one can cringe at Craig’s discomfort in helping collect road kills for his taxidermy-crazy baseball coach; one can flout women’s lib in the motivated kiss on the lips of Ugly Martha; one can abstract cruelty to animals in the home-run blow on the perfectly pitched testicles of the elephant for sake of the bet won. Suder is parody, pastiche, intertextuality, mythic quest and post-postmodernism —all of them rolled into one. As a first novel, it is an intellectual game with the reader that perhaps speaks more to an American reading public than to an international one, an American readership who participates vicariously in the cultural patterns and revels in the concatenation among the multiple facets thereof. One might say the novel accomplishes baseball’s ideal “triple play” by touching base with the mainstream, the counter culture, and the literary all in one go.

Bibliographie

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon.

Ellison, Ralph. 1952. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage.

Everett, Percival. 1983. Suder. New York: Viking.

Morrison, Toni. 1977. Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf.

Notes

1 The latter fiction (New York, Akashik Books, 2004) was written by two hands, the other writer/accomplice being James Kincaid, one of Percival Everett’s colleagues in the English Department at the University of Southern California.

2 One thinks of Walk Me to the Distance (1985), Frenzy (1997), or Cutting Lisa (1986), but also of the more recent Grand Canyon, Inc that has been already mentioned.

Auteur

MCF d’anglais, teaches English for Special Purposes at the Faculté de Droit de l’Université de Nice: legal, economic and political English and English for business. Nonetheless, her primary research is in the literary domain. Besides Percival Everett, she has published studies on John Edgar Wideman, Toni Morisson, James Baldwin and Law and Literature in English and work on travel literature by French and English writers.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540