This is my first time reading Percival Everett. It feels important to note this because he is an author with some 29 books behind him; novels, poetry, and short story collections. Perhaps he’s the most well-known least-known American author, though it’s hard to tell. The fact that’s he’s largely published by the American independent press Graywolf means that his books aren’t widely distributed here in Malaysia; but after reading So Much Blue I have to wonder why so many lesser American authors, published by bigger corporate presses, are.
In So Much Blue we have a muted, sober rendering of what seems to be a cliché: that of the financially well-off bourgeois artist coming to terms with his life in his 50s. It’s not an easy novel to talk about or even recommend; what sounds terribly pedestrian in the description is, of course, something else entirely in Everett’s hands. The book’s narrator is Kevin Pace, now a respected abstract painter who lives a “very arty and New Englandy” life. When we meet him, he’s extremely wary of the success he has and the very notion of it. “Personally, I no longer care about being a genius,” Kevin tells us.
The epigraph to the novel is a quote by Diane Arbus: “A picture is a secret about a secret.” We learn that Kevin has a secret painting in the shed that he’s never let anyone see, not his wife, not his kids, not his best friend Richard. Kevin has heard that “there is much talk or chatter, prattling, in the so-called art world (which is more doubtful, art or world?) about my secret painting, that painting, this painting.” It might be the case that because of his fame, “some parties” have already started bidding on his secret painting without giving a fig about what it is. There’s less concern about the art and more concern about the value of his name in the market. “From what I have heard, my family might be taken care of for a couple of generations after my death. There is really nothing comforting in this knowledge.”
There’s so much to learn about Kevin from this; not least that financial security is a privilege he takes for granted, but that he’s also alienated from the “art world” due to the lack of consideration given to, well, art. Kevin’s voice is the whole book and it’s an intensely reserved and philosophical one. It’s careful and analytical, self-aware and self-deprecating. It took me awhile to warm up to him and that’s how Everett sets it up; the book requires something of the reader and how much you’re willing to go along with Kevin without having him confess in a reliably progressive way like the way they show it happen on television therapy sessions. The novel itself consists of three timelines braided together: one set in the current moment, another set ten years prioin Paris that concerns the affair he had with a much younger aspiring French artist, Victoire; and another going back to El Salvador in 1979 when he goes with Richard to help Richard find his drug-using “fuck up” of a younger brother, Tad. There are also references to Kevin’s slow slide towards alcoholism during those intervening years.
Central to the novel is, of course, the use of secrets. What happened in El Salvador is a secret that he’s kept from his wife, Linda, but something that he reveals to Victoire. Why he had an affair and the resulting guilt about his lack of guilt forces him to confront a secret about his marriage. Everett writes in an evocative, heartbreaking way precisely because of the skill in which he deploys his terse, laconic sentences to convey insight or emotional truth. In Paris, for example, right before Victoire happens, Kevin tells us: “It turns out that one becomes a cliché from inattention. I was not observant, was not taking in my surrounds fully.” The “so far, so white” tale of his bourgeois and successful artist life is slowly brought into question when Kevin notices Victoire properly for the first time: “I was sitting next to a young woman with perhaps the whitest skin I had ever seen […] Yet she did not look like the porcelain doll one hears so much about. Was she zinc white? Titanium? I decided she was flake white, with all its lead danger.”
This reminder of Kevin’s blackness is a subtle force pulsing beneath the narrative. The trip to El Salvador puts him and Richard at the mercy of a former American soldier turned mercenary called Bummer who boasts about the number of locals he killed in Vietnam and wields the n-word like a weapon in Kevin’s presence. Kevin rarely talks about his feelings about being a black man with primarily white friends, moving through a white world, but at some point during this hellish trip to El Salvador he has a dream:
“It was still dark when I awoke from a rather uncomfortable, fitful sleep made worse by a dream that had me dressed like a Vietnamese farmer, conical straw hat and all, hiding in a rice paddy in the pitch of darkness waiting for American soldiers to pass by. As a Vietnamese man I knew that one of the soldiers was the one they called Bummer. The fear was a real feeling, intense, discordant, even if the dream was uneventful, even boring”.
Part of this fear has to do with the unknown factors of what they’ve walked into in El Salvador, and also a hint of the role the US played in that country’s so-called “civil war”. (Is it civil if the US is involved?) But the dream also hauntingly captures that the American dream is often a nightmare for certain members of its own population, and for many societies in the global South. Without polemics or pedantry, Everett lays bare the racial fear that permeates Kevin’s life.
Again, this is a novel about secrets, and Kevin cagily admits to some crucial ones by the end of the book. Kevin’s attempt at cordoning off parts of himself from his wife is an attempt at maintaining autonomy in a marriage, but Everett is determined to show that it also has corrosive effects on a partnership. At one point, his daughter April confesses a secret to him, and what Kevin does with that information, or doesn’t do, is also central to the kind of person he is and it doesn’t reflect well on him. In an introspective, private person like Kevin, the respect of privacy can itself become harmful, a way of not only blocking people from getting closer but also to lead to a dangerous form of inertia with regards to our responsibility to others. Some of the most devastating secrets might be the ones that we don’t admit to ourselves. Kevin’s painting ironically works as a catalyst; the more he throws himself into his art, the more his secrets start bleeding out of the canvas, forcing him to confront memories and people, and even embark on a return trip to El Salvador. “No ghost is born overnight,” Kevin says, and So Much Blue probes the effects on a psyche after multiple hauntings.
This is a controlled, tense novel and Everett never loses his grip on the multiple narratives and never lets the novel slide into what Kevin fears most: the commonplace banality. It’s a testament to Everett’s writing that a familiar story of a middle-aged father and husband coming to terms with himself and his brokenness feels electric with emotional truth. Kevin’s relationship to painting is also refreshingly free of grandiose self-regard; why Kevin paints is never explained in cringe-inducing detail, but simply is a facet of who is and how he sees and relates to the world. So Much Blue is ultimately tender and hopeful in its conclusion; not in the sense of typical bourgeois redemption in home and hearth, but more with coming to terms with the fact that art, or even antisocial behaviour like excessive drinking, are some of the means by which people try to reach out to each other.