I’ll be writing a few reviews over the next week, to share thoughts about and excerpts from some of the great books I’ve been reading recently.
I confess that I’m new to Percival Everett’s work. Some of my good friends are great fans of his, and he was at Bread Loaf this year and gave a great reading, and well, I just decided it was about time I read something of his. Since I write a lot about race issues myself, I decided on ERASURE which on its front cover (paperback version) has the following quote from the New York Times Book Review:
“With equal measures of sympathy and satire, Erasure craftily addresses the highly charged issue of being ‘black enough’ in America.”
“Craftily” is a good word to use because Everett gives us a book within a book to illustrate his (and his character’s) point. The protagonist, a novelist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, is having trouble getting his most recent work published when he comes across the work of an “authentic” black novelist whose book “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” is a runaway bestseller. Horrified by the stereotypes and the dialect in it, he sets out (angrily) to write a book just as horrible and titles it “My Pafology” (later changing the name to something that the publisher suggests he spells ‘Phuck’ so as not to alienate more sensitive readers–he refuses). Of course, he submits it to his agent and the book gets attention, raves and an obscenely large advance.
The problem is, Monk didn’t submit it as himself. He submitted it under the pen name of Stagg R. Leigh, and endowed his doppelganger with a rap sheet and prison time in his past. Of course, everyone wants to meet the infamous Stagg, further complicating Monk’s plan and forcing him into an even greater charade. Ever more humorous complications arise and the book is finally nominated for a prestigious award for which Monk is made a member of the jury. To recuse, or not to recuse??
That delightful romp aside, the book is also about relationships and love and filial duty…and about the damage a father inflicts when he dubs one child “the golden child” and emotionally excludes the others. (Damage, by the way, that is done not only to the siblings, but also to the golden child.)
Outside of his publishing woes, Monk loses a sister who is a successful OBGyn for underpriveleged women (at the hands of a radical right-to-lifer who guns her down), a brother who has come out of the closet and can’t reconcile his relationship with Monk, and a half-white, racist half-sister he didn’t even know he had until he found an old stack of his father’s letters.
Monk is also slowly losing his mother to Altzheimer’s disease, played out in tragic / comic scenes that were utterly devastating to read. Here’s an excerpt from a scene on the day he decides to finally put her in a home:
I watched as she poured the water into the pot and dropped in the ball that I had already filled with tea. She put the cups and saucers on the table and set the pot between us.
“Isn’t this nice?” she said.
“My favorite time is always waiting for the tea to steep.” She looked past me to the screened porch. “Where is Lorraine?”
“Lorraine was married last night.”
“Oh, yes.” She seemed to catch herself. Then she appeared very sad.
“Will you miss her?” I asked.
She looked at me as if she’d missed the question.
“You were just thinking about Lorraine, weren’t you?” I asked.
“Of course. I hope she will be very happy.” Mother poured the tea.
“I’d like you to pack a bag this morning,” I said.
“Why?” She held the cup in her hands, warming them.
“I have to take you someplace. It’s kind of a hospital.”
“I feel fine.”
“I know, Mother. But I want to make sure. I want to be certain that you’re all right.”
“I’m perfectly fine.”
“Your father can give me a pill or something.” She sipped her tea, then stared at it.
“Father’s dead, Mother.”
“Yes, I know. There was a cardinal outside my window this morning. A female. She was very beautiful. The female cardinal’s color is so sweetly understated.”
Mother looked at my eyes. “I must have spilled something in bed last night.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Shall I pack a small bag?”
I nodded. “A small bag will be fine.”