Monday, November 29, 1999, 2 p.m. EST
Welcome to the online meeting of The Washington Post Book Club, a monthly program presented by the editors and writers of Washington Post Book World.
Leading the discussion is Jabari Asim, a senior editor at Book World.
This month's selection is Percival Everett's "Suder," the story of a struggling third baseman for the Seattle Mariners.
An accomplished poet, playwright and fiction writer, Asim has published
work in a number of anthologies, including "In The Tradition: An Anthology
of Young Black Writers" and 'Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America."
"The Road To Freedom," his novel for young readers, will be published next year.
Following is the trancript from today's discussion.
Jabari Asim: Good afternoon and welcome to our discussion of "Suder" by Percival Everett. I chose this book because I appreciated the author's humorous treatment of what are often serious themes--alienation, depression, racism, etc. This humorous strain is often overlooked in African-American fiction, especially that written by men. Fiction created by black men is often viewed through a strictly sociological prism. Everett, it seems to me, successfully avoids that trap.
The book was both interesting and puzzling. While Mrs. Suder's earth-bound quest ultimately reconnected her to her family, her son's flight seemed to be a supreme act of detachment. Do you think his transcendence is in some sense selfish?
Jabari Asim: I do indeed. I remained disturbed particularly by his inability to connect with his son. Near the end, when Lou Tyler approaches Suder in the cabin and tells him that Peter loves him, Suder has to little to say in return, except that he loves Peter too. I wish Everett had addressed that relationship a little more.
Wouldn't the novel have been more powerful if the author had developed it so that there would be some resolution at the end of the story?
Jabari Asim: Perhaps. I tend to regard the novel as a fantasy. Everett implies that Suder masters the complications of flight, which has probably been everyone's fantasy at some point. Anything beyond that--any re-immersion in ground-level realities--would diminish the fantasy element somewhat.
I thought Suder was a very cleverly written
book, funny and zany. The whole point it
seemed to me was that Suder was on a voyage
of self-discovery. He needed a positive
image of himself to return to playing
baseball, so he embarked on this voyage
When he finally says his name at the end,
the reader knows he has arrived and his
crazy voyage, consisting of reconciling
his childhood with his crazy mother and
low-key father and the present with his
manager, the little girl, and the elephant,
has been a success. Am I right?
Jabari Asim: I think "zany" is a pretty apt description. I do think that having the hero pronounce his name at the end provides for a declaration of identity. I prefer to avoid imagining how Suder returned to his career, but I'm comforted by the idea that flight has somehow made him more complete than he was before.
What happened at the end of the book to Suder?
Jabari Asim: I think he survives. Before he says his own name he reflects that he is in charge, and as such has gained control of flight. The wind is now beneath his wings, so to speak.
St. Louis, MO:
Hey there, jabari, I hope all is well. Your reviews are excellent. I was wondering where I might be able to find your listing of books to be reviewed in the future? Thanks, Donna Shanks
Jabari Asim: Thanks for your kind words. I'll be reviewing a couple of children's books in our Dec. 12 issue. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine. I hope to find something that catches my attention as much as "Suder" did.
What was the significance of the elephant?
Jabari Asim: The elephant's role boggled me. I'd like to think that Suder felt a kinship with the elephant, that he saw this poor creature that was out of its element and decided to help it. The problem with that theory is that it fails to explain why Suder whacked the elephant with a baseball bat.
I thought Suder was a brilliant read. I loved the flashbacks of his childhood which were interspersed with his present. After only a few pages, I felt I knew him. The endinf puzzled me. For example, the abused white girl, the elephant, the professor. All left me wondering what was going on.
Jabari Asim: Both Jincy (the little girl) and Beckwith (the professor) seemed to instinctively understand Suder--or at the very least, feel an affinity for him. Actually several of the minor characters, like Jincy and Beckwith, tell Suder that they like him shortly after encountering him. The sheriff and the storekeeper, for instance, although I think Suder's ability to stay so long at the cabin without serious interference heightened the farcical aspect of the book. I don't think he would have lasted so long in real life.
If, according to my theory, racism is the proverbial "elephant in the middle of the room," then would you agree that batting the elephant in the testicles is symbolism for battling -notice the "l"- racism?
Jabari Asim: You raise an interesting point, but I'm still mystified because Suder brought the elephant into the room himself and then began to feed and nurture it at great personal risk.
Jabari Asim: We're having some technical difficulties, so I'll try to paraphrase a comment from "Morris" in St. Louis, who mentioned all the dead animals in the novel. I'd like to point that Suder had significant encounters with dead people too. He was forced to kiss his dead grandmother's face, and he ran into a corpse while spying on his brother at the funeral home. Morris asked why Suder identified with the dead dogs lying on Lou Tyler's lawn. Suder explains that no one expects anything from the dogs. I don't think it's death that Suder's attracted to but freedom, as illustrated by his talks with Bud Powell, who's leaving for France, where he believes he can be free.
I didn't expect to like this book. A novel about an athlete-not my thing at all. But I joined this book club to read things I wouldn't ordinarily read, to broaden my horizon a little. So I started and was swept away by this man and his adventures which kept getting larger than life. As a child he adopted a stray dog-as an adult he picked up an elephant! I kept seeing parallels between his childhood and his adult life. His mother literally running away, his wife running away on her exercise bicycle. His collection of dead birds, then becoming a bird. I thought the end was perfect. He flew away and felt like a man again. There was no need to bring him back to earth. Thanks for the recommendation.
Jabari Asim: Thank you. I too was struck by the parallelism, which Everett sets up so well. Just as his mom suspected his dad of having an affair with Lou Ann Narramore, he later suspects his wife of carrying on with a neighbor. The parallels seem endless.
Why the song Ornithology? It's a lovely
piece of music, but the significance?
Jabari Asim: Good question. I wonder if Everett chose this song because of its double-sided symbolism: Because "Ornithology" refers to the study of birds, which fascinate Suder early on, and because it's a standard of jazz, which Bud Powell describes as "one step beyond. . .a giant step," which Suder must take before achieving flight.
Why did "Bud" let the dog loose?
Jabari Asim: I think Bud let the dog loose to free it, even though it might be shot by the neighbor. He talks to Suder about the providing the dog with the freedom to take risks, which, on a smaller scale may have been Suder's motive for rescuing the elephant from its sideshow existence.
Jabari Asim: I was struck by a comment made by Sid Willis, the violent ex-ballplayer who stalks Suder for much of the novel. I wonder if it reflects Everett's own philosophical concerns: "You need a dash of illogicalness to make your life complete." That might explain many of the farcical elements of the novel.
I just want to add -- the device of parallel stories, one in present tense, one in past was a terrific way of leading the reader deeper into the story. Also, now that I think of it, it was a way of saying that things were much the same and only with drastic action can we all be free.
Jabari Asim: You may have something there. It could be that Suder, feeling that his life was in many respects repeating itself, realized that he had to take extreme action.
Unfortunately, we've run out of time. Thanks very much to all who participated, and thanks also for your continued support of the Washington Post Book Club. Please join my colleague K. Francis Tanabe on Dec. 27, when he'll discuss "Close Range: Wyoming Stories" by Annie Proulx.
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