By Jabari Asim
"Suder," the first of Percival Everett's 10 novels, tells the remarkable story of a struggling third baseman for the Seattle Mariners. Mired in a slump that threatens to drag his team down with him, Craig Suder is equally hapless at home, suspicious of his wife and unable to connect with his son. Given some time off to regroup, he stumbles through a thwarted drug deal, develops an unusual attachment to a classic jazz recording, and acquires a pet elephant before finally attempting the fine art of flight. At times absurd, frequently funny and always bittersweet, Suder successfully subverts many of the bugaboos that can preoccupy observers of the American scene.
Everett, a Southerner who now lives in California, manages this subversion with sly matter-of-factness, in language and dialogue impressively devoid of the deadly earnestness that frequently burdens such explorations. Everett takes apart various stereotypical images of black men -- jock, musician, sexual threat -- while putting his hero through a series of comic misadventures, leavening his subtle social commentary with dry irony.
Intertwined is an examination of madness and its relationship to genius (when Suder was a boy, his family entertained jazz great Bud Powell as a houseguest), and an inventive variation on one of the most enduring myths of black literature: the idea of the flying African. Folklore abounds with tales of gifted slaves who slipped their shackles and soared back to Africa. Other writers have taken up this theme with impressive results, among them Virginia Hamilton ("The People Could Fly") and Toni Morrison ("Song of Solomon"). Like Morrison, Everett updates and transforms this myth to fashion a fable for modern times. Feeling confined by the expectations of others, Suder dreams of dropping out and taking off, slipping "the surly bonds of earth" and finding a home in friendlier realms.
I have read just two of Everett's novels, having discovered both long after they were first published. Despite his productivity, his work appears to have escaped the notice it merits. This ill-deserved obscurity could stem from many factors, the most likely of which is the difficulty in classifying him. He is not easily confined to categories. For instance, although Suder is about a black character, rarely does his race influence the outcome of his adventures. The lack of heavy-handedness and the absence of an overt sociological approach distinguishes Everett from many authors with whom he might otherwise be compared. Also, his pursuit of philosophical questions and mythological themes -- "Frenzy," the other Everett novel with which I'm familiar, describes a clash between the king of Thebes and the god Dionysus -- may be offputting to those in search of more accessible fare. Whatever the reason, Suder, in managing to address enduring and fascinating issues while using accessible language, is perhaps an ideal place to get to know Percival Everett.
Among the things I found particularly interesting in this novel:
• the way that Suder's preoccupation with transcendence manifests itself in various images associated with flight: dead sparrows collected in a box; his adoption of Charlie Parker's nickname ("Bird"), and his obsession with "Ornithology," a Parker composition;
• the fact that Suder's attitude toward race, especially because he often goes to places where he's the only black man for miles, seems unusually lighthearted. Although his color is noted frequently by others, he doesn't regard it as a hindrance or as the primary reason for his troubles;
• how Everett often employs humor in unexpected intervals, such as in Lou Tyler's (Suder's coach's) quest for the perfect roadkill, and in Suder's attempt to sit in with Dizzy Gillespie's band.
I'll be discussing Suder online with you at www.washingtonpost.com on Mon., Nov. 29 at 2 p.m. Please send all written comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or by regular mail to The Forum, Book World, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
Jabari Asim is a senior editor of Book World.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company