Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Book Review: "So Much Blue" by Percival Everett

While I'm not one of those people who believes every painting needs to have meaning, on more than one occasion I've looked at an abstract piece and wondered just what the artist was striving for. Sometimes a painting strikes me initially as simply a jumble of colors or shapes or objects, but after looking at it a few times, suddenly everything clicks into place and makes sense.

That's how I felt about So Much Blue by Percival Everett. I'd seen some tremendously positive reviews of the book, and it has been included on more than a few year-end best lists. Initially, I wondered how (and if) the seemingly disparate pieces of the narrative would come together and what it all meant, but when they did, I was utterly wowed by the book as a whole.

Kevin Pace is a somewhat-misanthropic painter of some renown. His success certainly has made his family's life more comfortable, but he doesn't seem fazed either way. He is currently working on a major piece—a canvas of twelve feet by twenty-one feet (and three inches) that is covered entirely in shades of blue. He won't show it to anyone, not his wife, his children, or his best friend, Richard. This painting might be a masterpiece or it might garner no response, and he doesn't really care.

"To say that a painting is like a story is a pedestrian utterance, not altogether untrue, but uninspired, though that hardly stops people from making such invidious and unwarranted comparisons. The painting that was my life was static, hardly a story at all, moving but with no moving parts, changing but without alteration."

Kevin's life is characterized by secrets. Ten years ago, while he was in Paris working with a gallery owner selling his work, Kevin had an affair with a young watercolor painter. He wasn't looking for an affair and didn't allow himself any delusions it would continue or shake up his life, but the relationship touched him more than he imagined. But he never told his wife about the affair, although she knows something occurred while he was in Paris.

In 1979, while they were in college, Kevin and Richard headed to El Salvador, as the country was on the cusp of war, to find Richard's brother Tad, who apparently disappeared down there. The two have no idea what they're getting themselves into, and engage the services of The Bummer, an American war criminal, to try and find Tad and bring him home. What they encounter, and the situation Kevin finds himself in, has never left Kevin's mind. It caused him to become an alcoholic for a number of years, and this, too, has always been a source of distance between him and his wife, since he's never shared what happened down there.

"The real sadness was that I drifted away from my wife and children because of alcohol, but instead of finding the current back to them when I ceased, I camped out on an uncharted island in the middle of myself."

When Kevin's teenage daughter asks him to keep a secret of her own, he finally realizes the cost of secrets, the cost of keeping those he cares about at arm's length for so long. He also thinks about the sacrifices he has made for his art, whether those sacrifices changed him in any way, and whether a painting should take such precedence in his life.

"The fact that it was secret served its secrets, my secrets, and suddenly I understood at least one rather simple and perhaps obvious forehead-flattening truth, that a secret can exist only if its revelation, discovery, even betrayal is possible."

It takes a little while for the separate story threads to weave themselves together into something cohesive, but when it does, this is a powerful meditation on the lengths we go to protect ourselves, even at the expense of those we love. Everett provides cogent commentary on the artist and the artistic process, and also shows how one secret can beget others.

Kevin is a difficult character to like at times, but once you understand the weight he has been carrying, his detachment makes far more sense. Everett tells a beautiful story, one with flashes of humor and sensitivity. I think I'll carry Kevin in my mind for a while now that I've finished this book.

Much like a painting or other work of art, So Much Blue may not hit everyone the same way, but for me, this was so worth the journey.

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