Kevin Pace is a painter. His canvas, which he works on in secret, is full of blue, a hue he’s usually avoided, but now, for some reason, he can’t let it go. He’s also can’t let go of secrets from his past, secrets that include an affair from 10 years earlier and an ill-fated trip to El Salvador years before that.
Author Percival Everett deftly juggles the three timelines, two from the past and one from the present. In the present day, Kevin lives a quiet, domestic life as a husband and father. He’s distant from his kids and his wife, but his daughter trusts him enough to share her own secret, and he’s emotionally stunted enough not to know what to do about it. Secrets are what he’s about, and so it’s natural to keep them, even when keeping them is obviously wrong. Will telling his wife about the affair in Paris, one he believes she suspected anyway, clear the air between them? Or is his troubled state really about the things he did and saw in El Salvador, just as war was breaking out?
This is a well-crafted book that I enjoyed reading, but I’m having trouble nailing down just what the book is attempting to do. I think Everett is interested in the cost of keeping secrets and maybe how stories and art are meant to be shared. When Everett keeps his past and his art to himself, he’s also keeping himself to himself. He’s not open to others; therefore, he’s not open to love. The one time he comes close to experiencing it is fleeting and only happens, I think, because Victoire, the young woman he falls in love with, is herself so open with her feelings and he’s so sure it’s not going to go anywhere. Still, that affair’s significance pales in comparison to the El Salvador trip of 1979 and Kevin’s present-day self-immersion. It’s easy to chalk his marriage troubles up to the affair in Paris, but El Salvador is really what haunts him.
The thing that I admired about this book is how disciplined it is. The prose is clear and precise, with just the right amount of detail. It doesn’t show off. I was also glad to read a novel about a black man that is not specifically about race. His race enters into the story once in a while, because of course it has to, but it’s not a novel about the black experience. (Nothing wrong with those novels, by the way, it’s just that black authors have so many stories to tell that aren’t focused on discrimination or slavery.)
I was startled to discover that Percival Everett has written almost 30 books, yet I’d never heard of him before this book turned up on the TOB list. If you’ve read his books, I’d love to know which ones you recommend. The writing in this one was so good that I’d like to read more.