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Friday, April 9, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Random jokes, mild perversions work in 'History'

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance


Percival Everett and James Kincaid will read from "A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid (A Novel)," 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
When I was in high school and college, I loved the National Lampoon magazine. It deftly segued from existentialist parodies to masturbation jokes, and usually included gratuitous pictures of breasts. It was difficult to explain the magazine to nonreaders, especially if they were adults. You just had to read it to get it.

I find Percival Everett and James Kincaid's work of fiction, "A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid (A Novel)" (Akashic Books, $15.95), even more difficult to explain.

Everett is the author of 15 works of fiction, and I had never heard of any of them before now. He is what one of his characters calls a "coterie writer," one with a "loyal, if small, following." He lived in South Carolina, Sen. Strom Thurmond's home state, from age 5 to 16. In 1989, he was addressing the South Carolina Legislature when he decided to stop in the middle of the speech because of the presence of the Confederate flag. The flag controversy raged on for years.

James Kincaid is a professor at the University of Southern California, where Everett also teaches, and is the author of seven books of literary theory and cultural studies. His books include "Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer" and "Child Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Literature," which might explain the otherwise mystifying references to Lewis Carroll in "A History of African-American People." As for the book itself, well, it's an epistolary novel, and that's as close as I can come to categorizing this pastiche of random jokes, thoughts, digressions and mild perversions.

Barton Wilkes, a psychotic aide to Thurmond, contacts Simon & Schuster about publishing the book of the title. "As the history of the African American People has been, to a great extent, coextensive with the Senator's own, he will be able to draw on his own life experience (and not just in politics) for much of the material." Wilkes claims to be as close to the senator as anyone has ever been, but refuses to elaborate on the senator's ideas for this history. "Pinning him to a plan would be like stapling an eagle to a memo pad."

An editor at Simon & Schuster, apparently as whacked in the head as Wilkes, decides to buy the book, despite no outline, no assurances, and no contact with the senator. Everett and Kincaid are hired to ghostwrite. Everett gets the gig because he is "experienced, virtually unknown, and black," while Kincaid is brought on because "he'll come cheap."

Eventually Everett and Kincaid bypass the lunatic Wilkes and meet the senator for lunch.

"So," Everett says, "this whole project is an attempt to set the record straight, a forum for you to say that the South isn't as bad as it's cracked up to be... "

"Maybe," the senator says, "maybe not. I'm an old man. I just want things to be fair to the South."

"To rewrite history."

"That sounds awfully fancy."

Everett and Kincaid's opus begins with the senator narrating, "My daddy filled his life and mine with stories, stories that often had a point. It wasn't always very clear what that point was. I meant to say that it wasn't clear to me what the point was; but come to think of it, I don't think the point was very clear to Daddy either. Maybe it was clear to him and not to me, but possibly it was the other way around, often as not."

You get the idea, as Everett and Kincaid say to their editor, who doesn't.

Like the National Lampoon writers of old, Everett and Kincaid seem mostly focused on nonsense and sex jokes and anti-authority whines, but they are smart when they want to be and, most important, they are funny. You just have to read it to get it.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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