Books

book review

Weaving tales of a married artist’s infidelities, secrets, and painting he keeps hidden

Three stories, scattered across time, fuse into one stunning tale in Percival Everett’s latest novel. Each individual strand of “So Much Blue” has a page-turning urgency of its own — but taken together they add up to a masterpiece.

The book’s narrator is 56-year-old abstract artist Kevin Pace, who acknowledges he’s “a little odd to many, a lot odd to some.” He is married with two teenage children and has a best friend, Richard, who’s stuck with him through the years. Richard knows him better than most.

But no one is privy to Kevin’s latest secret: a huge painting he keeps under lock and key in his studio. “Ho hum,” you might think. How much juice can there be in a story about a “somewhat introverted” painter who doesn’t want to show his work to anyone?

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As it turns out, plenty.

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Once Kevin gets the basics out of the way (“I loved and love my wife, was not bored with her, was not unhappy with my life, with my children, or with my work”), he starts pondering two destructive episodes from his past: an affair he had with a young Frenchwoman in Paris 10 years earlier and a crazy 1979 jaunt he and Richard made to El Salvador to track down Richard’s missing brother.

The El Salvador chapters have the crackling volatility of “The Year of Living Dangerously” (film or novel, take your pick). The country is verging on civil war when they get there, and the help they get from a shady American who calls himself “the Bummer” leads to serious jeopardy.

The Paris portions present their own brand of peril. Twenty-two-year-old watercolorist Victoire seems confident she wants to take a plunge with a 40-something married African-American painter. (Race figures slyly but not centrally in the novel.) Even Victoire’s sophisticated mother isn’t averse to the idea of her daughter’s affair, though they’re both careful to keep Victoire’s father in the dark about it. The whole business couldn’t be more French.

In the present-day sections, Kevin’s 16-year-old daughter triggers a family crisis by trusting her father with a secret that she won’t share with her mother. By keeping that secret, Kevin is either being supportive as a parent, or inept. He’s not quite sure which.

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The pleasures of the novel stem in part from the way Kevin second guesses his own actions every step of the way. They also derive from his dry wit.

“I am not old by current standards,” he notes. “Sixty is the new forty. Seventy is the new fifty. Dead is the new eighty. That is to say that if I died today everyone would comment on my youth and yet if I broke my leg trying to leap the back fence everyone would call me an old fool.”

He can be cranky: “I do not trust traffic. I do not trust the weather. I do not trust lines of communication, fiber optics and microwaves notwithstanding.” He’s also a strange combination of priggish and reckless when it comes to his adulterous Parisian affair. “I felt bad,” he admits. “I also felt good and none of what I quite properly had to feel guilty about was to me in any way unseemly.”

Thanks to Everett’s wizardry, Kevin is an expert describer of things. The Cadillac he and Richard rent in San Salvador is “a finned beast that screamed in American English when Richard cranked the engine.” The lake where their El Salvador adventure takes a lethal turn is “large, maybe beautiful, desolate. If it is possible for a lake full of water to appear dry, then this one did.”

The book is steeped with violent encounters and violations of trust. What unifies it is Kevin’s painterly eye, which comes into play at the most unexpected moments. When things get tense with soldiers in a Salvadoran cantina, for instance, Kevin’s mind darts in odd directions.

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“I was both drawn to and repulsed by the olive drab color of their presence and of a sudden I was aware that the only bright color in the place was the remaining neon letters of the beer sign. I couldn’t help but enter into an analysis of the color, how to make it, it helped me relax.”

As its narrative threads combine, “So Much Blue” becomes a taut meditation on the costs of keeping vital or traumatic experiences to yourself. In the process, the book serves up a brilliant portrait of a contradiction-filled character whose artwork is both his retreat and his attempt to reach out.

SO MUCH BLUE

By Percival Everett

Graywolf, 242 pp., $16

Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.