Realism, Intertextuality, and Picaresque Novels Oh My

In reading I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett, I took notice of the obvious intertextuality between the book and Sidney Poitier movies. For those who don’t know, intertextuality is defined as, “The web of interrelationships among texts of various times and contexts, including indebtedness to earlier plots, common metaphors, idioms, and other literary figures, and other influences,” by Celena Kusch’s Literary Analysis the basics. Basically, this is how texts relate to each other. Some believe that text refers solely to written works, but according to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, “Other critics include nonwritten material, such as images or music, in the designation text, as long as that material has been isolated for analysis.” This would include the Sidney Poitier movies, such as The Defiant Ones and Lilies of the Field. The whole novel is a string of references similar to these. This leads me to my biggest pet peeve of this novel.

My biggest pet peeve about this book is that the author strung together movies and put a slight twist on them. This frustrates me for many reasons one of which is that we, as writers, get penalized for plagiarism, yet Everett does just that throughout this book. In class we watched the Sidney Poitier movie The Defiant Ones, where two criminals escape jail after a car crash causing them to run from the law. This same thing happens in Everetts book only differing slightly in character names, details, and outcomes. These seem like major differences but the details are so small and a character name change is insignificant for the most part. The only major change I would say is made is that Not Sidney gets away instead of getting caught with his escapee. One could assume these changes were made to make the book more realistic. In class, Professor McCoy told us that she picked up on this in The Defiant Ones most when the officer goes out alone and then puts his gun away, which would not have happened at the time due to the intense racism in the south. This scene was cut altogether and was replaced by the escape scene, was seen as more realistic. I find this ironic because many other aspects of the novel unrealistic. 

After the escape, Not Sidney goes back to his everyday life in Atlanta. It is like nothing ever happened, which to me seems unrealistic. How can one go from on the run to living life in a mansion only slightly embarrassed that you failed to set out on your own. In real life, after escaping jail, you don’t just show up back home and pretend like it never happened. Also, I was interested to see how he would get out of jail after he got back. Would he just pay them off or would he sue for being wrongfully arrested. These are things that you would think would realistically happen after escaping jail, but alas, life goes back to how it was and he decides to go to college instead. I understand that Everett was trying to make I Am Not Sidney Poitier a picaresque novel, but in turn made it extremely unrealistic. 

For those of you who don’t know, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray defines a picaresque novel as “a novel that realistically recounts the adventures of a carefree but engaging rascal who always manages to escape by the skin of his or her teeth.” This novel fits relatively well into this definition. Not Sidney tells the story in a carefree way, but still kept me engaged throughout the novel. Although I wouldn’t call all of his reactions in the novel realistic, for the most part, he appeared to be a normal boy who dealt with peculiar circumstances. My personal opinion is that Not Sidney let a lot of things happen to him, and did little to change his fate, which to me is an unrealistic reaction. For example, when his girlfriend’s sister performed oral sex he simply sat back and let it happen. Yes, he did seem to enjoy it, but he didn’t want to cheat. Not Sidney was even uncomfortable at first, but still, just let her perform oral sex. Again showing how unrealistic the novel really is.

 As I said before, Everett tried to use intertextuality to put a realistic twist on Sidney Poitier movies. In his attempts, however, he only made them more unrealistic to me. From the way The Defiant Ones transitions to the way Sidney reacts to certain things, like his girlfriend’s sister, I would most definitely not call this a realistic novel. I would, however, call it a picaresque novel.

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