By Christopher Wilson
Harcourt. 314 pp. $24
Cotton, a new novel by the British writer Christopher Wilson, delights in dialectics. Its eponymous main character resides in that poorly mapped territory between black and white, male and female, straight and gay, cultured and rustic. And because his highly unusual life takes place in America during the tumultuous third quarter of the 20th century -- a span of time that saw the Civil Rights Act, The Feminine Mystique and the Stonewall riots -- you can bet that the author has a few things to say about the messy manner in which America processes its conflicts.
Born white-skinned into a black family, the recessively gened fruit of his mixed-race mother's romance with an Icelandic seaman, Lee Cotton enters the world in a state of otherness. At first his condition threatens to upset the racial caste system of 1950s Mississippi, but as a white attorney cheerfully explains to his mother, "If you're only one-sixty-fourth part colored, Mississippi law will award you the other sixty-three parts for free. In fact, they insist upon it." Such is the first of many improvised and awkward fixes for the confounding problem that is Lee.
Black only on a technicality, he is still too black for the local Klan leader, who learns of his daughter's hayloft trysts with the teenage Lee and reacts with predictable barbarism. After being viciously attacked, Lee's limp body is deposited in a boxcar of a northbound train. He is resurrected in St. Louis, and during his long convalescence he begins reading: first Dr. Seuss, followed by young-adult classics like Little Women and Black Beauty, through Virginia Woolf and "all the way to Sammy Beckett and Mickey Spillane." Psychological tests indicate that he possesses not only above-average intelligence but also acute clairvoyant ability -- a trait that Lee finds more annoying than exhilarating. In short order he is shipped off to the Nevada desert to join the "First Mindborne," a secret army unit designed to marshal psychic forces against the enemy in Southeast Asia.
As he cuts his picaresque path through America in the 1960s and '70s, Lee's identity undergoes dramatic changes: from man to woman, from heterosexual to homosexual and from white back to the black of his maternal ancestors. How these changes come about is ultimately less important than how they equip him to report on what we now call "identity politics," that set of doctrines and theories pertaining to the liberation of historically persecuted groups. Lee, by the novel's end, can accurately claim to have been a poor African-American boy in the Jim Crow-era South, a lesbian forced by economic pressures into posing nude for photographs, and a biracial member of the transgendered community -- a marginalization trifecta. And while his life as a serial scapegoat has given him deep empathy with all of these oppressed groups, he's not above pointing out the occasional flaws in their group-think politics. ("For people who want to live without men, you squander a deal of time talking about them," he says to his radical lesbian friends.)
He's a member of another minority, too, but we don't learn which one until the last few pages. When we do, the effect is leaden and superfluous rather than uplifting; it's as if Wilson still isn't completely sure that we've accepted Lee as a loftier soul, and thus feels compelled to drive home his point with clunky literalism. That's a shame, but Cotton is strong enough to make up for its tacked-on, O. Henry-ish ending. And that strength derives from one source: the wise, winning voice of its main character. If that voice comes across at times as synthesized -- Huck Finn meets Myra Breckinridge? Candide meets Yossarian? -- then at least credit Christopher Wilson with having great taste in muses, and especially for knowing how to fuse them into a character who is, paradoxically, a complete original. *
Jeff Turrentine is a Washington Post staff writer and a regular reviewer for Book World.