Has it really been nearly 55 years since John Howard Griffin, a white journalist from Dallas, darkened his skin to pass as a black man, then chronicled his largely unpleasant experiences traveling through the Deep South in “Black Like Me,” a book that would rock more than a few people’s worlds upon publication in 1961?
One wishes that Griffin, who died in 1980, could be around to weigh in on Jess Row’s debut novel, “Your Face in Mine,” in which a white man also elects to assume an African-American guise. This is a tale of passing for the age of Obama and medical tourism in which the black male would appear to have skyrocketed from the pariah of Griffin’s pre-civil-rights moment to “the perfect vehicle, the vessel for every American desire.”
Where Griffin enlisted sunlamps and anti-vitiligo drugs to effect a temporary makeover, Row’s character, Martin Wilkinson (formerly Lipkin), signs on for an elaborate (not to say expensive) experimental procedure called “racial reassignment surgery.” And where Griffin was spurred by a crusading reporter’s agenda, Martin invokes the language of the transgender community to articulate his motives — he was “born into a physical identity of the wrong race.”
Martin’s full rationale, as one soon discovers, is a bit more nuanced (read: mercenary) than he initially admits, a wrinkle that adds a welcome blue note to a speculative novel whose high-concept promise all but dissipates in the low-burning and lugubrious stretches of the novel’s protracted exposition.
Part of the problem is that Martin, as provocative and problematic an antihero as one is likely to encounter this year, must share the stage with the book’s narrator, Kelly Thorndike, a whiny, conscience-stricken navel-gazer with identity issues of his own. A former progressive-prep-school classmate of Martin’s with Ivy-school credentials and five languages under his belt, Kelly has returned to his Baltimore hometown at 37 to take a managing job with a troubled public radio affiliate and tend his grief in the wake of the accidental deaths of his Chinese-émigré wife and child.
It is under these circumstances that Kelly runs into Martin for the first time since high school. Now settled into a solid marriage with a black wife who doesn’t know of her husband’s Caucasian roots and bloated with a self-awareness of his own historical potential (“I’m the Christine Jorgensen of the twenty-first century”), Martin engages Kelly to document his story with an eye toward book deals and Diane Sawyer interviews. When an ever-skeptical Kelly questions his journalistic mission, Martin retorts, “Americans care about the backstory. They want to be spoon-fed. It has to be inspirational; it has to warm those little fat-clogged hearts.”
In Martin’s cynical perversion of the American Dream, self-reinvention takes a back seat to the commodification of self-reinvention, a notion that gains steam in the book’s Huxley-like final third, wherein Kelly follows Martin out to the Bangkok hub of racial-reassignment operations and encounters a brave new world of identity-transitioning pioneers: a Japanese man on the road to becoming Jamaican, a Korean woman aspiring to a “Nantucket look.”
These later chapters deliver some of the sci-fi-ish frisson and subversiveness suggested by the book’s premise. Like Martin, however, Row is a big believer in the primacy of back story, and the preceding two-thirds are a droning slog through the formative years of his two protagonists. Martin, maddeningly devoid of empathy or forgiveness, badmouths the self-involvement of his closeted, commune-hippie father, who died of AIDS, while Kelly foams over with grief, guilt over a drug-addicted school chum’s early demise, and disdain for the plastic liberal values of his Northeastern parents “and their sententious, balsamic-sprinkling, Chablis-swilling, late middle age, their faces puckered with concern over the prospect I would go off to China and become a mercenary investment banker.”
What is intended as a probing anatomy of men at odds with their birth identity inadvertently comes off like the male response to Lena Dunham’s spoiled, hyper-articulate brat pack, minus “Girls”’ saving charm and humor. Row has much of consequence to say about the ersatz tilt of 21st century culture, but the characters he has crafted to voice his concerns are so deadly smug, one wishes one could tap them on the shoulders and ask them to kindly get over themselves.Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.