To be white and write about race is to fail at writing about race. That is the best you can do. This should embolden contemporary white authors to just go for it and attempt a statement on one of the most pressing and knotty issues of our time because they’ve got nothing to lose really (American writers are overwhelmingly white and male, as are their critics; they’ll survive any critiques lobbed their way). Instead, most avoid the topic altogether and hand the duties over to the anointed authors of color such as Junot Diaz, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Zadie Smith.
Here’s how heroic curmudgeon Stanley Crouch diagnosed the unspoken agreement amongst literary types when it comes to race-parsing fiction in his 2004 essay, “Segregated Fiction Blues”: “If I don’t write about you, you won’t write about me. I’ll stick with my favorite subject—myself—and I suggest you do the same.” White writers suffer from “cowardice,” Crouch adds, “because contemporary American writers are hardly lacking in experience or information about other people.”
Jess Row was handed the rules of engagement for a clever, white, literary author like all the rest; he just doesn’t give a shit. He is not a coward like most of his peers and for that he should be applauded. His debut novel “Your Face In Mine” (Riverhead Books) is one part brilliant black science fiction and one part tedious urban-suburban bildungsroman, and all hammy ambition. It tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a white guy, in his 30s, well-educated (he’s sitting on a thesis about some obscure Chinese poets) who lost his wife, Wendy, and daughter, Meimei, in a car accident, and lives in Baltimore alone in a daze, running a crappy low-rent NPR station. He carries with him plenty of grief: for his dead wife and child, for his estranged group of high school friends, and for China, where he lived with Wendy, where they met and spent a significant amount of their time.
On his way to an Asian grocery store one day, Kelly spots somebody who looks like an old friend walking through the Mondawmin Mall parking lot (credit to Row for constructing a Baltimore that reflects the contingencies of the city and doesn’t just flip through a Fodor’s, watch “The Wire,” and plug in locations and neighborhoods). But that can’t be his old friend Martin Lipkin because this man is black and Lipkin is white. Strangely, Martin strikes first, greeting Kelly and revealing, suspiciously early in their conversation, that he has gone through “racial reassignment surgery,” in which his physical appearance has been radically and successfully shifted into that of an African-American male.
He is now Martin Wilkinson, married to Robin Wilkinson, a black woman, church-going, fairly militant, working at a Hopkins hospital. They have two kids, adopted twins. Robin doesn’t know about her husband’s white background. Martin, something of a fast-talking salesman type, quickly convinces Kelly to document his racial reassignment, and be “the Alex Haley to [his] Malcolm X.” Lipkin/Wilkinson’s story, once it gets out to the public, will change everything, he asserts. Also, it will make them a lot of money. Kelly agrees because he’s intrigued but also because the radio station he manages just got sold and his days there are numbered.
This novel is about too many things, and so, it is, in part, a comment on the end of normal conventional employment with job security for damn near everybody. Kelly happens to luck into a particularly lucrative desperate hustle. He becomes a part of Martin’s life, interviewing and observing Martin as they travel together. Kelly at a crab feast with the Wilkinsons in Druid Hill Park. Kelly in Bangkok where the surgery took place and continues taking place and where Wilkinson seems to be some kind of super-wealthy mover and shaker, like somebody out of one of those Joseph Nazel “Iceman” street fiction novels from the ’70s.
Row crams everything he can into this book: The novel’s first sentence is self-conscious like David Foster Wallace, impeccably well-constructed like a Henry James mind-blower that runs almost 100 words. Martin’s biography is revealed through raw transcriptions of his interviews with Kelly. Later on, instant messages and emails between characters push the plot forward in such a way that you’re witnessing a knowing novel that realizes buzzing prose alone can’t get the very daunting wrestling-with-race job done. We also learn about Kelly and Martin’s high-school friendship (back when Martin was a bass-playing Jewish dork who loved Jaco Pastorius) and through that, the indie rock band they had, their dead buddy and bandmate Alex, a heroin addict, and plenty of ruminations on growing up in the ’90s, none of which is necessary or even all that interesting, but oh so “relatable.”
What to do with a sex scene between Kelly and a high-school flame, whose “alert nipples demanded to be tongued” or the scene where Kelly’s jerking off and thinking of Martin’s wife’s ass makes him come “explosively”? Either this is circling-the-drain, typically closed circuit, contemporary fiction or a meta-exercise in obsequious whiteness, in writing bad, even offensive, sex scenes from a clueless white male perspective on purpose—which would make the whole thing a postmodern puzzle. Yes, some of Row’s tangents are well-observed (particularly an aside about how parents seem to pretty much formally give up parenting in the weeks before their children go to college) or just plain smart (a discussion of Obama as a tragically self-aware leader of the free world, “responsible for everything, in control over almost nothing”), but they all detract from the much-more-fascinating plot.
And so, a smart novel ends up as a “smart” novel. It’s as if Row runs away from his clever idea any chance he gets in an attempt to make some larger, more “literary” statement, unaware that his conceit and the plot machinations are the literary statement. There’s a brilliant 200-page piece of breezy, speculative racial fiction here, an heir to rummy race statements like Mark Twain’s “Puddn’head Wilson,” George Schuyler’s “Black No More,” Melvin Van Peebles’ “Watermelon Man,” and Sam Fuller’s “White Dog.” Unfortunately, it’s locked inside an indulgent book twice as long and filled with, well, stuff white people like to read about.