Of the many tactical shocks packed tight within Philip Roth's 2000-novel The Human Stain, by far the most explosive is the revelation that its lead character, Coleman Silk, is an African-American, who, for 50 years, has been passing as white and Jewish. Roth takes his time bringing this secret to light, and in the end magnifies the surprise for the reader and the irony of the situation by dropping his bombshell after Silk has been accused of racism.
In his bravura debut novel, Your Face in Mine [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], Jess Row starts out exploring similar territory but then branches off to mine radical new ground. Like Roth, there are many compressed surprises. Unlike Roth, the racial revelation is not withheld for later but delivered with full impact on the second page. Kelly Thorndike is walking down a street in Baltimore when he is buttonholed by an African-American man. Kelly's confusion gives rise to incredulity: the man is Martin, a school friend he hasn't seen for 20 years – and who used to be white and Jewish. Roth's Silk is invisibly black and masquerading as white; Row's once-white Martin has voluntarily undergone "racial reassignment surgery" and become black.
The controversial opener and premise still shooting sparks, Kelly takes us into the past, first covering his years abroad in rural China and then his resettlement in America with his Chinese wife and young daughter – both of whom were killed in a car crash a year and a half ago. Still feeling like “a squeezed-out rag, a rotten iceberg”, Kelly takes a further knock when he loses his job in public radio. Martin’s reappearance is a form of salvation. He recruits Kelly to tell his story, one that is ostensibly about the success of a black entrepreneur but is in actual fact about his “journey” or transition.
Naturally, Kelly has nagging doubts, which grow into serious misgivings. “You’re going to be accused of some kind of bioethical genocide,” he tells Martin. “Trying to destroy race as a category.” Martin has his defence at the ready. Those that seek gender reassignment complain of feeling born in the wrong sex. Why not born in the wrong race? When Kelly meets Martin’s African-American wife and children, none of whom is in on his secret, different reservations take hold: Kelly’s story, when published, will not only ignite heated debate, it will wreck a marriage and sunder a family.
Kelly nevertheless signs up as amanuensis, co-author, “a little bit of a mythmaker”. Row is too good a writer to resort to pages of telling, so instead there is a great deal of doing. Kelly sifts tapes and notes and even performs a background check on Martin to get behind the mask. Could being on the run from past crimes have led to Martin’s transformation? An exciting endgame in Bangkok takes us beyond the usual red lights and backpackers and across the threshold of a shady clinic, which offers the ultimate in cosmetic surgery. It is as we lose ourselves in Kelly’s investigations and as he surrenders himself to Martin’s scheme that Row fells us with a twist followed by an ingenious tying up of loose ends.
Your Face in Mine seethes with issues, plots and backstories. Its narrative unfolds upon constantly shifting sands: no sooner have we grasped what Row is up to than he changes direction and introduces fresh variants and ulterior motives. "I keep thinking I'm being played," Kelly complains to Martin, a suspicion the reader comes to harbour about both characters – "real-fake black man" Martin, with his catalogue of concealed truths, and unreliable Kelly, with his patchy confession concerning the death of his junkie-friend, Alan.
This strand of the novel, though deliberately sketchy, is simply too undeveloped and thus robs us of any emotional investment. Row is more successful in charting the gradual deterioration of Martin’s Aids-ravaged father and in conveying Kelly’s grief as he converses with his dead wife. By the same token, Kelly’s snapshots of China are richly exotic and evocative, and his line at the beginning about how no westerner has ever become a Chinese citizen takes on an alarming new meaning in the book’s closing pages – however, the excerpted content from his dissertation on two obscure Chinese poets contributes nothing and leads nowhere.
Row's muscular prose and fecund ideas are the guiding force throughout. Later sections get mired in theory (although the Marxist-black-identity correlation is an astute nod to that classic novel on race, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man) and Row's scattergun italics grate, but otherwise so much comes vigorously alive, from teenage bands to adult rebirths, from Kelly's insecurities to Martin's delusions. On the strength of this, Row is now one to watch, a writer with talent as audacious as his subject matter.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.