If you had been anywhere near me in the summer of 2005 I would have worn your ears off talking about this book. I had an enthusiasm bordering on the obsessive and I would have tugged at your shirtsleeve until you picked the book up and bought it for yourself.
Lee Cotton, in his own words “gets himself born in November 18, 1950” in Eureka, Mississippi at the same time as his mother’s neighbour, Jimmy Cooder’s Charolais bull finds itself dangling from a tree. This event causes a media storm “because bulls never show no natural enthusiasm or aptitude for tree-climbing”. And from the off you are aware that you are in the hands of a fascinating narrator.
Lee is a white child born to a black mother and in his early life learns to deal with the problems this presents. His Icelandic father, from whom Lee has inherited his “straw-blonde hair, buttermilk skin and blue eyes” doesn’t hang around to offer explanation to the local populace for this misplaced child. Instead, Lee has to work out how he should observe the customs of the day. Should he sit in the back of the bus with the blacks? What if someone comes on who doesn’t know he’s “a black soul in a white wrapper”, should he then sit in front?
Lee's troubles continue when he's a teenager and falls for the wrong, local (white) girl, Angelina, who is unfortunately the daughter of one of the most violent racists in town. Once Pop discovers his daughter is seeing a black boy (even if he is a white black boy) he organises a violent assault on the kid, leaving him for dead and far from home -- which allows Lee to start over with a new identity. All-white this time.
Lee is drafted, but gets to avoid Vietnam because the beating left him with some special (psychic) abilities that the Army is willing to explore. He gets posted in the middle of nowhere, with a load of other mind-freaks. He doesn't mean to escape from the army, but accidents do happen – on this occasion involving a high-speed car crash and a dangerously placed whisky bottle. He’s rescued by a doped up plastic surgeon and forced to adopt another guise...as a woman.
If all of this appears to be far-fetched it most assuredly is, but such is the writer’s skill that you allow the measured, thinking part of your brain some respite and just hitch along for the ride. And what a ride it is.
Wilson has littered this novel with ideas and surprises that are touching, dramatic and hilarious in turn. He takes great risks as he does so but in his winning narrator, the bold Lee himself, he has created a device that allows him to pull off everything he attempts. Lee Cotton is flighty, quirky, naive and fun and he and his actions are described in an energetic, inventive prose that never lets up for the duration of the “ballad”.
This is a rambunctious, romp of a tale told in faultless American idiom (from an Englishman) that never takes itself too seriously but one which offers much in the way of insight and entertainment.
Quite simply, get yourself a copy, turn off your weird-o-meter and dive in.