In Eureka, Mississippi, the people are hardy, tough, used to heat, dust and drought, where "needles fare better than leaves". His "genes knitted from rainbow yarns", the light-skinned, mixed-race Leifur Nils Kristjansson Saint Marie du Cotton is born in 1950, Lee Cotton for short. Recessive genes render this southern child a confusing mix, "with buttermilk skin, azure blue eyes and straw-blonde hair". If his color, or lack of, doesn't get him into sufficient trouble, the voices he hears finish confuse him even more. Like his maternal grandmother, Lee is conversant with the spirits, living and dead, their cacophony joined with others in the all-black classroom he attends, making it all but impossible to attend to his lessons. Even in his youth, Lee intuits that his life will never be easy, part black, part white, and nowhere at home.
The future holds some hard knocks for Lee, as he is drawn to dangerous places, his skin color purchasing easy but dangerous passage. The spirit voices encourage his innocent curiosity, but the world is unforgiving, opportunistic and wasteful. Falling in love with the beautiful daughter of a rabid racist, Lee comes close to meeting his Maker, later to pass for white and gain employment in St. Louis, later still to assume yet another identity in San Francisco. Lee's road takes him far beyond the borders of normalcy, even to Nevada as a member of a secret psy-ops team, damaged but determined. This gender-bending tale of one man's changing identity would be grotesque if not for Wilson's humorous and brutally honest prose. From civil rights to Vietnam to feminism, Lee spins from one drama to another, that light-skinned, blonde-haired boy far from home when he pays a final visit home, adding another twist to an already addled past.
This is the South with all its pettiness and prejudices, brutality hiding behind a friendly smile, a man's hand as ready to stab as to shake, general meanness as common as a charm to ward off evil spirits. But these are Lee's people, the good, the bad and the ugly. Born into a world that does not easily accommodate him, Lee confronts every situation with a willingness to survive. Life is not a box of chocolates, nor is his existence simple, but this character has an unquenchable spirit, gripping a gris-gris in his fist as he marches into obstacles that would throw a lesser spirit. Adventure, romp, expose and debacle, the author's imagination conjures up a transcendental man with angelic pretensions, straddling the best and the worst of humanity. On the surface, this skin-color-sexual-orientation-morphing protagonist is patently absurd, but the story is written with such open-mindedness and good humor that it is hard to ignore the very real issues of racism, sexism and life from an ever-changing perspective. Luan Gaines/ 2005.