When literary fiction dares examine the issue of race at all, it is usually done in an exceedingly tone-deaf way (think William Styron’s Confessions Of Nat Turner or Kathryn Stockett’s The Help) or from a somewhat safe remove (think Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue). It always seems as if the story is accompanied by a blaring announcement that it’s time for this (white) protagonist to learn something. Sometimes the pedantic drum-banging can get so excessive it drowns out everything else, including the inclination to tell a good story. If nothing else, the debut novel from Jess Row, Your Face In Mine, is a refreshing plunge into the deep end of the race conversation.
Kelly Thorndike is a white widower and failed academic drifting through a career in public radio because he neglected to finish his dissertation (on two 11th-century Chinese poets) and became disillusioned with his chosen topic of study. Following a tragic car accident that claimed the lives of his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Thorndike has moved back to his hometown of Baltimore and been placed in charge of a radio station that is clearly in some trouble, perhaps even already on its last legs. One night, he’s stopped in a parking lot by a black man and is immediately stricken by a feeling that his knows this (seeming) stranger. After a brief conversation it becomes clear that this man is Martin, Kelly’s close friend and bandmate from high school. There’s just one catch: Martin was white.
Pretty soon, Kelly and Martin are meeting for lunch and discussing Racial Identity Dysphoria Syndrome (RIDS) and racial reassignment surgery (RRS). Eight years post-surgery, Martin has become a successful business man in Baltimore—precisely how this came about is not really discussed, but it involves gray-market electronics somehow—with an unsuspecting wife, family, church, and business community. Yet he’s decided that it’s time he came out of the closet on this issue, surmising if introduced to the public the right way, RIDS could be come a fully recognized disorder (complete with a DSM classification) and “Martin Wilkinson” could become a trailblazing media mogul. Kelly agrees to come onboard as his official biographer; the first step in this plan is a memoir. Martin’s pitch: “You’ll be the Alex Haley to my Malcolm X.”
The two develop a flimsy cover story that Kelly is at work on a New Yorker profile about black entrepreneurs. Anyone with so much as passing interest in these circumstances could discover that is complete bullshit: Thorndike has nothing in the form of writing credentials or experience. How would he land a New Yorker gig with a hook as vague as that? It doesn’t take Martin’s psychiatrist wife, Robin, very long to put those pieces together—but given how thin the cover story is, it practically invites skepticism. Robin’s character becomes influential throughout the book, but it’s interesting that Row gives her an observation that could easily apply to his own novel. In what seems to be a well-crafted inoculation against possible criticism of the book, Robin mentions that the very idea of a white writer exploring race can be a trap: He will either be accused of being misguidedly presumptuous or hopelessly naive. She’s not inaccurate in this assessment, but it’s telling that she puts so fine a point on it.
Yet Kelly wades deeper and deeper into this “assignment,” even after the most trusting of people could guess that things aren’t quite right. Martin’s claim to the condition, if such a condition even exists, seems dubious. As he repeatedly attempts to align RRS with sexual reassignment surgery, claiming to have simply been “born the wrong race,” revelations about the past come about, and the circumstances of the third bandmate’s death must be faced. But these revelations don’t extend to the present. A lot of explaining the past happens but it’s all so hazy, Martin’s true motivations seem to remain hidden—from both Kelly and the reader.
The truth about RRS seems to be somewhere in the middle of two extremes. RRS isn’t correcting a genetic error, and it’s not surgical blackface. If anything, it’s simply full immersion therapy, an issue Row seems to skirt here. These are white men who’ve experienced a traumatic shift in what they thought was their identity, so they up and created new ones.
For two-thirds of the book, Row crafts a compelling, thoroughly researched if sprawling story; he’s done a good job of covering all bases and all that’s left is to bring this in for a landing. But then in the third act, it all falls apart. Row abandons the tale he seemed to be telling—one examining responsibility, loss, identity, and these two men’s complicated past with each other and with Baltimore—and it becomes a bit of a scientific thriller. Suddenly there’s a Japanese man transitioning into a Rastafarian and a Korean woman who has fetishized whiteness to the degree that her criteria can be boiled down to “Kate Moss, Mariel Hemingway, Gwyneth Paltrow.”
The world Row builds is peopled with a notable number of women characters considering this is undoubtedly the story of two men. There’s Kelly’s dead wife, Martin’s confused wife, Kelly’s former high-school flame/current one-night stand, another RRS patient who appears late in the novel—but the women are purely plot points, always ancillary at best, a method to get these men from point A to point B, yet who cease to exist as soon as the characters’ names stop appearing on the pages. Your Face In Mine is an incredibly smart book, but not really a narratively satisfying one. At the close of the final page, it was clear if Row had perhaps spent less time explaining race and more time explaining these characters, it could have been both.