Jess Row’s ‘Your Face in Mine’ explores race in a fascinating context

Jess Row’s provocative new novel arrives at a time when the talk we once heard about a post-racial America has sputtered (google “Ferguson, Missouri” if you’re unsure why). Race is the impossible subject, the incendiary issue that conquers and divides. And yet in his first novel Row drives into this inflammatory subject head-on with thought-provoking bravado and the sort of guts that make you fall in love with the versatility and power of fiction all over again.

Your Face in Mine opens without preamble, with an audacious idea that verges on science fiction and makes you giddy with the possibilities. Kelly Thorndike, a Baltimore native back in his hometown after a tragedy, runs into a man on the street whom he can’t quite place. The man, who is black, greets him. “Kelly,” he says. “It’s Martin.”

Martin Lipkin (Wilkinson now because “You know many brothers named Martin Lipkin?”) was a high school friend. White like Kelly, but not anymore. He’s the recipient of voluntary racial-reassignment surgery. “It’s just a couple of operations. And some skin treatments. In the right hands, no big thing at all,” he says.

But of course, willingly, eagerly changing your race — and hoping to monetize the process internationally by publicizing your deeply personal act — is not only a big thing; it’s the biggest thing, a potent cultural hand grenade.

What happens to the world when altering our race becomes possible? Martin compares it to gender surgery, calling himself a modern-day Christine Jorgensen. He wants Kelly, adrift after the death of his wife and daughter, to write about this transformation in some respected publication or in a book, to announce the possibility to the world and line up clients for Martin and his doctor. But as Kelly delves deeper into Martin’s past, a troubling secret agenda emerges.

Like Helen Oyeyemi, whose terrific novel Boy, Snow, Bird addressed the perils of “passing” in a unique and fascinating way earlier this year, Row uses this set-up to intelligently explore questions of identity, and he doesn’t turn away from the awkwardness or unpleasantness the subject of race can ignite.

What if the patients all want to be white? Kelly wonders aloud. (The answer: “Go ahead. Imagine it. What happens in a culture where everyone has exactly the same basic coloring, the same basic feature set? Spray-on tans.”) Other questions arise. Did Martin always feel black, like he says, or is he exaggerating? And what will Martin’s African American wife, who doesn’t know her husband used to be white, say when the truth is revealed?

Row, who’s also the author of two short-story collections, fumbles a bit when Kelly finally unburdens himself of his own secret, which eventually turns out to be relevant to the story but is maybe less necessary than the author imagines. But the depiction of cultural dissonance is incisive, from Kelly’s ability to anger his Chinese wife by making a party game out of reciting ancient proverbs (“You’re supposed to meditate on these things, not broadcast them like songs on the radio! . . . You think you’re becoming Chinese, and you’re not. You’re becoming a parrot.”) to the way in which a biracial high school friend scorns his youthful obsession with hip-hop.

“I get De La Soul. Everybody loves De La Soul. But this is just like looking at Hustler. It’s gross. And it’s grosser still because it’s you. Nobody meant this for you. Or if they did, it’s just a classic retread minstrel show. Look at the bad black man! . . . You’re not black, don’t you get it? And listening to this s--- doesn’t change that. It just makes you a parasite.” When Kelly protests that she’s not being fair, she replies, “You don’t get to decide what’s fair. . . . You get to not have rights for a change. Shut up and go away and leave black people alone, for once.”

Eventually, CDs by Pavement and Liz Phair replaced Kelly’s bootleg tapes of N.W.A. and Public Enemy, but conversations about race still make him squirm. He’s not the only one who struggles. “I am the epitome of a black upwardly mobile female blah blah blah,” says Robin, Martin’s wife, to whom Kelly is drawn. “But as it turns out I can’t hold a conversation with a white person for more than five minutes on the subject of race. Maybe those two things go together.”

Row also delivers a subtle dissection of the casual arrogance of white privilege. After he meets Martin, Kelly regards himself in the mirror: “An ordinary face, I guess you could say, relatively dark-featured, with a close trimmed beard and thick eyebrows, the gift of my Portuguese great-grandparents. An unremarkable, unhandsome, inoffensive face. A white face. I should add that now. It would never have made the list before. There are so many parts of myself that I can change, that I have changed, but who spends much time assessing the givens?”

The givens, though, are shifting. As one of Martin’s colleagues tells Kelly: “The future of whiteness is colors.” She may be right. Either way, as we head toward a multihued future, Row has provided us with stimulating fuel for the ride.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.