A picaresque odyssey about a shape-shifter—a kind of goofy Orlando—who embodies the upheaval of three decades.
Leifur Nils Kristjansson St. Marie du Cotton is born in the mid-20th century to a black mother and a globe-trotting Icelander. This Nordic oddity is raised in a Delta dirt-farm setting that recalls Steve Martin’s The Jerk. He falls in love with Angelina, the daughter of a racist, and joins voting drives and civil-rights marches. From his New Orleans aristocratic grandmother, Celeste, he inherits the ability to read minds. The narrator is beguiling, and the contortionist linguistic feats performed by this southern-fried, neurologically challenged savant are riveting. Ambushed by his paramour’s father and the latter’s Klan cohorts, he is left for dead, his battered body dumped on a freight car and shipped north. Rescued by a St. Louis brain surgeon, he takes on a new identity, Lee McCoy, white man. After being drafted, he is assigned to a special unit called the Beige Berets, dedicated to psychological warfare through telepathy. A clairvoyant buddy, Ethan, slips him some sports results that will secure Lee’s financial future. But when a car accident damages his penis, he undergoes surgery and, courtesy of the defrocked but talented renegade Doc Gene, becomes a woman. From there, the only logical destination is San Francisco, where Lee is adopted by a teahouse coven of radical lesbian feminists who reject her when they learn she’s a porn starlet. Then it’s love and domesticity with a mousy journalist covering the Patty Hearst brouhaha. At some point the narrator’s skin darkens naturally as a result of estrogen treatment, and there is a final reckoning with mentors and tormentors alike.
A bit of Touched By an Angel sanctimony near the end scarcely dampens the antic entertainment offered here.