National Book Award–winner Ball (Slaves in the Family, 1998) returns with a silly, salacious story of sexual identity and interracial marriage.
A young Englishman living in Charleston, South Carolina, Gordon Hall in the late 1960s underwent sex-change surgery, became Dawn Hall, married a black man named John-Paul Simmons, then claimed she was pregnant and subsequently produced a baby named Natasha she said she’d delivered in 1971. Dawn Simmons published some celebrity biographies (Princess Margaret, Lady Bird Johnson) and a memoir; for a while she enjoyed a sordid sort of tabloid celebrity. She died, virtually unknown, in 2000. As Gordon Hall, he had ingratiated himself with Isabel Whitney and inherited from her a sizable sum (perhaps as much as a million dollars), then moved to Charleston to set himself up as an antiques dealer and subsequently to become the woman he said he always had been. Gradually the money vanished. For some unimaginable reason, author Ball decided this was a story worth his talents and so traveled all over America and England to interview people who knew Simmons and to stand at the sacred shrines of his/her nativity, childhood, youth, and so on. The author writes of this with enormous gravity, as if he were investigating the identity of Shakespeare or identifying pieces of the True Cross, but his only real questions are: What plumbing did Simmons have? (Male.) Where did the baby come from? (She bought it.) The writing is banal by every measure. Hall offers formulaic head-to-toe descriptions of every person he interviews, he tries to leave the reader hanging at the end of each chapter, and he fashions sentences that seem lifted from bad YA mysteries (“I had a hunch the place might hold some clues”).
Were it not for the risqué subject matter and the absence of a blue roadster, this piffle might well be a Nancy Drew called The Mystery of the Curious Plumbing. (45 b&w photos)