A white guy has himself turned black through a total physical makeover in this disjointed first novel about racial identity, which follows Row's two story collections (Nobody Ever Gets Lost, 2011, etc.).
Two men, out of touch since they graduated from high school 20 years earlier, have a chance reunion on a Baltimore street. It’s Martin Wilkinson who stops Kelly Thorndike, because while Kelly doesn't look that different, Martin is now unrecognizable. He tells Kelly he's had “racial reassignment surgery” and is eager to go public about it. Kelly, who's the narrator, is hollowed out by the loss of his wife (who was Chinese) and daughter in a car accident; he's recently lost his job at a public radio station and agrees to help Martin tell his story. He visits Martin’s home and meets his wife, Robin. She's African-American, a high-powered child psychologist at Johns Hopkins; the couple has two adopted children, but Robin doesn’t know her husband’s secret. Martin is less forthcoming about his black-market electronics business. So, why did he do it? The answer is elusive. The son of a gay, nonobservant Jew, he spent his 20s distributing pot on the college circuit. His momentous decision came after a weed and peyote blowout, making it seem an elaborate lark. That Martin is one slick operator becomes even clearer in the concluding section in Bangkok, where he had his surgery. He introduces Kelly to Silpa, his Thai surgeon, and talks about expanding the racial reconstruction business, projecting brands and franchises, patents and payoffs. This is full-blown speculative fiction, a drastic change from the previously realistic framework; then, just as disorienting, Kelly dislodges Martin with his own identity crisis.
For all its considerable pretension, Row’s debut novel offers few insights into the formation of racial consciousness.