Lee Cotton, a light-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired mixed-race child fully named Leifur Nils Kristjansson Saint Marie du Cotton, is born in Eureka, Mississippi, in 1950, his “genes knitted from rainbow yarns.” In Eureka, people are hardy, tough, used to heat, dust and drought and “needles fare better than leaves.”
If Lee’s color, or lack thereof, doesn’t get him into enough trouble, the voices he hears confuse him even more, blocking a natural tendency to common sense. Gifted in a similar manner as his maternal grandmother, Lee is conversant with spirits living and dead, their cacophony joined with others in the all-black classroom where he attends school. Even in his youth, Lee intuits that his life will never be easy: part black, part white, and nowhere at home.
If the spirits could speak to Lee about the future, he might be saved some hard times, drawn as he is to dark places, his skin color purchasing easy but dangerous passage. His innocence and natural curiosity are not a problem in childhood, but as he grows older, Lee learns that the world is unforgiving, opportunistic and wasteful. Lee comes close to meeting his Maker when he falls in love with the daughter of a racist and is beaten to within an inch of his life. Later, he passes for white to gain employment in St. Louis, later still to assume another identity entirely in San Francisco.
Far off the beaten track of normalcy, Lee’s road takes him to Nevada as a member of a secret psy-ops team, damaged but determined to survive this world that seems to offer no sane place for him. If not for Wilson’s humor and brutally honest prose, this gender-bending tale of Lee’s ever-changing identity would be bizarre, spinning from one drama to another, from civil rights to Vietnam to feminism, until that light-skinned, blonde-haired boy pays a final visit home, adding another twist to an already addled past.
Life is not a box of chocolates for this character, but Lee has an unquenchable spirit, gripping a gris-gris in his fist as he marches into obstacles that would throw a lesser man into despair. The author’s imagination conjures up a rowdy adventure, a romp through the life of a transcendental man with angelic pretensions, straddling the best and the worst of humanity. To be sure, this skin-color-sexual-orientation-morphing protagonist is patently absurd on the surface, but Cotton is written with such open-hearted good humor that it is impossible to ignore the very real issues of racism, sexism and an ever-changing perspective.
These are Lee’s people, the good, the bad and the ugly, the South with all its pettiness and prejudices, brutality hiding behind a friendly smile, a man’s hand as ready to stab as to shake, general meanness as common as a voodoo charm to ward off evil spirits. Born into a world that does not easily accommodate him, Lee confronts every situation with a willingness to survive, and he does so with extraordinary panache.