Sure, it's been en vogue for the past twelve years to whine/boast about our dysfunctional family, and how they're so messed up we could just scream. Ha. Noelle Howey's got us beat. As the title of her new book, Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods -- My Mother's, My Father's and Mine, suggests, there's more to whine about here than a hot-to-trot stepmom or illegitimate brother. And thanks to Howey's clear, ingenuous writing style, the memoir lives up to its intriguing name.
fourteen years old when her mother dropped the bomb. Noelle's father, a distant, alcoholic, semi-absentee parent, liked to wear women's clothes. With typical teen indifference, Noelle decided she should reread the biography of Boy George. Not too long after, it became "Dad's going to live his life as a woman." And soon after, the sex-change operation took place.
Howey's witty, insightful prose ferries us along through the entire journey. The circumstances surrounding Dick (yes, that's his name, a true-life irony) Howey's childhood and his early female-identification as well as the unconventional home life of the future Dinah Howey, whose father was both communist and sexual revolutionary, are intercut between snippets of Noelle's early life. The book coalesces during Noelle's high school years, when Dick Howey morphed into Christine Howey and Noelle finally realized a relationship with her father.
There are many reasons to admire this book. Howey possesses a rare gift for words, for painting pictures in the reader's mind. Her word combinations are fresh and daring, whether she's describing the gardening books hidden under young Dick's bed ("botanical contraband") or introducing a trip to Disney World with her dad ("Hey, kid, your dad's just decided to become a woman! What are you going to do next?"). She keeps her perspective throughout the book. She steers compassionately clear of Jerry Springer freak-of-the-week territory, and yet does not paint an overly flattering picture of herself or her parents. Her unabashed honesty means exposing some skeletons, sure, but she does it with sensitivity and an appropriate dash of jaded sarcasm. The description of her parents' first trip to a cross-dressing club draws the right kind of guffaw -- you laugh at the absurdity, but revel in the realness.
It's not a perfect memoir. It jumps around between the three women too much at the beginning, not allowing the reader to learn enough about the narrator herself until much later. It's such an engrossing read, however, that any minor structural problems are soon forgotten. Actually, the biggest question upon finishing the book is, "How in the world did Noelle's parents feel comfortable revealing such personal things? And how did they react when they read them?"
If this book does anything, it humanizes the transsexual's experience. As Noelle Howey has emphasized in numerous interviews, this arena lacks a literary canon. While gay and lesbian books proliferate in comparison, transsexualism
remains on the outskirts of mainstream. Howey's book won't appeal to everyone; there will still be the Good Housekeeping columnists who see her family life as bizarre (as one of them wrote in a 1991 piece). Yes, it's unusual that Mr. Howey has a vagina, but one thing seems for sure: the Howey family became more "normal," more functional the minute Dick Howey uncloseted his black pumps. They're surely a lot more happy.