By Jennifer Reese
Updated October 19, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

The son of an Icelandic sailor and black mother in 1950s Mississippi, Lee Cotton is born ”with buttermilk skin, azure eyes, and straw-blond hair.” In Cotton ‘s winning early chapters, Wilson uses Cotton’s racial ambiguity to explore identity in America: Schoolmates call him ”honky” and his teenage girlfriend mistakes him for white. But local Klansmen see a ”nigra” and drive him out of town. Which is where Cotton goes off the rails. After barely tapping the narrative possibilities of the white-black kid, Wilson rigs a freak accident that turns Cotton into a woman. Alas, the transformations don’t stop here, and what began as an earthy adventure with a sweet protagonist devolves into an arbitrarily wacky picaresque narrated by a freak.

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