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Culture

What’s Black and White and Jewish All Over?

White Observer: Jess Row’s novel is an attempt by a Jewish man to fathom African American culture. Image by Courtesy of Jess Row

● Your Face in Mine
By Jess Row
Riverhead Books, 384 pages, $27.95

On a warm Sunday in February, an unidentified black man approaches Kelly Thorndike as he walks through a parking lot in Baltimore on his way to shop for groceries at the local Asian market. When Kelly sees this man, he feels a nervous apprehension, tempered by a jarring sense that he knows this man from somewhere. They confront each other. The man introduces himself. Martin. Martin Wilkerson. Who used to be named Martin Lipkin. Kelly’s childhood friend. His white, Jewish, childhood friend.

So begins Jess Row’s novel “Your Face in Mine.”

What follows consists of what’s sometimes called an issue drama — in this case, a sincere, comprehensive examination of the racial divide in these United States — filtered through a high-concept conceit involving what Row calls “Racial Reassignment Surgery,” an experimental procedure by which people can have their skin pigmentation changed and their bodies altered, allowing them to be reinvented as alternate versions of themselves. They can change their names and dream up new biographies for themselves, and if need be they can get new passports. Then they’re let loose into the world as the people they truly feel themselves to be.

In Martin’s case, that person is an upwardly mobile black businessman from Baltimore. Early in the novel, he enlists Kelly, an NPR producer who has tragically lost his wife and child, to write his life story. The two of them share a complicated past, charged with unresolved tensions relating to the suicide of their friend and high school bandmate Alan.

Much of the novel consists of Kelly researching and recording Martin’s life story as he mourns his family and plays a cat and mouse game with Martin over their struggles with survivor’s guilt in the years since Alan’s death. It’s a careful specimen of the contemporary mode of quality literary fiction.

The story unfolds via tidy short chapters, each a finely polished nugget of prose, each moving the story forward one tick. Its elegant, nuanced sentences are porous and discursive enough to allow characters a breadth of experience, but controlled enough to ensure that the plot and the scene (because scene is a religion in books of this sort) can march relentlessly forward. The concept is just high enough to ensure that the reader is always conscious of the ways in which the book acts as an analogue — almost but not quite an allegory — to a pressing, extra-literary, societal topic. Yet it is not so high as to force the writer to abandon the realist texture of the prose.

One feels in good hands, capable hands, while reading “Your Face in Mine.” Row is a careful and diligent writer. And the task he’s set for himself requires a great deal of sensitivity. As he puts it while explaining Kelly’s conundrum in writing Martin’s story, “The white observer, the interlocutor, is in a kind of an impossible bind, right? If I’m cynical and worldly I get called out for making assumptions and appropriating a black perspective. If I’m innocent and careful I get called out for false naiveté. Not much wiggle room, is there?”

Attempting to have it both ways, he’s created a kind of a double filter for his story. We watch Kelly learn about black culture through his research and conversations with Martin (who has himself appropriated black culture), his friends, and his family. The narrative proper retains the genteel tone of careful naiveté while Row shows his depth of understanding through the voice, of Martin, who seems to have uncannily experienced every aspect of contemporary African American life.

Thus, the white reader (and this book seems pitched specifically at white readers) gets a crash course in the lives of black people. We hear about the mores of the black upper-middle class; the history of rap; the politics of faith; the role Baptist and Pentecostal churches play in black culture; the history of racial migration in Baltimore; and how public policy, white flight, the public school system, and the grind of urban poverty have made life untenable for so many people in this community. We hear about the drug trade and how black people must act when a cop is nearby. We learn the difference in significance between listening to hip-hop and listening to reggae.

In some ways the book is an exercise in empathy — an attempt by a Jewish man to fathom African American culture on its own terms.

But for all its careful research, “Your Face in Mine” is not solely a book about race. It says as much about the evolving ways our culture engages gender as it does about the black experience. The idea that every person has a hidden true race that may or may not fit with the body in which it’s lodged is an extension of the conversation taking place right now in academic and LGBT circles about the politics of identity, how mutable it is, and the ethical questions that rise out of one’s attempts to mold one’s own identity.

And though Row weaves these themes into his plot and allows his characters to discuss them intelligently, the stakes for the characters never quite seem urgent enough to convince the reader of their importance. From start to finish, “Your Face in Mine” remains inoffensive, polite, good intentioned and intelligent, like the NPR station for which Kelly works. This is fine, laudable even, but given the gunpowder in the book’s themes, one wishes for the wilderness, the riot, the fire.

Joshua Furst is a contributing editor of the Forward.

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