One afternoon, not long after Kelly Thorndike has moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, an African American man he doesn't recognize calls out to him. To Kelly’s shock, the man identifies himself as Martin, who was one of Kelly’s closest friends in high school—and, before his disappearance nearly twenty years before, white and Jewish. Martin then tells an astonishing story: after years of immersing himself in black culture, he’s had a plastic surgeon perform “racial reassignment surgery”: altering his hair, skin, and physiognomy to allow him to pass as African American. Unknown to his family or childhood friends, Martin has been living a new life ever since.
Now, however, Martin feels he can no longer keep his identity a secret; he wants Kelly to help him ignite a controversy that will help sell racial reassignment surgery to the world. Inventive and thought-provoking, Your Face in Mine is a brilliant novel about cultural and racial alienation and the nature of belonging in a world where identity can be a stigma or a lucrative brand.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.16(w) x 7.93(h) x 0.89(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 by Jess Row
It doesn’t seem possible, even now, that it could begin the way it begins, in the blank light of a Sunday afternoon in February, crossing the park- ing lot at the Mondawmin Mall on the way to Lee’s Asian Grocery, my jacket in my hand, because it’s warm, the sudden, bleary, half-withheld breath of spring one gets in late winter in Baltimore, and a black man comes from the opposite direction, alone, my age or younger, still bun- dled in a black lambswool coat with the hood up, and as he draws nearer I feel an unmistakable shock of recognition. Even with the hood, that elected shade, that halo of shadow. I don’t know whether to call it a certain place above the bridge of the nose and between the eyes, or per- haps something about the shape of the nose itself, or the way he carries it. Or the exact way his lips meet. Or the mild inquisitive look in his eyes that changes as I come closer to something unreadable, something close to surprise. I am looking into the face of a black man, and I’ll be utterly honest, unsurprisingly honest: I don’t know so many black men well enough that I would feel such a strong pull, such a decisive cer- tainty. I know this guy, I’m thinking, yet I’m sure I’ve never seen this face before. Who goes around looking for ghost eyes, for pleading looks of remembrance, in the faces of strangers? Not me. He’s coming closer, and I’m running through all my past at a furious clip, riff ling frantically the index cards of my memory for a forgotten slight, a stray remark, a door slammed in a black man’s face, a braying car horn behind me on 83 South. He has his eyes trained on me with a faint smile, a smile that dips at the left corner, and says,
Kelly. I’ll bet you’re wondering why I know your name. I’m sorry, I say. Do I know you?
Kelly, he says, pursing his lips, it’s Martin.
We’re alone, in a field of cracked asphalt, dotted here and there with sprays of tenacious weeds, a mostly abandoned shopping plaza missing its anchor tenant. I would never have come here but for Lee’s being the closest Chinese grocery to my apartment, an emergency stop for days when I unexpectedly run out of tree-ear fungus or Shaoxing wine or shallots or tapioca starch. Yes, we’re in Baltimore; yes, I once lived here, grew up here; but because Baltimore is not just one feeble city but many, and Mondawmin is, to be as honest as I have to be, on the black side of town, in the course of my predictable life, I might as well be on the surface of the moon. As a child I imagined there were hidden places— the tangle of bushes dividing the north and south lanes of the freeway, the fenced-in, overgrown side yard on the far side of our elderly neigh- bor’s house—that held gaps, portholes, in the fabric of the world, and if I crawled into one of them I would become one of the disappeared chil- dren whose faces appeared on circulars and milk cartons and Girl Scout cookie boxes, whose cold bodies were orbiting earth as we spoke, and every so often bumped into the Space Shuttle and slid off, unbeknownst to the astronauts inside. How was I supposed to know that I would only have to cross town to find my own gap, my own way into the beyond?
I cross my arms protectively in front of my chest, and say, I know you are.
Martin, I say, I need an explanation.
We cross the parking lot together, Martin, the black man who used to be Martin, ducked slightly behind my right shoulder, f lickering in and out of my peripheral vision. Somehow I’m still possessed of enough of my faculties to remember to grab a shopping cart. The sliding door creaks on an unoiled runner, and we breathe in the comforting sting of Asian markets everywhere—dried scallops and mushrooms, wilting choi sum, f ish guts in a bucket behind the seafood counter. Mr. Lee looks up at me over yesterday’s Apple Daily—when did they start get- ting the Hong Kong papers?—and says, you’re too late, the cha siu bao are all sold out.
It’s okay, I say. I need to lose weight anyway.
Yeah, says his daughter, stacking napa cabbages on newspaper in a shopping cart. You’re too fat.
Lee gives her a dour Confucian look. Little number three, he says, that’s enough out of you. And then, turning to me: is the black man with you? He doesn’t speak Chinese, too, does he?
Martin has halted by the soy milk case, reading the labels intently. Yes, I say. Yes, he’s with me. And no, he doesn’t.
Tell him we don’t have candy bars or potato chips. They always ask. I give him a noncommittal nod.
My wife was Chinese, I say to Martin, making my way down aisle one, filling the cart with black tree fungus and Sichuan chilies and dried beans and tofu skin. I lived there for three years before I got my Ph.D. She taught me how to cook. My voice sounds bland, conversa- tional, informational: I’ve been stunned, that’s the only way to explain it, stunned back into a certain strained normality. He follows every- thing I’m saying with lidded eyes and pursed lips, nodding to himself, as if it’s exactly what I would have done, in his mind, as if he could have projected it all, with slight variations.
Hold on. Your wife was? You’re not together?
No, I say, no, she died. She and my daughter died. In a car accident. How long?
I look at my watch.
A year, I say, six months, three weeks, and two days.
Mr. Lee, who has never before seen me speaking English, is pre- tending not to watch us, stealing interested glances over a full-page pic- ture of Maggie Cheung.
I was in Shanghai and Hangzhou once, Martin says. Only brief ly, on business. Loved it. Loved the energy. Wish I could have stayed longer.
He reaches up and pulls the hood away from his forehead. His hair, a black man’s hair, of course, razored close to the scalp, with neat lines at the temples and the nape of the neck. The look of a man who’s close friends with his barber. I can’t help thinking of my own scraggling beard, and the last time I tried to crop it into a new shape, how it looked, as Meimei used to put it, half goat-eaten. Fullness of time, I can’t help thinking. The phrase just won’t leave my mind. Fullness of time.
You know, he says. You’re a brave man, Kelly. I think I’d have run away screaming. His voice is different. It is, thoroughly, unmistakably, a black man’s voice, declarative, deep, warm, with a faint twang in the nasal consonants. It’s just a couple of operations, he says. And some skin treatments. In the right hands, no big thing at all. That is to say, it won’t be. When it becomes more common.
Does it, does it—I’m f lailing here—does it have a name? What you’ve done?
If it had a name, he says, what would that change, exactly? Would it be more acceptable to you? Would it be a thing people do? Would it have a category unto itself ?
I’m just playing with you, he says. You should see the look on your face. Kelly, of course it has a name. What do you think it would be called? Racial reassignment.
We’ve stopped at the end of the dried goods aisle, the aisle of staples, and I’m teetering on the edge of the snacks aisle: lychee gummies, shrimp chips, dried squid, mango slices in foil, and three or four rows of Pocky, that bizarre Japanese name for pretzel sticks dipped in coat- ings of one or another artificially f lavored candy. Pocky comes in cigarette-sized packs with flip-top lids, and there is, in addition to strawberry, raspberry, and vanilla, Men’s Pocky, plain chocolate, in a distinguished pine-green. It’s never been clear to me whether this is an elaborate inside joke on the part of the manufacturer or a sincere mes- sage to the consumer. There is Men’s Pocky, but not Women’s Pocky. Am I supposed to be reassured, not having to make a choice?
Racial reassignment surgery.
Yeah, of course, surgery. But it’s more than that. It’s a long process. Meaning, I have to say—I strain to form the words—meaning you
were always black. Like a sex change. Inside you always felt black.
Damn, he says. You get right to the point, don’t you? I don’t remem- ber you being this direct, Kelly.
Martin, I say, without quite being able to look at him—I cast my eyes up to the stained ceiling tile, the f luorescent panel lamps dotted with dead flies—we’re not going to see each other again, are we? Isn’t that the point? You wanted a new life. I’m certainly not going to intrude.
Anyone can get a new life, he says. It’s easy to fall off the map. I don’t recall you ever trying to track me down. And all of you guys left, anyway. Am I just repeating the obvious here? I never thought I’d see you back in Baltimore. You get hired by Hopkins?
No, I say. I’m not an academic. Not anymore. I work in public radio. No kidding? You mean, what is it, 91.1? The Hopkins station?
No, the other one. WBCC. 107.3.
Oh, yeah. Right. Way up at the top of the dial. I always wondered why there were two.
Are you a listener?
Heck no, he says. I listen to XM. No offense, I like the news some- times, but not all that turtleneck-sweater, mandolin, Lake Wobegon stuff. Not my thing.
Yeah. I understand.
You do? You understand?
I read the surveys, runs through my mind, that’s my job, I know the de- mographics. I could break down our audience into the single percentiles. Look, I say, I mean, it’s not a secret. It’s aproblem. We think about it every day. We want to be a station for the whole city, you know,Balti- more, and we’re just not. It’s an issue. I’m trying, believe me.
He whistles through his teeth. Maybe you’re the man for me, he says. I need somebody to help me with this project. This idea I have. A communicator. He takes a slim billfold from his front pocket—the long, old-fashioned kind, meant to fit in a blazer—and takes out a glossy or- ange business card. Martin Wilkinson, Orchid Imports LLC.
You changed your name.
You know many brothers named Martin Lipkin?
It’s just one in a long list of inconceivable things I’ve had to conceive of in the last fifteen minutes, so I nod nonchalantly.
And what, you sell orchids?
No, no. Electronics. My wife came up with the name.
Okay, I say, nodding again, a yes-man.
So you’ll email me? Can I buy you lunch?
Is that really a good idea? I ask him. I mean, I know you. Aren’t I
kind of a liability? A piece of personal history?
I trust you, he says, staring at me, boxing me in, so that I’m forced to look straight at his coffee-colored pupils—just the same as before, at least as far as I remember. Listen, he says, we can act like this never happened. If that’s what you want. Either way, you’ll respect my pri- vacy. I know that much. So I’m just asking: you want to come with me a little further down this road, Kelly? You curious? You want the whole story?
Keeping my head straight, our eyes level, in this Vulcan-mind-meld game he seems to want to play, I conduct the briefest possible mental inventory of my life: an empty apartment; an enormous, shockingly ex- pensive storage unit out in Towson, filled with boxes I’ll never open; a job, if you can call it a job; a few friends, widely spaced; a 500-page manuscript on two dead poets, gathering dust in its library binding up in Cambridge; a wall of books in five languages I never want to read again.
Yes, I say, yes, I’ll have lunch with you, Martin.
See you then. He pulls his hood back up, hunches his shoulders, and disappears through the door, back into the tepid weather, the diffident sunshine, the blank, anonymous world that seems almost to have cre- ated him.
What People are Saying About This
“Jess Row has written a fearless, ambitious, unforgettable novel that reads like a postcard from the near-future to our present moment: what if the commodification of identity spawned a new kind of lie? A wave of racial metamorphoses—a surgically-enabled denial of history? Row's premise is ingenious, but his execution is even better. He's created a thriller with a human core, powered by guilt, rage, self-loathing, traitorous longing, the claustrophobia of a single life, and the perilous fantasy of escape, rebirth. Row is unafraid to ask the hardest questions about what his hungry, homesick, vastly malleable characters are, at every level, and what binds them to one another.”
—Karen Russell, author of Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Swamplandia
"Anchored by a Swiftian fantasy of racial reassignment surgery, which takes its questing hero from the housing projects of Baltimore to the back streets of Bangkok, Jess Row's Your Face in Mine is one of the most slyly penetrating novels on race and identity politics I've ever had the pleasure of reading."
“A moving, compelling examination of love, loss, and humanity. In our time, when race is the most charged, complex (and perhaps most important) subject available for an American writer to take on, it is incredibly rare to encounter a book written by a white man that engages thoroughly, thoughtfully, and thrillingly with that very subject. This is a necessary book.”
—Martha Southgate, author of The Taste of Salt and Third Girl from the Left
"A white writer tackling race and class this honestly, this fearlessly? Talk about a rarity. So it's a relief that Jess Row is also one of the smartest, most observant contemporary writers around. This novel reads like Studs Terkel and Philip K. Dick decided to collaborate. It’s beautiful and painful, often at the same time."
—Victor LaValle, author of The Devil in Silver
"This book is adult in its weight and complexity, and formidable in its thoughtfulness... [Row] doesn’t shy away from the hard intellectual and moral questions his story raises, or from grainy philosophical dialogue, but he submerges these things in a narrative that burns with a steady flame. You turn the pages without being aware you are turning them.
—The New York Times
“Jess Row sees the future in Your Face in Mine—a provocative and exhilaratingly bold examination of race in America, where a white Jewish guy who feels black can undergo racial reassignment surgery.”
—Elissa Schappell in Vanity Fair
“Furiously smart…takes readers on a zesty, twisty, sometimes uncomfortable ride.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Row has outdone himself in a first novel that offers great quantities of food for thought and discussion.”
–Booklist (starred review)
“Imaginative...This will appeal especially to those who love literary fiction with a thriller’s edge.”
–Library Journal (starred review)
"The premise is headline-catching, but the subtlety and grace with which Row tells the story is even more remarkable….We book reviewers are fond of calling books ‘brave,’ but Your Face in Mine is genuinely courageous.”
“Race is a charged subject few white male writers would dare take on, and yet Row does so with a captivating premise, brilliantly executed. Your Face in Mine is, above all, brave and thought-provoking.”
“They say that people change, but in the case of Kelly’s close high school friend whom he hasn’t seen in nearly two decades, it’s the type of change nobody would have seen coming. Row’s tale is one that people will be discussing, and it demonstrates why he is one of the most innovative storytellers out there.”
"An imaginative and thought-provoking first novel.”
“A thought-provoking exploration of identity and the ways it is both formed by the self and projected into the world.”
Jess Row has written a fearless, ambitious, unforgettable novel that reads like a postcard from the near-future to our present moment: what if the commodification of identity spawned a new kind of lie? A wave of racial metamorphosesa surgically-enabled denial of history? Row's premise is ingenious, but his execution is even better. He's created a thriller with a human core, powered by guilt, rage, self-loathing, traitorous longing, the claustrophobia of a single life, and the perilous fantasy of escape, rebirth. Row is unafraid to ask the hardest questions about what his hungry, homesick, vastly malleable characters are, at every level, and what binds them to one another. --Karen Russell, author of Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Swamplandia