How’s this for getting you hooked? In Jess Row’s addictive narrative, Your Face in Mine, the thirty-seven-year-old narrator, Kelly Thorndike, is walking along a street in Baltimore when a black man of the same approximate age and wearing a hoodie approaches him from the opposite direction. Kelly undergoes a “shock of recognition,” thinking, “I know this guy…yet I’m sure I’ve never seen this face before.” When the man reaches him, he addresses Kelly by his name, prompting Kelly to admit that he recognizes him, adding, “Martin…I need an explanation.” The problem is that when Kelly knew Martin–years earlier during high school when they were in a rock group together—Martin was white. And now, he is clearly black.
In the conversations between the two men that ensue, Martin describes the procedure he underwent as “racial reassignment.” Kelley knew him as Martin Lupkin, a Jewish guy, and now he’s Martin Wilkinson, Afro-American. “I have the physical appearance of an African American male. In seven years of living with this appearance, it has never been questioned or found unusual by any of my friends or my intimate partners, including my wife of four years, who is also African American. However, this appearance is based on a carefully created medical procedure that was carried out in Bangkok, Thailand, 2001-2, by Dr. Binpheloung Silpasuvan and his medical associates. Specifically, Dr. Silpasuvan carried out a series of facial surgeries, scalp surgeries, body-sculpting procedures, and pigmentation treatments, transforming me from my original appearance as a Caucasian-Jewish ‘white’ male into a convincing African American. I returned to the United States with an altered passport and have since presented myself as the child of adoptive white parents, now dead, with no information about my biological roots. This is the story that everyone around me—my wife, my intimate friends, my pastor—takes at face value.”
Moreover, Martin and his wife have adopted two black children, since he took care of his reproductive abilities, also, by having a vasectomy before he married. He’s a successful entrepreneur. In early adulthood, he realized that he was born into the wrong race, which he identifies as “racial identity dysphoria” syndrome. He grew up in a hippy commune; his father was gay and died of AIDS. As a child, for a time he was the only white kid in an all-black grade school. Even back then, he considered himself “a black boy in a white boy’s body.” Kelly and Martin had a three-man rock band when they were still in high school. Alan, the third member of the group, overdosed on drugs shortly after the group disbanded. When Martin realizes that his once close friend is a writer (that’s a bit of a stretch, since Kelly’s worked for several radio affiliates), he decides that it is time to tell his story to the world, and he asks Kelly to write that story.
Kelly has his own back-story, though it’s not nearly as complicated as Martin’s. He spent a number of years as a graduate student and teacher in China, eventually marrying a Chinese woman. Some years after they moved to the United States—and after they had had a daughter—his wife and child were killed in an automobile accident. Two years later, he’s still grieving for them, often carrying on lengthy conversations with Wendy, his wife, as if she were alive. He realized after the accident that he needed to move to a new environment, so when an NPR affiliate opened up in Baltimore, he decided to return to the city of his childhood, though he did not expect to encounter any of his former friends. Alan, he knew, had overdosed. Martin, supposedly, had disappeared, though Kelly had never made much of an effort to seek him out.
As the two men begin formulating the book that will reveal Martin’s racial change to the public, the former white man reveals information about the Orchid Group in Thailand, where his racial transformation was undertaken. Martin becomes increasingly intrigued by the concept and the company’s PR: “The Orchid Group invites you to consider the possibilities of a new you: an entirely different appearance, from skin to hair to physical features of every kind. At the frontiers of reconstructive and reassignment surgery, we can accommodate the needs of clients who feel that their physiological health depends on a radical physical transformation other than gender. We are a full-service healthcare provider, based in Bangkok, that offers physiological assessment and counseling, lifestyle enhancement, language and dialect tutoring, sequential transitioning care, and a full range of surgical procedures under the leadership of Binpheloung Sipsasuvan, M.D., Harvard Medical School, former Assistant Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, University of Rochester. Our staff are native speakers of English, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalong, French, German, Italian and Russian. All of our services are offered in complete confidentiality. We offer payment plans and loans through HSBC, Thailand, Ltd.”
Once Kelly digs into Martin Lupkin’s past and into Martin Wilkinson’s current life, once the two of them fly to Thailand, Row introduces a number of startling facts and reversals about his paired characters. The plot is dazzling; the moral issues posed by racial reassignment are disturbing. Fortunately, the novel does not avoid the ethical issues or the troubling possibility that what Your Face in Mine presents as fiction will too soon become fact, a genuine option for mankind in the future. We’ve all learned that sexuality is fluid; soon that may be true of race. Read the book and give Jess Row the credit he deserves.
Jess Row: Your Face in Mine
Riverhead, 384 pp., $27.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.