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The Ballad of Lee Cotton by Christopher Wilson

The boy with Jane Fonda's breasts

Christopher Wilson hasn't written anything for more than a decade. His last novel, Mischief (1993), was shortlisted for the Whitbread. What a shame that a writer of such calibre has taken so long to produce something new.

Christopher Wilson hasn't written anything for more than a decade. His last novel, Mischief (1993), was shortlisted for the Whitbread. What a shame that a writer of such calibre has taken so long to produce something new. The Ballad of Lee Cotton is destined for prizes. It has a zany, freewheeling brilliance.

Here's the first sentence: "When I finally slither out mewling, I've already given Mama hard labor, because she's been cussing and screaming seventeen hours." This is the homespun voice of Lee Cotton, who regales us with the picaresque tales of his life. Lee's black mama got herself "knocked up and let down" by his daddy, an Icelandic seaman. She baptised her son Leifur Nils Kristjansson Saint Marie du Cotton, but that's a mouthful in small-town Mississippi, where Lee grows up. Local folk soon rub smooth the "foreign curlicues" of his name to "the stub of plain Lee Cotton".

Not that there's anything plain about Wilson's protagonist. Lee hears voices from an early age, a gift he inherits from his voodoo grandmother. As an infant, he starts spouting difficult words ("honeyfuggle", "quotidian"), profanities and wisecracks ("no shit, Sherlock"), as though a line-up of articulate floozies and two-bit gangsters have taken over his mind. But the voices are real. Lee is tuned in to the thoughts of those around him, and these thoughts break up the story's flow. Short, italicised paragraphs dot the narrative (sample: "Take Jesus hisself, unzip that banana"). It's like reading a book bedevilled with Tourette's.

On top of this, Lee is a black kid with straw-blond hair. Strangely, his uncanny look doesn't go down well with the redneck trash in Mississippi. When he starts smooching with Angel, the coral-nippled daughter of a local Klan member, he gets a terrifying beating and is left for dead on a train. For the rest of the book, we follow the flux of his fortunes. He spends time in a psychiatric ward. During 'Nam, he's drafted into the Beige Berets, a special unit of psychic squaddies out in Nevada. After visiting a hooker, he crashes on the drive back to base, crushing his genitals. The army surgeon pieces him back together as a smoking-hot woman with a 145 per cent-scale copy of Jane Fonda's breasts, and Lee spends the last part of the book as a photographer in San Francisco, dating a lesbian newspaper hack.

The underlying message may be trite ("We're all the same under the skin," Lee solemnly states); the energised style is anything but. Lee speaks a kind of cranky poetry. His "doohickey" sentences have a lilting, raggedy rhythm, as though he's hazily jamming throughout. Sometimes the scrabbled words can be wearing - as when Lee describes his fumblings with Angel ("Turns out, woman's a warmer, calf-bony, puppy-eager, peachy, curvier, private, cleftier, tuftier, more various place than a man anticipates"). But his voice is so exuberant, you forget the foibles. Let's hope Wilson doesn't take another 10 years to drum up his next.

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