LITTLE, BROWN £14.99 £13.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week