Cotton is a modern-day Orlando, in which an identity-shifting protagonist must adapt to changes several times in one lifetime. Lee Cotton is born to a black mother and Icelandic father and looks white. He inherited a gift of medium-ship from his Grandma Celeste. This gives rise to irony in the 1950s rural South and to magical realism, since he can hear people think.
Wilson’s skill at characterization allows some choice riffs, as when a Mr. Jones brings Lee a message from the beyond. “He comes tappety down the aisle of the bus, flicking folks’ ankles careless with his cane, taking his steerage from their protests.” Inventive language that makes up words and uses words in a new way, combined with Lee’s voice as he is beset by spirits, makes for an entertaining read.
Wilson uses Lee’s story as a vehicle to explore issues of race and gender. He doesn’t spare him any experience, and there are cringe-worthy moments. Lee throws himself into the changes whole-heartedly and keeps his sense of humor. The intimate first person, present-tense narration has an in-your-face immediacy that forces the reader to experience all the changes with him. If suspension were a hammock and disbelief were a cannonball, the fantasy can swing if not dropped too hard.