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Imaginative 'Cotton' is quite a trip

Cotton, By Christopher Wilson, Harcourt, 314 pp., $24

Try to imagine this character: A white boy born in Mississippi to a black mother, he ''becomes" first a woman, then black, remaining telepathic all the while. If you're having a hard time, know that at least someone is capable of imagining this. Clever English writer Christopher Wilson traces the high jinks-filled travels of just such a protagonist in his latest novel, ''Cotton," recently short-listed for Great Britain's prestigious Whitbread Novel Award. If one needs any hard evidence as to why literary awards should be cautiously considered when a reading diet is weighed, this is the novel. Cotton candy can have its place.

The novel's jacket art works hard to be tempting, featuring a white boy and a black boy on a bike beside a wheat field and smacking cloyingly of marketing campaign and future movie poster. (It's not a huge surprise to find there's zero correlation between the jacket and the story within.) The book's insides follow through on this kind of calculation, whether it's the Forrest Gump knockoff protagonist or the High Drama moments laced throughout, including savage beatings, prerequisite vengeful turnarounds, and something like a coincidence a chapter. If there's a string to pull, this author is dangling from it.

Meanwhile, the main character, Lee Cotton, moves pleasantly, guilelessly, through a series of cities and states -- Mississippi, New Orleans, Nevada, San Francisco -- as a self-described half-wit, albeit one who spouts diction like ''promissory," ''notional," and ''quotidian." Cotton encounters many searing varieties of humiliation, yet one reason this novel smells more of authorial fun house than artful novel is that none of these harrowing experiences results in the slightest stain of suffering. Cotton is the Teflon character, one who allows the writer to play out fantasy scenario after scenario of being black, living in the America of the 1950s and '60s, encountering evil racist monsters, seeing into the future, and becoming a woman (including having female genitalia, which seems -- rather strikingly -- to occupy the author on many, many pages). Fantasy because not only does Cotton not suffer in the least, but the peripheral players are either good or bad with never a question as to which. Yes, a reader can gawk happily alongside and watch the far-flung proceedings. The problem lies in the fact that one never has the heady sensation of participating emotionally in a character's plight.

The general spirit of the novel is not at all un-fun. Many sentences hit with the sweet zing of movie candy, like the box of Dots you guiltily pop in your mouth in a dark theater watching some Hollywood schlock like ''Cotton" (certain to show up at a theater near you!). Wilson does have a hand with vibrant and rhythmic prose; for instance: ''They're sorry times -- when your mama starts thinking dirty in earshot and plotting against you with a total stranger, to imagine you out of the way, so she can unbutton some and loose her elastics." ''Bravo," you hear the author whispering as he pats his computer.

It's just that this fevered language never comes across as anything more than the clever figment of a clever Englishman's imagination. (Whimsically displayed in the author's biography on the jacket flap is the fact that Christopher Wilson earned his PhD in humor, a qualification perhaps better suited to stand-up comedy than to the novel.) When a reader finds himself on virtually every page amid razzle-dazzle plot machinations rendered in look-at-me prose, the effect can induce near total exhaustion. To the point that he may want to sit on the kitchen floor and read something as calm and uncluttered as the manual for his microwave.

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