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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Ballad of Lee Cotton

Christopher Wilson

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Cotton

Title: The Ballad of Lee Cotton
Author: Christopher Wilson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 314 pages
Availability: Cotton - US
The Ballad of Lee Cotton - UK
The Ballad of Lee Cotton - Canada
  • UK title: The Ballad of Lee Cotton
  • US title: Cotton

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Our Assessment:

A- : the story is a bit over the top, but the writing is so good it doesn't matter

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph B 29/5/2005 Sam Leith
Entertainment Weekly C+ 18/10/2005 Jennifer Reese
The Guardian . 7/5/2005 Benjamin Markovits
Independent on Sunday A 26/6/2005 Alastair Sooke
Literary Review . 5/2005 Martyn Bedford
The Observer A- 12/6/2005 Carl Wilkinson
The Spectator . 21/5/2005 William Brett
Sunday Telegraph A- 22/5/2005 Anita Sethi
The Washington Post . 25/9/2005 Jeff Turrentine

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but most enjoyed it

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he story's invention is too hectic, its relocations and shuckings of identity too abrupt, to locate Lee more than glancingly in a complex milieu. It belongs to the picaresque, and its moral preoccupations come second to its whimsy. (...) Let it be what it is: a well-paced, engagingly idiomatic, frequently silly novel that is much better at being funny than it is at being profound." - Sam Leith, Daily Telegraph

  • "(W)hat began as an earthy adventure with a sweet protagonist devolves into an arbitrarily wacky picaresque narrated by a freak." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "The result is a literary Forrest Gump: Lee Cotton is the Everyman who wanders through decades of American identity politics. It is a cleverly sustained act of invention, but the novel runs against the limits of invention, too. This sort of imagination isn't fed by experience. It's fed by other acts of imagination: books and movies in particular. And while Wilson has a flair for pastiche, his novel leaves you wondering what you're supposed to learn from imagination in its pure form. Wilson's writing delights in itself -- in alliteration, assonance, onomatopoetisms -- but he can't conjure experience out of wordplay." - Benjamin Markovits, The Guardian

  • "The Ballad of Lee Cotton is destined for prizes. It has a zany, freewheeling brilliance.(...) The underlying message may be trite ("We're all the same under the skin," Lee solemnly states); the energised style is anything but." - Alastair Sooke, Independent on Sunday

  • "The problem with Everyman, even one as singular as Lee Cotton, is that the temptation to have him do everything can be too great. Christopher Wilson's hilarious, thoughtful novel suffers in parts from this syndrome. (...) If all of this tricksy flitting sounds too much, it is Cotton himself who makes this novel a treat. With his easy charm that is enthralling and endearing, he is an Everyman whose ballad is worth hearing." - Carl Wilkinson, The Observer

  • "If this were a serious study of racist issues, it would be a disgrace. Thankfully, it is not. It took me a while to realise, but The Ballad of Lee Cotton is really just a bit of fun. (...) The eponymous character is flighty, simple and funny, just like the book.(...) That this novel never irritates, or lectures, or gets too serious, is due entirely to the charm of Lee Cotton, whose easy Southern manners and affability make the book worthwhile." - William Brett, The Spectator

  • "What is most delightful about this book, however, isn't its excellent satire of social surfaces, or the way it X-rays through the skin to reveal the person beneath, but the sheer exuberance of its electric, refreshingly inventive prose." - Anita Sethi, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Cotton is strong enough to make up for its tacked-on, O. Henry-ish ending. And that strength derives from one source: the wise, winning voice of its main character. If that voice comes across at times as synthesized -- Huck Finn meets Myra Breckinridge ? Candide meets Yossarian ? -- then at least credit Christopher Wilson with having great taste in muses, and especially for knowing how to fuse them into a character who is, paradoxically, a complete original." - Jeff Turrentine, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Christopher Wilson's Lee Cotton (actually: Leifur Nils Kristjansson Saint Marie du Cotton), who narrates the novel (fortunately not, as the British title suggests, in ballad-form) is one colourful character. Born to a black mother in Mississippi in 1950, Lee comes out all white, taking, in that regard, completely after his father, an Icelandic sailor who didn't stick around.
       Lee has one serious identity problem, and others' mistaking his identity will plague him most of his life. Wilson takes this black-and-white premise and runs with it, but it only gets him so far. Once the Civil Rights era is done with it's the feminist struggle that is addressed: yes, Lee isn't just a black man in a white man's body, he becomes a man in a woman's body. (And since he still favours women, gay rights get covered too.) And that white surface appearance turns out not to be so permanent either .....
       Lee's troubles begin when he's a kid and falls for the wrong local (white) girl, Angelina ("Angel for short" ...), who is unfortunately the daughter of one of the most violent racists in town. Once pop learns his daughter is seeing a black boy (even if he is a white black boy) he organises a violent assault on the kid, leaving him severely battered and far from home -- which at least allows Lee to start over with a new identity. All-white this time, too, though he is damaged goods in other respects. (He also become even more of a split-personality, as Wilson insists on duality at every turn -- more than once of the surgically enhanced sort.)
       Lee is drafted, but gets to avoid Viet Nam because the beating he took has left him with some special abilities that the Army is willing to explore. So he gets stationed in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of other freaks. He doesn't mean to escape from the army, but accidents do happen, and soon enough he's adopted another guise (or rather had it thrust upon him (or, rather: had the gist of the previous one lopped off)).
       He fares fairly well as a woman too, though it takes a while for him to adjust to all that entails. Appearances can get him in trouble, but he makes it work for him, settling down in San Francisco, finding a partner.
       Lee is never free of the past (or future), including Angelina. But he's surprisingly comfortable in his skins -- though, understandably, others have their problems with it. S/he's a good guy (or gal), too, a calming sort of influence on those s/he touches, only antagonistic to a very few.
       Cotton is an unnatural life story, occasionally too forced-quirky, but for the most part Lee and his situations are appealing enough. The identity switches also can seem a bit forced -- it's hard to do them convincingly natural -- and the reader likely shares his partners' frustration after a while:

     "You're inchoate, Lee. you're plastic; you're protean. What happens next ? Are you going to grow wings or transmute into a fawn ?"
       And by that point Wilson has carried it so far that one regrets he hasn't carried it further, and let his character sprout wings or turn into Bambi. Still, while he doesn't get it quite right -- the timing is a bit off -- ultimately Wilson doesn't disappoint, even if it doesn't come quite as expected.
       Some of the book is a bit hokey, and bits a bit simplistic, but overall it's a pretty impressive American canvas, circa 1950 through the early 1980s. More than that, it is a great reading-pleasure. What makes the book is the writing. One hesitates to call it spectacular, because it's not loud or grandiose, but page after page it is a remarkable achievement. It's a fast book, but not rushed, with short sentences and paragraphs (and episodes), but it flies by effortlessly. And every other sentence seems to offer a just-right turn of phrase -- not a writer showing off what he can do, but just showing it. It's obviously meticulously crafted, yet almost never feels crafted: the absurd figure that Lee's is -- and his voice -- come across as completely natural. Its generosity (and many comic turns) also add to the appeal.
       Good fun, good story, great writing -- well worthwhile.

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Reviews: Chris(topher) Wilson: Other books by Chris(topher) Wilson under Review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Chris (also: Christopher) Wilson was born November 18, 1949 in London. He received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. He has worked as a research psychologist and was lecturer at Goldsmiths' College, University of London. He is the author of a number of novels, including Baa, Fou, and Gallimauf's Gospel.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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