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White Like She. By Bob Fingerman. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 1998. 96p. $12.95. ISBN 1-56097-341-2.

Science fiction, absurdist fiction (sort of); African American fiction

Adults, teens; violence, language, some sexual issues

Caught in an accident at a nuclear power plant, middle-aged black custodian Luther Joyce finds himself horribly scarred and wandering the streets, until he learns of Dr. Flounder, who transplants brains from one body to another. Obtaining a gun, he goes in search of the doctor. Meanwhile, Louella Schwartz, a radical Jewish teenager, decides to kill Dr. Flounder because he symbolizes the rich taking advantage of the poor. They get there at roughly the same time; she kills the doctor and badly injures Luther, who kills her. The doctor's assistant, Dr. Fluke [all the names have this ha-ha quality about them], saves Luther's life by transplanting his brain into Louella's body, swearing the man to secrecy to avoid complications.

Luther/Louella goes to his new home to discover a father who hates "him" and a lunatic mother who keeps the corpse of her suicide son exactly where it fell years ago. Luther/Louella acts peculiarly enough for "her father" to call the mental hospital, but the orderlies cart off mom and dad instead. Poking around, Luther/Louella spends a few minutes adjusting to the new body, then gets together with Louella's lesbian friend Annette, who is curious about Louella's odd behavior. At first Luther/Louella tells her nothing. After fighting off some insulting guys, Luther/Louella goes home to get his head together. Annette follows, fighting off the same guys in the process. Luther/Louella reveals his secret to Annette. Understandably freaked out, Annette goes home to think things over. Meanwhile, two thugs from the nuclear plant confront Dr. Fluke; they're looking for Luther, whose presence is an embarrassment to the plant.

Luther attempts to learn more about Louella. From a photograph he discovers that Louella's father had briefly helped him out during a civil rights march in the 60s. When Mr. Schwartz returns, Luther/Louella tries to tell him who he/she is, but Mr. Schwartz can't believe him/her and throws him/her out. Luther/Louella relocates to Annette's place, where they end up falling in love. Elsewhere, Dr. Fluke gets the upper hand on the thugs via a gun, killing one and prepping the other for brain transference--Louella's brain into his head. He reveals to Louella the shady dealings between the nuclear plant and the brain transplant business, and she/he determines to do something about it....

There are two quotes on the back of this book. One, from Will Eisner, says, "A grim and ambitious work--very, very realisticially executed." The other, from Axcess Magazine, says, "Imagine a Bob Burden comic co-plotted by Burroughs and Bukowski, throw in some inks by Spain Rodriguez, and you might wind up with White Like She...." Were these two reviewers reading the same book?

Unfortunately, yes.

The basic concept behind White Like She is a splendid one. Take a middle-aged black man's brain, put it into a teenage white girl's head, and see what happens. There are many issues to explore, changes that the black man has to cope with. In fact (you may be seeing this coming), there are so many issues that the story doesn't need too much more than a basic family situtation to serve as a stage. Hell, just walking down a city street is going to be an entirely different experience for this person. And at the heart of the matter, the ultimate issue should be: can the black man get used to this? Because this is a character-driven sort of plot. However interesting and relevant such issues as new forms of prejudice are, they're all secondary to the character's struggles to exist in his new form.

But this plot wasn't enough for Fingerman. No, he had to throw in nuclear accidents, mutations, a crazy mother with a corpse for a son, an underground conspiracy to transplant rich brains into poor bodies, the revival of the girl in a male body, etc. All of a sudden, the core of the story gets buried under a mountain of unnecessary high-concept "absurdism." So not only are we the readers juggling Luther's situation, but we're also trying to keep track of a bunch of plot twists--almost none of which are relevant to the main character. For example, what is the use of having the mother keep her dead son's body around? Because it's funny? Because we're supposed to glean something from this about the personality of Louella? What, that her mother is a loony? That her father's such a wimp that he can't even get the corpse out of the house? Why is it important that he's such a wimp? Anyway, the circumstance never affects Luther. He never even notices the stain of Morty's brains on the wall.

What are the issues surrounding the brain change, and how did Fingerman deal with them?

  1. Black vs. white, which the title would appear to make the main issue. There is almost nothing in the book about how Luther deals with being white. He pontificates briefly about civil rights, but he has no personal response to being white now, except for a few "Oh, I'm white now, can I deal with this?" statements.
  2. Male vs. female. At least Luther explores his new body--a little. But he learns how to deal with his period way too quickly, and the issue goes away. The only significant thing he has to deal with is sexism (overt sexism, I might add, none of the subtle prejudices that people display in day-to-day activity), and since he efficiently beats up the sexist guys, and the cops turn on the sexist guys and force them to be nice, the issue is neatly resolved.
  3. Old vs. young. Not a thing.
  4. Different personalities: Luther is obviously much more articulate than Louella and swears a lot less, but no one seems to notice this. They just say that she's acting "weird."

The whole "mutant" thing is ridiculous. I just cannot see how Luther's having briefly been a "mutant" adds to the story at all. Why did he have to become a "mutant" in order to get his brain transplanted? (Obviously, to set up the evil dealings of the nuclear power plant owners.) In what way is Luther a "mutant"? Because he's terribly scarred and lost all his hair? Did being a "mutant" affect his later life as a girl? The issue is never explored.

These problems wouldn't have stuck out so much if the characters hadn't been so useless. Luther was a huge disappointment. First, he isn't consistently handled. A college graduate, he usually sounds like a college professor (a lot of the characters are overarticulate) but sometimes has a more "street" quality to him for no apparent reason. He pontificates about the racism he encountered, yet readily uses pejoratives like "queer" and "guinea" (and as far as I can tell Fingerman isn't making some kind of point about hypocrisy, at least not on this issue). He apparently has no friends or relatives, because after he is "mutated" he spends his time on the streets--he doesn't even try to get into his old dwelling place to get his stuff. (He accepts being "mutated" in an unbelievable matter-of-fact way, too. Even for absurdism this behavior is phony.) And after he "becomes" Louella, his role in the book shrinks almost to that of a mere observer. Louella is loud, foul-mouthed, and annoying, barely more than a plot device (and a frame for Luther). The rest of the characters aren't much more appealing, except for Annette, who is vaguely likable and who deservedly steals the second half of the book from Luther/Louella.

The dialogue is often awful. Even if this book had been entirely absurdist it would have been often awful. As stated above, many of the characters are overarticulate. They frequently relate expository information in their thoughts or dialogue, such as when we first meet Luther and his three full word balloons about his past, or Louella when she muses on her brother's dead body and why it's there. Lesson for would-be writers: People do not normally think or speak in exposition. If you must convey this much background info, break it up, put it into dialogue in places where it falls naturally. For example, much of what Luther says in the beginning could have been explained during his various conversations with Louella's father or Annette. Also, several things are explained in full multiple times when an ellipses and a few concluding words, or a "He explains." in the narrative, would have served.

The blocky art doesn't advance Fingerman's agenda. Nearly all of his women (even the straight ones) look like men; when you first meet Louella, for example, you think she's a guy. And facial expressions on all the characters are stiff, stiff, stiff--I'm not at all kidding when I say that Matt Feazel's old stick figures had more expressive faces than the characters in White Like She.


Just look at the naked terror on those faces... Guy or girl? Happy, sad, pensive, worried, other?

Copyright 1998, Bob Fingerman

It was no fun watching the potential of this concept dribble away as I read. The story required a measure of subtlety and human understanding that Fingerman didn't provide at all. He went for cheap laughs, preachy statements, and empty wow-that's-cool absurdism and shock value instead. Not recommended.


Copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild


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