Adam Mansbach 2008

Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing 

  White Girl
by Kate Manning
The Dial Press / 402 pages / $23.95

With America’s dialogue on race mired in rhetoric and sapped by indifference, Kate Manning’s ambition in grappling with the issue in her debut novel is admirable in itself. More so because the burden of racial truth-telling has long been the province, and in the eyes of the nation, the responsibility, of black writers.

The fact that the most profound fiction of American race has been penned by black authors, for whom the subject is inescapable, should not exempt white writers from taking it on, and Manning shows a determination to do so in White Girl, the story of a white model’s marriage to a black Olympian-cum-actor.

Unfortunately, Manning’s earnestness cannot overcome her striking lack of insight. Even as White Girl’s narrator, Charlotte Halsey, watches her relationship with champion skier Milo Robicheaux deteriorate under the strains of fame and interracial marriage, she maintains such a naiveté and simplemindedness that White Girl flatlines right along with her, and nowhere does Manning demonstrate a deeper understanding than her character.

The novel unfolds as one long flashback, as Charlotte recovers from an attack which has left her unable to speak -- an attack for which her husband has been arrested, though Charlotte cannot remember whether he is the perpetrator. The structure undermines the story’s drama, making White Girl essentially a prequel to its own beginning and turning the reading experience from one of discovery to one of reconstruction. Nor does Manning provide a payoff; her ending blithely avoids answering the question which has been sustaining the book for its entire length -- namely, whodunit?

While Manning proves adept at drawing Charlotte’s character, vapid as the narrator may be (whether the clunky language and awkward metaphors are Charlotte’s or Manning’s is another question entirely), Milo remains as much of a mystery to the reader as he does to his wife. As he evolves from gregarious college athlete to racially-anachronistic gold medalist to embattled black action hero, falling under the influence of a stereotypical fast-talking pro-black sports agent along the way, Milo’s feelings and his growing ambivalence toward his wife remain largely opaque. This is a shame, for one gets the feeling that his is actually the more interesting story; Milo wrestles with the essentializing aspects of fame and race, with the tensions between public and private identity, with his responsibilities to his community and with the ramifications of his love for a white woman.

But Milo’s soul-searching is done almost entirely off the page. Instead, we are privy to Charlotte’s rudimentary observations, which never progress much beyond “it was wrong to see color,” and “your average white person has no idea how [being in a room full of black people] feels until you feel it.” As she navigates her way through the tribulations of matrimony, modeling, and motherhood, it becomes harder and harder to take Charlotte seriously, and easier to feel sorry for her: she is so clearly overmatched by the task of telling this story that one almost hopes someone with greater insight, more perspective, will come along and take the reins from her.

But the lack of narrative authority in White Girl goes beyond Charlotte’s limitations. When the Robicheauxs’ lives become public and Manning pans out to show us the reactions of The Black Community to an unintentionally controversial statement of Charlotte’s, the writing is just as prosaic. The radio talkshow callers Manning quotes are no more capable of plumbing the depths of race than Charlotte; they say things like “we have enough problems in the community without his kind of role model, self-hating black man deserting the race kind of thing” and “it is the white girls who are taking the strong black men from communities too, because of some kind of fascination they have with it, and all that.” Even the Harvard professor in the station’s studio can offer nothing better than “Robicheaux is not, in fact, actually black, he’s famous.”

Manning’s major secondary characters, too, are prone to declarative statements and unnuanced viewpoints. They bless the marriage or predict its doom every step of the way, but seldom are their views either broad enough to be provocative or personal enough to be insightful. And for Milo and Charlotte themselves, race is a topic to avoid at all costs, one that comes up mostly in moments of explosive emotion. At times, the extremity of their lack of communication causes the relationship to verge unintentionally on absurdity.

And yet, despite the unspeakability of race, indirection plays little part in White Girl. The only place in which Manning opts for subtlety is the bedroom; whenever Milo and Charlotte get physical, the scene fades peremptorily to black. Such authorial reticence is odd; not only because it is inconsistent with Charlotte’s never-shy professional-model character, but more importantly because it robs us of what could have been an opportunity to gain some understanding of a marriage which never quite seems to be made of flesh and blood. And given the baggage which accompanies interracial sex -- both in real life and in White Girl, with its constant references to “black booty quests” and jungle fever -- the exclusion is glaring.

Just as hard to ignore is the story’s more-than-passing resemblance to that of a certain prominent black athlete-turned-actor accused of attacking his estranged white wife. But if Manning was inspired by the O.J. Simpson saga to write a story about love and race, she seems to have opted to skip the most compelling part; White Girl ends before Milo stands trial for his alleged crime.

It is just the kind of complex response that the Simpson verdict produced -- outrage from a majority of whites, approval from a significant portion of the black community, heated debates about the roles of race, money and fame in the legal system -- that is absent from White Girl. Despite some poignant moments and a well-drawn narrator, Manning’s novel is ultimately too shallow to do justice to its important themes.

Adam Mansbach’s debut novel, Shackling Water, was published by Doubleday.

Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing