Skin Deep

WHITEGIRL by Kate Manning (Dial, 405 pp., $23.95)
By Lise Funderburg

February 3, 2002

The impulse to turn news events into novels is an understandable one. How many wars, kidnappings, murders — how many acts of terrorism — defy comprehension, no matter how many front pages, op-ed pieces or nightly news programs one scours in search of answers? So who better than novelists, those students of the human condition, to turn their imaginations loose on events that will otherwise never be fully revealed or explained? Readers are entertained and enlightened simultaneously, compelled by a fresh lens to re-examine the conventional wisdom. That’s the idea, anyway.

Kate Manning’s debut novel, “Whitegirl,” takes on this respectable and ambitious task, using as its premise the Nicole Brown Simpson murder. Manning’s examination of the relationship between a white woman and a black man parallels that of Nicole and O.J., up to the point where the woman is stabbed and the husband arrested as the purported attacker. In this fictional case, thought, the victim, Charlotte Halsey, does not die. Instead, she lives to “tell” her side of the story — her actual voice is destroyed in the attack — and address some of the questions whose answers died with the real-life victim, Nicole Brown Simpson.

Charlotte, a knockout California blonde, grows up with mean-spirited parents who wield their Christianity as a blunt instrument of control and reprobation. Her father terrorizes his children over jigsaw puzzles, and her mother forces Charlotte into beauty pageants as a way of resolving long-squelched personal ambition. As a rebellious teenager, Charlotte quits the pageant circuit and starts messing around with boys. Without any discernible ambitions — other than to flee her family — Charlotte heads across the country for college. There, she pairs up with an equally blond ski team star, so similar in good looks that the two are consistently mistaken for brother and sister. Jack is a perfect match but for his obsessive, controlling and violent tendencies. Serendipitously, it is because of Jack that Charlotte first crosses paths with Milo Robicheaux, the sole black member of the school’s ski team.

Charlotte quits school rather than break up with Jack. She runs off to New York, is discovered by a gay hairdresser who becomes her close friend and is made into a supermodel. In the midst of her fame, she runs into Milo, now an Olympic champion. They start a bumpy courtship, transcend their inhibitions about interracial dating and decide to marry, despite clearly expressed reservations from both families.

Here’s the problem: Even though Manning is brave enough to grapple with the profoundly important and sensitive topic of race and racism, she undercuts the force of her inquiry by relying on a shallow, weak-willed, barely reflective protagonist. Charotte thinks as much about her outfits as she does about the racist harassment incurred when she and Milo are topped by the police for speeding. She experiences an understandable befuddlement about how to figure out which of her thoughts are racist and which are just thoughts. In one of her more incisive moments, she comments on an argument she has with Milo, several years into their marriage:

“It was the cornered fight of the wounded married. It was that fight about love. About fear and hurt and truth. The same old fight couples have. Only with race smashing and breaking like an extra set of dishes around all our grievances. Is this about us? Or is it about It? Skin and History.”

If only Manning had launched her inquiry from here, rather than have this be the apex of analysis. But Charlotte is too limited, and passages that are intended to show dimensions of her personality — long digressions on how she uses her looks to manipulate people, what clothes she wears on photo shoots, how confused she is by questions about race — demonstrate instead how myopic she is in seeing and making sense of the world around her. She’s also generally hapless about how to participate in a mature, loving relationship; how to make intelligent career choices; how to stand up to any disparaging, race-related comments, from either whites or blacks; and how to behave toward her abusive ex-boyfriend when he comes sniffing around just before the attack.

Charlotte’s breezy narrative almost turns this story into an airplane or beach read, But those, when done well, deliver a delicious wickedness; “Whitegirl” just heaps one episode of hand-wringing self-consciousness atop another. As Charlotte discloses from the start of the book, she doesn’t know who her assailant is. Neither do readers, but before too long — and certainly well before the book’s conclusion — few of us may be left to care.