Mary Elizabeth Williams reviews 'Trumpet' by Jackie Kay.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 10, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Cross-dresser. Drag artist. Transvestite. Chances are, those words conjure up a particular picture in your mind: a man in a wig and lipstick, his long, carefully shaved legs squeezed into oversize high heels. The idea that a woman other than some battle-scarred heroine like Joan of Arc or Mulan might assume the guise of the other sex is harder for us to grasp. So when Billy Tipton -- jazz artist, married man and father -- died a few years ago and was revealed to have been, in fact, a woman, his story turned into a worldwide cause cilhbre. A man who becomes a woman is a humbled and softened thing. A woman who becomes a man is a disturbing anomaly.

In "Trumpet," first-time novelist Jackie Kay, working off some of the basic facts of the Tipton case and imaginatively filling in her own details, tells a sad and tender story that just happens to be surrounded by surreal circumstances. She strips away the prurient gawking, forcing the reader to consider basic concepts of love and sex in new ways. As the different voices of the narrative accumulate, a saga unfolds of two simple people who have loved despite, or perhaps because of, the secret they shared.

As the novel begins, Joss Moody's widow (as she calls herself), Millie, is fending off a tabloid firestorm and her adopted son's outrage over his "father's" true sex. But although she's retreating from a sideshow, Millie's foremost emotions are the same as those of anyone who's just lost a loved one. She grieves. She shuffles around in a lonely trance. And she remembers -- remembers the man she initially fell in love with, the woman she eventually discovered and the lover and companion of her life. Though Joss' original motives for cross-dressing are never fully revealed, neither is the rightness nor the necessity of his choice ever questioned. And when sensation-fueled reporters smack their lips at the scandal and ask Millie what it was like to be "living a lie," she can only wonder how what felt like real life to her can seem like such a falsehood to everyone else.

Kay writes with quiet assurance, skipping back and forth both in time and among characters with the deftness of a knowing guide. Her only weakness may be ambition: To the already complicated story of gender crossing she adds race mixing, a thread she keeps picking up and putting down erratically. And she might have been able to convey her point about love conquering all without making both Millie and Joss so darn nice and noble. Their marriage may indeed have been a meeting of soul mates, but if Joss Moody was so all-fired-up perfect, he'd have been the first jazz musician of his kind in history.

In a way, though, the virtuous compatibility of Joss and Millie is at the heart of Kay's point. What makes the romance extraordinary isn't that one half of the duo binds her breasts and boldly strides into men's rooms. It's that theirs is a relationship based on total acceptance and unconditional love. Gender swapping is as common as the next episode of Jerry Springer. But happy marriages only come along once in a blue moon.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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