Less than 15 pages into Mislaid, a novel by Nell Zink, our heroine, Peggy—a white girl growing up in small-town Virginia in the 1960s—has realized “she was intended to be a man,” come out to her pearl-clutching mother, headed off to fictional Stillwater College, and met Lee Fleming, the all-women school’s infamous gay poetry professor, with whom she falls into a torrid affair and ends up “fixing to have a baby.” Another 15 pages in, Peggy has morphed into a disgruntled housewife who vengefully drives her husband’s VW into a shallow lake. To say Zink careens through her characters’ lives is an understatement.
The pace noticeably slows through the rest of this comically named (Mislaid—get it?) domestic novel gone wild, but not before Peggy reaches a breaking point: She flees her marriage, leaving behind her son but taking her toddler daughter, Mireille, and assumes new identities for them both—as African-Americans.
Zink presses on her readers a strange narrative conceit, albeit one based in a disturbing truth. Racial identity in 1970s Virginia, despite the civil-rights agitation of the time, wasn’t an individual’s prerogative (unless you were white).
As Zink writes, “Maybe you have to be from the South to get your head around blond black people. Virginia was settled before slavery began, and it was diverse. There were tawny black people with hazel eyes. . . . Blond, blue-eyed black people resembling a recent chairman of the NAACP. The only way to tell white from colored . . . was the one-drop rule: if one of your ancestors was black—ever in the history of the world, all the way back to Noah’s son Ham—so were you.”
Anyone who raises doubts as to the authenticity of Peggy and her daughter’s race, such as the registrar at Mireille’s school, quickly gives in to innate prejudices: “The daughter was one of those pallid, yellow-haired black kids you sometimes see. . . . Probably anemic and undernourished—a lot of rural black kids had worms . . . .”
As Peggy and her daughter settle into a community they can’t possibly understand, her estranged husband and their son, Byrdie, float through life as shabby blue bloods, occupied with yacht-club dinners and boarding-school high jinks.
It’s only then that Mislaid reveals its fundamental preoccupation—with the unexpected, grievous intricacies of life in the post-civil-rights-era South. More particularly, it’s an examination of Virginia itself: a resolute bastion of Southern sentiment, a verdant landscape that simultaneously harbors horseback-riding patricians and the nomadic hallucinogenic-mushroom dealers Peggy falls in with. It’s a world of don’t-know-better racism where the school “like[s] to know who’s black so we can help them out with affirmative action and a free hot lunch” and considers a class with only two African-American students properly desegregated.
Zink’s sly banter about these serious topics will leave readers gasping at her insouciance but gripped by the realization that her fiction is not, alas, stranger than truth. Racism is personal and anecdotal, as in Peggy’s father’s pride “because he was descended from a family that sheltered John Wilkes Booth,” but also structural: Lee Fleming’s fight, in his cozy, white world, is with college feminists who want to take over his poetry magazine, while Peggy battles to become the artist she wishes to be in a culture of getting by: “As a writer, she was struggling. As an accomplice to the wholesale drug trade, she was setting new benchmarks for excellence in felony crime.”
Bizarre as its plot is, Mislaid is more damning than any straight-faced, shame-inducing diatribe could be. Changing our attitudes about race is slow and unsteady, as often absurd as it is sad. But evolution in hearts and minds, Zink seems to say, can and does take place.
This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.