Putting down this wonderfully sensitive, affecting memoir, I half expected to see wavy fumes — smelling of tobacco, crawfish, beer, rain — rising from the book itself.
Though she has lived in Portland for years, Washington Post reporter Casey Parks has an abiding affection for the small-town Louisiana of her childhood. Her thoughts turn frequently to scenes of her grandma and her mother sitting in a carport in their nightgowns, smoking cigarettes and telling stories that often cling loosely to the truth.
Parks' grandma vividly recalls Roy Hudgins, an "earthly angel" who lived across the street from her in Delhi, La. (pronounced "dell-high").
Partly due to a promise to her grandma, Parks sets out to unearth Roy's story. Along the way, she does so much more. Subtitled "a memoir and a mystery," the book showcases Parks' keen talent for observation, reporting and empathy. Its Deep South setting and hybrid structure reminds me a bit of recent nonfiction books by Casey Cep ("Furious Hours") and Sarah M. Broom ("The Yellow House").
The "misfit" in the title applies equally to Parks and to Roy.
Just five feet from boots to crew cut, Roy lived in Delhi his entire life, a man in dress and appearance, but a woman by birth. Of uncertain parentage and possibly kidnapped as a child, Roy attended the local Pentecostal church, cut grass, tended to a growing number of pet dogs and cats, stayed alone most of the time, but regularly drew a crowd (including Parks' grandma as a girl) to his porch when he played banjo and sang lonesome country songs.
Parks sees in Roy a fellow traveler, misunderstood, alienated, frequently treated badly. "People in Delhi didn't know who she was," says a former acquaintance. "They didn't know what she was. They say she's a man. They say she's a she. They say she's a morphodite."
Parks breaks out of her family's poverty to attend college. She moves away, comes out, becomes a reporter for the Portland Oregonian and devotes her spare time to reporting on Roy, traveling back to Delhi over many years, often with a small video crew in tow to make a documentary.
It's an odd project with plenty of frustrations, for both Parks and the reader. Is Roy's life, scantily imprinted on any historical record, too obscure, too thin to sustain the narrative? Will Parks ever get her hands on Roy's journals? These, along with recurring questions about Parks' conflicted relationship with her difficult, charismatic, hilarious and opioid-addicted mother, nagged me as I read.
In the end, Parks convinces herself, and us, that there is a broader import in Roy's hard-luck existence in a changing South full of memorable characters. The rich story unfolds as Park goes from Bible- and church-loving young person to gender activist and dogged reporter, and reveals the role that even a fractured family can play on the long path to adulthood.
Claude Peck (www.claudepeck.com) is a former Star Tribune editor.
Diary of a Misfit
By: Casey Parks.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 356 pages, $29.