Misfortune, By Wesley Stace, Little, Brown, 531 pp, $23.95
Wesley Stace, the first-time author of ''Misfortune," is better known under his singer-songwriter identity of John Wesley Harding, a name that he took from a Bob Dylan song. Dylan, in turn, based his song on the life of John Wesley Hardin, a late-19th-century gunfighter from Texas. And the origin of this name in ballad, historical legend, and contemporary pop culture is a fitting reflection of the book itself. ''Misfortune" is a tongue-in-cheek homage to Virginia Woolf's ''Orlando," Dickens's ''Bleak House," and Ovid's ''Metamorphoses," as told by a Greek chorus of regulars from ''Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
The book opens with Pharaoh, a wretched street urchin, scurrying through the dank alleys of London with a mysterious package that he's been instructed to throw into the river. The bundle is, of course, a baby, who gets rescued from the rubbish heap by Lord Geoffroy Loveall, the richest man in England. Lord Loveall is the type of person who ''held a filter of lilac silk to his nose and mouth" and would spend most of his days in a giant dollhouse in conversation with his long-deceased younger sister Dolores. (Can you say ''Michael Jackson"?)
Delighted to have a child to assuage his horrid mother and fend off his rapacious relatives, Lord Loveall brings the baby home in secrecy and marries Anonyma, his former tutor and now librarian of Love Hall. Nine months later, they reveal the baby, a healthy boy that the distraught and deluded Lord Loveall insists is a girl and names Rose Old, a rearrangement of the letters in the name of the late and beloved Dolores.
For the next 15 years, Rose leads an idyllic life with her ethereal father, her kind but distracted mother, and her friends Stephen and Sarah, the lively and lovely and pheromone-dripping children of Lord Loveall's devoted assistant. Then, alas, puberty strikes with a vengeance, and Rose's cracking voice, verdant mustache, and the baffling stirrings below her voluminous skirts make it inescapably clear that she is a he. Bereft at the realization that his daughter is really his son and not his sister, the fragile Lord Loveall withers and dies, Stephen and Sarah are sent off to school, and the vile, venal relatives move in, determined to force Rose and his powerless mother out of their manor and inheritance.
There then ensues a bizarre diversion in Turkey, where Rose, half-mad, has decided to drown himself in the pool where Hermaphroditus fused with the water nymph Salmacis to become the ancient prototype for Boy George. Fortunately, he's rescued by his old friend Stephen, returns to England, discovers his true ancestry, and reunites with his mother, the faithful family servants, and the intoxicating Sarah (who loves him in silk dresses and out of them). Finally, goodness and sexual ambiguity triumph, the hideous interlopers are driven from Love Hall, and Rose and his posse assume their rightful place.
''Misfortune" is not a great book. But it is entertaining in spots, and disconcertingly effective in its challenge to conventional sexual identity. Besides, an author who can weave together broadside ballads, Ovid, transvestism, anagrams, and English manors into one relatively coherent work of fiction is worthy of respect -- regardless of what name he goes by.