For an entire decade, from 2009 to 2019, Parks, who was then living in Portland, traveled back and forth to Delhi to learn whatever she could about Roy and his fate. She speaks with townspeople who might have known him — the cagey neighbors to whom he entrusted his journals, a member of his Pentecostal church group, a worker at the nursing home at which the elderly Roy was forced to present as female. Protected by the neighbors who refused to let her see them, the journals are what Parks yearns for most throughout these nearly 400 pages, the chance to read Roy’s story in his own words.
Mostly everyone Parks interviews misgenders Roy. Each time this happens, the reader can’t help flinching, but these moments also crystallize what makes Parks’s lionhearted investigation so vital, especially in 2022, when the rights of trans people to live on their own terms are being stripped from them every day. What’s at stake, past the journalistic mystery, is someone’s selfhood, the necessity of self-definition.
This does, of course, raise a few issues. In 2009, Parks began prying into the circumstances of Roy’s life partially as a backdoor audition to work for “This American Life.” While reading, I thought often of “S-Town,” the podcast produced by “This American Life”’s Brian Reed, about an eccentric Alabamian clockmaker whose tragic story becomes a sort of Trojan horse to explore the desolation of rural queerness and mental illness. The series stirred many people, but there were also questions of whether it was too invasive, of the ethics of using the intimate details of a person’s life as a vehicle for a public message.
Like “S-Town,” “Diary of a Misfit” is at once dewy-eyed and diligent, capricious and capacious, empathetic and exacting. It’s as richly textured as a pot of gumbo. As a work of autobiography, it’s maximalist; subtitled “A Memoir and a Mystery,” it certainly is both of those things, but it’s also an assiduous family history, a decades-spanning community chronicle à la Sarah Broom’s “The Yellow House,” a coming-out narrative, a dive into Christian denominations, a wrestling with Southern heritage. To use a well-worn road metaphor, your mileage may vary.
Most moving is Parks’s depiction of a queer lineage, her assertion of an ancestry of outcasts, a tapestry of fellow misfits into which the marginalized will always, for better or worse, fit. Our selves are so often an assemblage of the stories of those who came before.
Late in the book, Parks talks to a lesbian named Pam who met Roy in 1972, when she was in junior high. When Pam first saw Roy, she “went mute with wonder.” She “hadn’t been able to name the feeling back then, but she looked at Roy and knew they had something in common.” She wanted to ask Roy, as so many of us have wanted to ask our own queer ancestors, “How is society going to treat me, growing up different?” Even in her 50s, Pam still yearned for an answer to that question.
“Pam didn’t have a flag or a word yet,” Parks writes. “She only had Roy.”
Michelle Hart is the author of the novel “We Do What We Do in the Dark.”
DIARY OF A MISFIT: A Memoir and a Mystery, by Casey Parks | 356 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $29
A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 28, 2022, Page 11 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Down Home.