With ''Peninsula of Lies,'' National Book Award winner Edward Ball (''Slaves in the Family'') eagerly courts comparisons to John Berendt's 1994 Southern thriller ''Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.'' And why not? The author rattles genteel Charleston by exploring one of its most colorful denizens: Dawn Pepita Langley Hall (ne Gordon Hall) was born in England, moved to the South Carolina burg in the 1960s, underwent sex-reassignment surgery, publicized the heck out of her experience, married her black butler/mechanic/steward, and gave birth (so she claims) to a daughter.
Hot stuff, no? But the problem with comparing the two books is evident from page 1 of ''Peninsula:'' Ball receives a letter from Hall asking if he has an antique commode she once owned, and the author extrapolates that Hall was reaching out to him as a confidante. Not likely, given Hall's materialism. Nonetheless, Ball embraces the toilet as a raison d'etre to delve into his subject like Margaret Mead into an aborigine tribe. He journeys to England, New York City, Charleston, and upstate New York, using interviews with Hall's family and friends to set up a straw man (excuse me -- straw transgendered person). All the while, he infuses his travels with some real groaners: ''Natasha [Dawn's daughter] ate first with her left hand, then with her right, and she changed back and forth throughout the meal.'' (Okay, we get it -- Mom was confused!)
What saves this experiment from failure is Hall, an intriguing, deluded narcissist who stuck by an implausible story until her death in 2000. A second-rate celebrity author, Hall cavorts with Lady Bird Johnson, Virginia Woolf, the descendants of Eli ''Cotton Gin'' Whitney, Bette Davis, and British actress Margaret Rutherford like a transgendered Forrest Gump. And you gotta admire the gal for her I -- don't-give-a-rat's-ass attitude: At her wedding, she walked down the aisle to ''Battle Hymn of the Republic'' -- the song choice, as Ball says, offended ''Charleston's ancient white order.''
One side note: For a juicier -- and tighter -- profile of Hall, dig up Jack Hitt's 1998 GQ article ''The Legend of Dawn.'' Hitt has a stronger claim to Hall's legacy: He grew up in the same Charleston neighborhood, met her before her death, and doesn't mention toilets.