Weighed down

Big Ray, by Michael Kimball, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99/$23, 183 pages

Sometimes when he was angry with his father, remembers Daniel Todd Carrier, the narrator of Michael Kimball’s Big Ray, he would go to a shop in the mall and browse through the “Yo mama’s so fat” series of joke books, which he would convert into “Yo daddy’s so fat” jokes as he read them. (“Yo daddy’s so fat when he wears a yellow raincoat people yell, ‘Taxi!’”)

But having a “super obese” father wasn’t really so funny. Big Ray, Daniel’s obese father, suffered from high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, excessive water retention, diabetes, sleep apnoea and weak kidneys, which in turn resulted in lethargy and confusion. He sweated profusely and was so fat that he would sometimes fall asleep mid-sentence – so fat that, when he showered, he could only reach a fraction of his body. (The same problem meant that, when he went to the toilet, he tended to spray the room.) He was so fat the doctor warned that his feet might have to be amputated, and so fat that when he sat down at one end of a picnic table, with the rest of his family sitting at the other end, the whole thing tipped over, food sliding towards him and on to the ground before he could stand back up. “What I’m trying to say is this,” Daniel tells us. “All three of us together wasn’t enough against my father.”

More than a third of Americans are now classified as obese, so it’s unsurprising that the condition is the subject of several recent novels. In Liz Moore’s Heft, a man confined to his home by his 550lb body invents another, more active persona for himself in his correspondence. In The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg, a middle-aged mother and wife eats until her diabetic body, and her family, give way.

Big Ray is a semi-autobiographical novel – Kimball’s own father weighed 450lb and was, like Ray, a violent, quick-tempered man whose size made him all the more intimidating. The book reads like a memoir by someone trying to get to grips with a huge body of material. “I feel a strange need to know the last show he was watching – or at least what channel the television was on,” Daniel writes, having learnt that his father had been dead for several days when he was discovered on his couch.

Kimball, who lives in Baltimore, is a fiction writer who has garnered attention for “Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)” – a live performance in which he interviews festival-goers in order to summarise their lives in 600 words or less. He is interested in the artifice of biography, and the messy ephemera we leave behind after death; his debut, The Way the Family Got Away (2001), a somewhat melodramatic work, featured a bereft family who sell off their dead child’s possessions in order to pay for their voyage across America. More recently, Dear Everybody (2008) was a novel in the form of a scrapbook of letters, diary entries, transcripts and newspaper cuttings, all posing as the papers left behind by “Jonathan Bender, Weatherman”, who committed suicide.

In its focus on awkward teenage years, Dear Everybody was reminiscent of the New York School writer and artist Joe Brainard, whose experimental autobiography I Remember (1970) juxtaposed banal and revelatory remembrances in an apparently random list. Kimball’s naive style is similarly charming but occasionally grates; in How Much of Us There Was (2005), he describes a woman’s illness and death from the perspective of a husband who, in his stunned observations, seems at times unbelievably childlike. (“It didn’t look easy for her to breathe,” he says, “even though she had all of those machines trying to help her to do it.”)

Big Ray is a more mature work, filled with psychological insight and details that speak of lived experience. (“I wish that I was making some of this up,” Daniel – or perhaps Kimball – notes.) Like Dear Everybody, Big Ray is a biography in pieces; this time, Kimball creates a complex portrait in more than 500 short texts that range in length from a sentence to a few paragraphs; the effect is of prose that has been reduced by its own emotional weight. The picture that emerges is of a violent bully who was a disappointment to his family and himself – a man who joined the Marines but never fought, who dressed up his mediocre professional life, and distracted himself from his failures with pornography, food and television.

Many of Kimball’s vignettes describe family photographs; in one, Ray is holding his daughter “against him with one arm and she is smiling and laughing as she presses into him and kisses him on the cheek”. But, at the edge of the photograph, Daniel notices, “My father’s other hand isn’t holding her in the same way. His other hand is cupping the cheek of her butt.” Over time, we learn that Big Ray’s crimes include not just psychological torment but domestic violence, sexual abuse and incest.

Despite his disturbing material, Kimball manages his narrative with a dark humour, as well as a stirring empathy. Big Ray is an ogre, yes, but a multifaceted one – and, most poignantly, a father whose son continues to yearn for his love.

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