You know you ought to look away. The Brahma bull is jack-knifing like a crazed 18-wheeler. Any moment now, it will throw the rider up into the air like just another clod of dirt. Then as he lies flat on his back, trying to remember how to breathe, it will bear down on him with 1200 pounds of unthinking rage and crush him. You tell your eyes to shut, but they stay open, as frozen as the hapless rider.
That’s the experience Big Ray, Michael Kimball’s latest novel, brings to the reader. Only this time, the bull is the author’s father, 500-plus pounds of unreflective rage. And it is in the role of the imperiled observer that Kimball enjoys his greatest success. Take the following, for example:
My father used to do this thing when we were in public and he didn’t want to be seen yelling at me or hitting me. He would put his arm around me and rest his hand on my shoulder in a way that must have looked affectionate to anybody who saw it. Then he would grip some muscle in my shoulder so hard that it would make me seize up.
The details of obesity also are horrifying and finely observed, as in:
Really fat people move in different ways than people who are not really fat. For instance, my father had to stand up in stages. Since he didn’t really fit most chairs or on most couches, he often sat on the floor. To get up, he needed to hold on to something he could push or pull–a door, a chair, or another piece of furniture. Then he would roll over onto his side and up onto his knees while pushing or pulling his upper body up. From his knees, he would get one foot flat on the ground and then the other foot. Then he would straighten his legs up. Once his legs were under him, he could raise his upper body until he was standing upright. Once he was standing, he didn’t move for a while. He had to rest and catch his breath.
If the novel has a weakness, it lies in how these richly observed passages sometimes are compromised by sentences that repeat the conclusion the reader has undoubtedly already drawn. For example, after describing how his father taught him to play poker while using the child’s piggy bank money–and winning it all away from the child–the author adds, “I learned how much I liked gambling and how much I didn’t like my father.” In another passage, the author muses, “Sometimes, I try to figure out how different I might have been if my father had been nicer to me. Would I try as hard as I do? Would I be happier than I am?” While Kimball’s interest in these questions is understandable, they interrupt the flow of the novel and seem more appropriate for the analyst’s couch.
On other occasions, however, Kimball combines photographic childhood detail with the stepped-back observations of the adult in a riveting way, as in the following passage:
Once, my mother and sister and I were all sitting at a picnic table–with the summer food all lined up in the middle–and we were waiting for my father before we started eating. He sat down on one end and the whole picnic table tipped–the food all sliding toward him and onto the ground before he could stand back up. What I’m trying to say is this: All three of us together wasn’t [sic] enough against my father.
But the compelling nature of the character is never in doubt. Big Ray crashes through the 182 pages of this slim volume, pushing everything else to the side to make way for his bulk. One week later, this reviewer was still having nightmares about him.
Online editor’s note:
In addition to Big Ray, Michael has authored the novels Us, Dear Everybody and The Way the Family Got Away. His books have been translated into a dozen languages, including Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean and Greek. His shorter works have appeared in Bomb and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple documentaries, the 510 Readings and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine.
Big Ray was named an Oprah Book of the Week, featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the like and excerpted in The Collagist. Michael provided a context for Big Ray in the Huffington Post piece “Obesity Book: The Underrepresentation of Overweight Characters” and showed another aspect of his succinct writing style in “Audacious Ideas: Postcard Life Stories,” posted here.