Updated on August 5, 2015
23. ‘Big Ray’ by Michael Kimball
This is one of those books where I wish I hadn’t read the blurb. It’s a thoughtful novel about a man coming to terms with the death of his father, Ray, in the light of their unhappy relationship and his father’s morbid obesity. This much is given away in the blurb of the book, but the narrator, Daniel, doesn’t reveal the fact of his father’s size until some way into the story. Of course, if we have any idea about the story to begin with, we read the opening with a picture of the man in our heads, so that the ‘big reveal’ when it comes has less of an impact. I would have preferred not knowing and then, I’m sure, I would have had a different image of Ray and there would have come a moment when it would have been dramatically overturned.
The analysis of the father-son relationship is carried out here with tenderness, punctuated by moments of cutting reality. Ray is a volatile and destructive force in Daniel’s life. The things Daniel has thought about his father, his enjoyment of the large man’s suffering, the way he looks upon him with a mixture of fear, disgust and pity, are stunningly described. Kimball has written the novel in short sections (some only a paragraph or two), following Daniel as he muses about his life with his father, and the memories of him that are thrown up following his death.
There is, especially at the beginning, an emphasis on photographs and stories. Daniel talks about various ‘family legends’ and describes photographs of his father growing up, as if he were holding them in his hands. He describes how, as a child, he did not have a pet but instead coveted a book full of photographs of cats: he gave them all names and imagined their different personalities. There seems to be a feeling of safety in photography: Daniel’s father is captured at different ages and in different expressions, and this comes to be the only way his son can look at him straight on, without turning away.
The grim nature of Ray’s condition becomes more of a problem as the story progresses so that, by the end, the man has lost practically all of his dignity. As well as being separated from his family, he is also unable to carry out basic tasks – like cleaning himself properly – because of his enormous weight. Early on in the novel his condition is treated almost humorously, with just a tinge of poignancy, but by the end it is nothing but monstrous. What’s more, there’s the fact that his family know the state of misery Ray lives in, and yet do not help him. After all, why should they, after he treated them so badly? When do obligation and sympathy stop? These are fascinating questions which Daniel struggles with throughout the book.
I thought this book was fantastically written. It powerfully conveys the feeling of tragedy, both in death and everyday life, through a brief and gentle glimpse into one man’s life.
“The more I think about my father, the more I think about myself.”
I read this on my Kindle – it was another book I requested from NetGalley. It didn’t take long to read, partly because it was so short, but also because I found myself thinking, “just one more section, just one more.”
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?