By Michael Kimball
Bloomsbury, 185 pages, $23, ISBN: 978-1-60819-854-2
Most metaphors weigh a few ounces. Big Ray weighs five hundred pounds. He isn’t the sort of metaphor that fits through a window. Think grand piano. And we’re talking dead weight, not live weight, so right away we know that all of Michael Kimball’s skills—his deft handling of gesture—aren’t going to be much help as he walks and drags and pushes the big refrigerator across nearly two hundred hysterically sad pages. Kimball does the heavy lifting, but don’t just sit there, help him! I did my part by making sound effects. Grunts and groans and gasps.
It’s amazing the author found the ends of some paragraphs. It’s amazing this story ever got told. When the book was released last September Kimball gave plenty of interviews, explaining the Rick Moody-like trans genre—half-memoir, half- roman a clef. Kimball doesn’t just write close to the wound. He does a cannonball off the high dive. Once he’s in the pool of old scars we see him doing an Esther Williams backstroke so precise the saltine cracker balanced on his forehead never gets soggy.
Big Ray is a predatory glutton. While I like to believe that every effect has at least two causes, Big Ray’s past is one of those that just sort of happens. His death unlocks the grief and memory of his son who tells the story. Although he died seven years ago, the story is told as if it had only happened a few pages before the book’s beginning. The son is still preoccupied with its details and logistics this long after.
My heart leaps up when I behold, some say. Those afraid to leap tend to have a lack of faith. It’s the landing—not the jump—that worries them. The son has a persistent not-knowingness—even the first sentence of this book contains the hedging word probably. He doesn’t know how old his father was when he died: “I can’t be exactly sure because my father had been dead for a few days before anybody found him…probably five days.”
The son’s way of grasping what he cannot understand is to learn the order of things, as if knowing all the minutes could make an irrational hour seem comprehensible. This book is an obsession on chronology. When he’s confused the son repeats what he knows and starts over, trying to find the connections between abstract effects and concrete causes. This is why, although he has his own life, a marriage, the world of a different city, the son is still a very young adult in spite of being his thirties. He knows what he feels, the physical reactions to his emotions, without knowing what those emotions are even seven years later.
As a witness, the narrator is unreliable because he seems so unformed, but we’re drawn into his experience by his methodical openness, his deadpan, his tone of Oh well, someone had to have their life destroyed. The fact that he seems to have so little agency for his own life is charming. Haven’t we all shrugged at life? Isn’t that why we cry when no one is looking? The son says in the early going: “For most of my life, I have been afraid of my father. After he died, I was afraid to be a person without a father, but I also felt relieved he was dead. Everything about my father seemed complicated like that.”
Kimball’s willingness to engage the idea he’s created, to flesh out the metaphor, gives each of us a craft workshop in describing things which there are no words for. He doesn’t settle for calling his dad a fat monster, but rather, like Sexton “wondrously tunneling” into her own beasts, Kimball focuses on logistics. The way Big Ray sat in his truck sideways in order to drive, only able to make right turns. The way he sits on the floor because nothing can hold him. The way he pees all over the bathroom because he can neither see his penis nor the commode. In one old photograph of Big Ray in fifth grade “He’s trying to smile, but it looks like he hasn’t learned how.” Our rational mind doesn’t want to believe in the father, but our practical mind cannot not believe in him.
While the father becomes more real, more alive, in every chapter, the son is completely open about how pathetic his upbringing is. He doesn’t have any judgments to put on his dad’s head. The son seems nonplussed about missing out on a world that excited the rest of us. My buddy Rachel talks about that special age of boys who are carrying toy guns in one hand and teddy bears in the other. Big Ray’s son skipped that part of life. The world is just something to walk through—to endure—for the molested speaker. In one instance, the father’s inability to deal with his childhood wounds—his own father shooting and drowning all of the cats—contrasts mightily with the son’s trying explicitly to deal with the old hurts centering on his father:
That story was why, when I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to have a cat. That was why I also wasn’t allowed to have a dog or any other kind of pet—no matter how many times I asked. As some kind of shiny consolation, my parents would buy me glossy photobooks of cats and dogs for my birthdays and Christmas. Sometimes, when I was feeling particularly lonely, I would pull one of the glossy photobooks down from the bookshelf in my bedroom and start naming the cats or the dogs.
The phenomenologists—if they exist—are not always right Kimball seems to be saying. We don’t know if something matters just because we can name it. We’re not even scratching the surface, because living isn’t only about the concepts. It can help us when we’re lonely, but no amount of drinking your own tears will slake your thirst. The complexities are what push back against answers and knowing, and the more the son describes the father, the more he seems to be describing himself: “I don’t know if my father ever realized he was having an unhappy life.” The son has a coin collection while Big Ray has a racy pinup medallion, and in one episode the son observes: “Sometimes, I look at the hair on my arms and it makes me think of the hair on my father’s scary arms.”
Kimball is very slow to release information to the reader. When we first learn of Big Ray’s obesity in chapter nine it’s as if the son is reluctant to describe one way in which he and his dad were so different: “I need to say something else about my father. I don’t feel good about this, but the first thing I think about when I think about my father was how fat he was.” Kimball’s pacing uses many hundreds of micro paragraphs which approach us like mile markers. Some of the dolmens are rhapsodic and some are brief, and the chapters do not end, but merely stop. New chapters sometimes reflect a new time sequence, but not always. The plot points are based equally on action and realization, which is a little closer to how things seem in life where consciousness seems to matter as much as actually doing something. Soon after passing a mile marker which contains fat jokes, we come upon the next: “I hated him, but I wanted him to like me. I was ashamed of him, but I wanted him to be proud of me.”
This duality is present in one of my favorite scenes in the book when the father and son are playing poker. Big Ray is broke, and has to borrow money from his son to make ante: “…he had used half my life’s savings to win the other half of my life’s savings from me.” This brief reminiscence becomes one of Stuart Dybek’s “Magic Objects” toward the end of the novel when the son takes Big Ray’s ashes to Law Vegas.
Kimball is not shy about telling interviewers he wrote Big Ray in three months. Although we can all agree this had something to do with his having lived the book his whole life, I believe it has more to do with his developing skill as a writer. This is Kimball’s fourth book, although it’s his third published book since his third book, Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story on a Postcard, was published, and re-published, recently. There’s also a collection of short stories which must be cooking.
Subject matter—in spite of overwhelming the speaker—is only part of the lyric in Big Ray. What exactly is Big Ray to the rest of us? Is Big Father a new of way of calling Big Brother? How do we write about weighty issues like AIDS, rape, child abuse, poverty without the subject overtaking the art?
There are many ways to answer these questions. This novel is one of them. A story about the child in each of us. A story about the Big Ray in each of us. That’s the value of looking at Big Ray as a metaphor and not only as Michael’s dad. If the child is the father of the Man, surely we must all be cousins. Bloomsbury re-released Big Ray in paperback this past June making it a perfect Father’s Day gift. It might not be what he had in mind, but it’s better than giving him another suit tie with strawberries printed on it.