Reviewed by Joseph Riippi
Bloomsbury, September 2012
When I was twelve years old, I had to write a school report on what I wanted to be when I grew up. The title of my report was “My Dad.” I stood in the front of the classroom with shaky wide-ruled sheets and listed short descriptions of my father.
Today I am four inches taller than my father. My shoes are four sizes bigger than his, I outweigh him by eighty pounds, and you’d have to look hard to find resemblance. I studied literature in college and he studied engineering. I live on the East Coast and he on the West. I have memberships to museums. He has memberships to gyms and golf courses.
I love my father. But somewhere along the way I outgrew wanting to be exactly like him.
Big Ray, Michael Kimball’s gloriously-good new novel, tells the story of a son whose father, in life and death, can not be outgrown. Abusive, angry, and super obese, Big Ray was a hard man to love and an easy man to fear. He was a sad giant weighing in excess of 500 pounds, “the size of the largest kind of lion, a full grown male.”
Big Ray in life was someone to run from, and his wife and children ran. But in death, a man becomes but a collection of memories, and so the Big Ray that Kimball introduces us to here is importantly not Big Ray the man, but rather Big Ray the novel. Kimball’s narrator conjures for us a fictional Big Ray from memory and photographs as a way of uncovering some kind of truth about the other, dead Big Ray. And it’s this tension between truth and fiction, as well as the narrator’s own conflicting emotions, that power the narrative.
“I don’t understand my complicated feelings about my father,” our narrator admits. “I hated him, but I wanted him to like me. I was ashamed of him, but I wanted him to be proud of me.”
Inasmuch as a typical beginning-middle-end story, Big Ray isn’t that. What Kimball is after here, like our narrator, is a careful unpacking of the conflicting emotions that exist between a father and son. How can love and hate exist at once? Shame and pride? Fear and desire?
The result is overwhelming. Kimball’s language has its own oxymoronic qualities, defying bombast in favor of elegance and precision.
Sometimes I look at the hair on my arms and it makes me think of the hair on my father’s scary arms.
I don’t think my father liked being fat, but I do think he liked being bigger than everybody else.
My sister took my father’s truck and used it as a trade-in to buy a new car, which has been undependable. She tried to sell [his] beer steins and Coca-Cola collectibles online, but nobody else wanted the things our father collected.
Big Ray’s power is the slender, beautiful kind. More gazelle than lion.
When memories are all that’s left of a person, the ones doing the remembering are faced with a question: is what I am remembering necessarily true?
From the moment of learning that his father died, our narrator operates from a position of uncertainty:
My father probably died on January 28, 2005, but I wouldn’t know he was dead until a few days later when my sister called to tell me. My father lived alone and nobody else knew he was already dead either.
That initial “probably” leads to questions about the particulars of not only his father’s death—“it was probably five days before anyone knew”—but also his life. Through finding the truth of how he died, perhaps he can find the why behind the rest of his life:
We found out my father was dead because he didn’t pay his rent. The apartment manager sent one of the maintenance men to check on my father in his apartment. The maintenance man noticed that my father’s pickup truck was parked in front and a few newspapers were piled up around the apartment door…I’m glad my father didn’t die at the beginning of the month.
But while putting together the pieces of exactly how Big Ray died is one thing, learning exactly how he lived is quite another:
I was too young to remember anything about that time when my father choked my mother and she didn’t tell me about it until after he was dead. But sometimes my father would ask my mother if she remembered when he almost choked her to death and then my mother would ask my father if he ever worried about his dinner being poisoned. And then they would both start laughing. My sister and I always thought it was a joke.
Of course we learn too of Big Ray’s redeeming qualities. That he could be loving, that he was handsome despite being fat, and often well-liked. He beat his son’s face and played catch with him. He hugged his daughter and called her a whore. We learn that he could be hateful, ugly, and that his own children could fantasize of his death. Sometimes we pity him, and later, when certain abuses are revealed, it seems his death could not have come soon enough.
Narrative is powered by conflict and friction. Everything about Big Ray is conflicting. Everything about it is powerful.
In Big Ray, Michael Kimball has accomplished something astonishing. In seeking to explain how love and hate can exist at once, he’s given us the experience of loving and hating. And while, like Kimball’s narrator, we may not understand exactly why it happens, we most certainly know how it feels.
You’ll both love and hate him for it.
Joseph Riippi is the author of A Cloth House, Treesisters, The Orange Suitcase, and Do Something! Do Something! Do Something!