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Michael Kimball

Michael Kimball is the author of Us, Dear Everybody, and Big Ray.

Blurbs

"[An] astonishingly moving novel . . . We're left gasping for air. . . ."

– Alec Solomita

"In this tender, gorgeous novel, Michael Kimball explores how we try to understand even the most difficult family members.”

– Leigh Newman

"[Big Ray is] a great character . . . He's dead at the start of the novel, and it's impossible not to wish him deader. . . ."

– Susannah Meadows

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Big Ray

If You Take the 'e' Out of Dead, You Get Dad

05/04/13

In some ways, Michael Kimball’s Big Ray felt like I was reading from a dirge, a long melancholy hymn fractured into broken pieces, unified by Kimball’s troubled melody. There were too many parallels I identified with, too many details I understood too well to read this without a conflicted sense of empathy. Kimball bares all through his narrator, Daniel Todd Carrier, who recounts the life of his father, the eponymous Big Ray.

The book starts with the death of his father and while outwardly, it’s a biography revealing strips from Big Ray’s life, it evolves into an autopsy of their relationship, a dissection of sundered identity. Anecdotes, vignettes, and observations give us glimpses of who Big Ray is, though it reads less like a novel and more like a candid conversation with a good friend over drinks. In fact, the prose is so natural and free-flowing, it almost vanishes into the backdrop. Physical traits become character sketches as in the case of his father who is “morbidly obese” and suffers sleep apnea.

The snoring it caused was turbulent, violent, and full of animal sounds. The snoring was also part of why my mother divorced my father. She couldn’t get any good sleep either. Plus, my father took up most of the bed. There was just enough room for my mother to lie there and not move.

That paralysis his mother suffers becomes emblematic of their relationship that eventually leads to its fissure.

Daniel tries to find a map to navigate his father’s life, but contradictions abound, from his early military career that was mostly non-existent, to the quirky, almost accidental way his parents met (yelling at each other on the street). His father gambles, argues with his mom about everything, and scoops up all the leftover food at the dinner table. I was always waiting for a moral climax, the moment where the son would gain some insight into his father that would help the two bond. It was refreshingly authentic, then, that so much was left unresolved. The dysfunctional family never finds itself and there’s a morbid beauty in their disastrous interactions which is part of the allure of Big Ray.

The narrative jumps from the present to the past, but the transitions aren’t jarring and are handled as branching conversations that segue into different areas including a whole lot of fat jokes. Like most people, Big Ray is full of dichotomies that the narrator struggles with. Daniel seeks answers, not just for the sake of resolution, but his curiosity too. For example, his father has an argument with his mother because she sets out slices of bread rather than dinner rolls. It seems extremely petty until we’re told:

For my father, good bread was an important distinction between the poor farm family he grew up in and the middle-class family he expected us to be. That is why we had family dinners on Sunday. That is why we ate so many pot roasts.

The grossest memory of his father was when he’d make breakfast and he’d “stand over a frying pan wearing nothing but tight, stretchy, red bikini briefs. His underwear was always too small for him, so the crack of his butt stuck out above the waistband. . . He liked his eggs greasy and over easy. He fried his bacon until it was burnt. . . Even today, the smell of greasy eggs still makes me feel queasy.” The father makes for a ridiculous figure in the tight briefs, but he’s intent on cooking his bacon to crisp because that happens to be the way he likes it. The son endures the oily mornings because he has no choice, although he resists his father’s will by leaving before finishing the breakfast. Scenes like this form a thematic link throughout illustrating their conflict and hint at the bigger issues rotting their connection.

I went through a stage where I would walk into whatever room my father was in and turn the lights off. I never told anybody why, but I was trying to make him disappear.

Daniel is still turning off the lights paragraph by paragraph. Part of his anger comes from the abuse, both physical and mental, that is inflicted by his father on both him and his sister. It’s uncomfortable to read and there’s a final revelation near the end that left me feeling both depressed and ill. To the book’s credit, the scene is handled with brutal honesty but never feels like exploitation or a pity-seeking confessional.

It’s a gutsy truth to share with strangers (us the readers) and I know it’s a delicate balance to render this painful experience without coming across as sensational. I felt like Daniel was performing a mental baptism to exorcise that past trauma through this recounting and the loose structure of the book becomes more poignant as we realize it’s his attempt at finding answers in the nuances and details that comprise the jumbled mass of his memories.

In the end, there’s an interesting cycle revolving around weight that weaves an organic analogy for the cycle of the book. When Big Ray was born, he was six pounds. He ballooned up to 500 pounds, which “is also the size of the largest kind of lion, a full-grown male.” But as Daniel notes after his father is cremated, “My dad’s ashes weighed just over six pounds, which means he lost around 500 pounds after he died.” His dad went right back to where he started, and there’s an ambivalence and yearning that haunts the book from beginning to end originating from that lack of resolution. “If you take the e out of dead, you get dad.” Likewise, strip out the ‘Big’ from Big Ray, and all you have left is Ray.

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