Editors and agents like Big Books. So do the people who give prizes. “We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature,” Michael Cunningham wrote on the New Yorker blog, describing the criteria he and his fellow judges used to winnow the field of entrants for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. “When [we] talked Big Book, we were thinking almost literally—a book that was, if not over 500 pages long, vast in its scope, enormous in its concerns.” On the surface, these characteristics would seem to disqualify Michael Kimball’s Big Ray from consideration for the biggest of the American book awards. The novel weighs in at under two hundred pages. It’s focused on family life rather than on politics or religion. Kimball writes in a tight prose style that doesn’t call attention to itself. There isn’t a plot to speak of. But Big Ray is a great novel, a small book that happens to be about the idea of bigness.
The book begins with the death of Big Ray. His son, the narrator, describes his father in this way:
When [he] was born he weighed six pounds, twelve ounces. When my father was in the Marines he weighed 160 pounds. Not long before my father died, he told me he weighed over 500 pounds. Over the course of his lifetime my father gained at least 493 pounds. Over the course of my lifetime, my father tripled in size.
It quickly becomes clear that Big Ray’s largeness is not benign. “I don’t know what caused my father’s death, but there were a lot of things wrong with him,” the narrator thinks. The sentence is simple, but is layered, black humor lying on top of a mix of warmth and fear. This is like much of the prose in the novel. Measured sentences come one after another, ticking like time bombs.
For example, early on in the book, the narrator describes a photograph of his father taken when he was a Marine. “There’s a flag in the background. His face is freckled and there’s a rifle in his right hand. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him look scared.” A page after this photo, we jump to a section in which the narrator asks his father if he’s ever shot someone. Big Ray answers, “It was war and it wasn’t like what happened on television,” before retrieving his rifle from the closet, laying it in his son’s hands and teaching him how to look through the scope. We read about the narrator dressing in green and playing army in the back yard, we read about the narrator pointing the rifle at his father as he sleeps in his armchair, and then several pages later we read this:
At some point, my mother told me my father had never served in any war, had never been in any kind of combat, had never fired his rifle at anything besides a target. My mother told me my father had never shipped out, that the only fighting he ever engaged in was at home.
Kimball’s prose is so luminously clear that each new paragraph seems like another piece of evidence in the case for and against Big Ray. So even without a real plot, there’s a lot of suspense, much of which comes from the way that Kimball organizes the revelations about Big Ray from the most benign—Big Ray’s size—to much worse: he lies, he’s mean, and he’s physically and sexually abusive. The novel could make Big Ray seem like a monster, but this isn’t an abuse book. It’s a lament.
Kimball ends his novel with the sentence, “Everything I do now, I do it with a dead dad,” a refrain that’s heard throughout the book. One of the achievements of the novel is how Kimball is able to fully investigate the idea of losing one’s father. A father’s death in the abstract is very different than a father’s death in the specific, and by the end of the book the idea is infinitely more fraught than at the beginning. “I don’t know if my father ever realized he was having an unhappy life,” the narrator thinks.
Big Books are too often concerned with coming up with systems and rules, the effect of which is to simplify, to comfort the reader with the illusion that things work out in the end. Kimball is not interested in doing this. I suppose it might be possible to read this book as an allegory about the dangers of obesity and aggression, and to extrapolate further, about the role of the United States in the world, but Kimball also seems uninterested in moving away from the personal to make larger arguments. In this novel he writes about one father and one son, about what it means to be small in relation to a father who is so much physically larger, and what it means when such a large presence is physically gone from this world. Big Ray isn’t a particularly easy book to read, and I finished it feeling shaken. In this small book Kimball has captured the terrible contradictions of life as it’s lived.