The Fat Kid
(Civil Coping Mechanisms Press, 2018)
Jamie Iredell’s bloody, disturbing, frequently funny new novel is a lyrical study of a strain of destructive American masculinity at the turn of the twenty-first century. Titled The Fat Kid, the book presents accounts of the lives of the titular character and his father (named, by contrast, the thin man). A pair of cultural outsiders—the thin man is a workaday type whose unhappy discovery about his roots transforms him into violent wanderer; his son grows up feeling alienated and at odds with the world—these men become criminals under the influence of a mysterious figure named, ironically, Emanuel (and known as, among other things, “The Man,” a comically fitting moniker to attach to a prophetic character who behaves in a positively Antichrist-like manner) and something called “The Machine.”
Narrated in alternating points of view, the novel traces two trajectories. In one, the thin man departs from polite Eastern society and makes his way west into desert and mind-bending horrors reminiscent of those found in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. In the second arc, the fat kid grows from humiliated and bullied child to vengeance-obsessed teenager to unrepentant mass-murderer. Ultimately, the two stories overlap and merge, with the mysterious and sometimes prophetic Emanuel and the thing or system he represents (“The Machine”) coming and going throughout. The novel is presented as a Western in the mode of Blood Meridian, though its short tale-and-anecdote-like chapters are reminiscent of the Appalachian storytelling that distinguishes an earlier McCarthy novel, CHILD OF GOD.
If I have not yet implied it clearly enough, let me be explicit: Iredell’s project is ambitious, and there are reminders of his book’s aims on every page. At times, this sense of a larger and surrounding endeavor can be frustrating, though it’s more often what draws the reader forward through suspense and the nauseating promise of violence and cruelty. With characters and objects identified as Iredell names them, it’s almost impossible to read such a text—even one that proceeds in a mode reminiscent of both the Western and the crime novel—without seeking an allegorical level. I think it’s there, too, and often the novel seems to be in conversation with McCarthy’s. Take this passage in which Emanuel addresses the fat kid and his oft-partner in crime, Cooter:
Emanuel perched his fists upon his hips, his duster spread open to expose his black canvas shirt. His smile was like hell itself, or heaven. Emanuel said, You don’t even know what you’ve gotten yourselves into, do you?
Emanuel didn’t wait for an answer. He said, Time. That’s all it is. Like an arrow, so they say, gliding endlessly onward. But upward, too? I doubt it. And what about you?
Still Emanuel did not seem interested in answers to his inquiries. He went on. But time is an illusion. This supple flesh—and here Emanuel squeezed one of his own muscled biceps—seems to move from fresh birth and childhood, into adulthood, and old age. But it’s not an arrow; it’s a river. It drains the reservoir of life until a dry lake bed is all men find, should there be men to find anything at all. But the Machine. The Machine ends this slavery to entropy. You probably don’t know that, for I did not, and relinquished it upon your own progenitor. And here Emanuel nodded at the fat kid. I was stupid to have done such a thing, but it seems there’s a purpose for every action. That fate is not fate so much as inevitability. Like the universe itself. There’s no will. Now tell me boys, is there such a thing as free will? Is there such a thing as the universe? Is there such a thing as the inevitability of the Machine itself?
In this section, Emanuel comes off as a reflection of McCarthy’s Judge Holden, but he appears to be less a facsimile than a peculiar distortion, and his strange appearance and villainous, worshipful speech seem to import something from the horror genre; it is as if Judge Holden and one of the cenobites from the Hellraiser franchise had a baby. Here, both universe and God—or the possibility of God—are muddled and dwarfed by a force that crosses the complexities of computer science with the pettiness of modern consumer culture.
Such, it seems, is the effect of the Machine, a mysterious cube of unknown, possibly even ancient provenance that changes sizes and commands the dreams of power and money among those who attempt to make it their own:
What exactly the Machine did was equally unknown. It whirred electrically and shifted in size. It could fit into the change pocket on a miniskirt, or it could cover a town. But in shape the Machine remained a box, its mass constant, no matter its size. Clear though, were the unmistakable results concomitant for those in possession of its mysteries. An extra supreme taco in the drivethru. A sudden call about an opening at a long-ago applied-for job. Sometimes even greater windfalls: a distant and suddenly deceased relative bequeathing vast fortune and equity; a sure bet at the northshore casinos; a lottery ticket fulfilled.
It could be tempting to see this object, which is sought and dismantled and rebuilt over the course of the novel, as a kind of talisman reminiscent of Tolkien’s One Ring, though my own sense tells me to read it as an image of a transformative technology that has lost its primary aura or identity to have it replaced by some meaner one: The Machine’s mystical powers cause the thin man to worship it, but the fat kid sees it as a means to making money. Choose any great tool of the last h150 years, and its use fits this pattern: the telephone, the radio, the television, the personal computer, the smart-phone.
The Fat Kid is Iredell’s fifth book. He has spent the past decade or so cultivating a reputation as something of an experimenter, publishing work that toys with genre and form in a spirit of tragicomic outrage. But while his first books are relatively lighthearted and ostensibly fictional, the most recent marks a turn toward a more solemn reckoning with the burdens of history, both personal and cultural. In The Fat Kid these strands come together with sobering frankness.
If Iredell’s novel is rendering a critique of a tradition of masculinity at this point in history, it suggests a narrowing of the possible futures imagined by fathers and sons of a certain class and cast of mind. Maybe there is also a gesturing toward another level of figuration, and all the killings in the book amount to a hieroglyphics of the way we deal with aggression and conflict in the Information Age. In any event, this is not an optimistic book, but another grim omen. Of course, one could simply read it as a crime novel with supernatural and domestic-tragic elements. It works that way, too.