The narrator of Michael Kimball’s fifth novel seeks to recount and commemorate his deceased father, the eponymous Big Ray, whose massive girth is only surpassed by the legacy of disquiet he bequeaths to his son. The actual incidents of psychic damage inflicted over the course of the father’s life on his family— starkly portrayed and incrementally associated to maximal disturbing effect— matter much less than the mechanisms of memory with which the narrator must contend in evoking him. Ray is described in hindsight in all his repulsive gluttony and reprehensible behavior—food and family are both greedily devoured by an insatiable eater and ogre. This epitome of domestic terror has no redeeming graces whatsoever and yet the son stutters in judgment, unable to formulate a decisive damnation of the father. Rebuke is proffered along with an impulse to understand and show compassion to an unregenerate lifetime bully. So this novel, itself dedicated to a dead father, becomes not a trite exposition of therapeutic maneuvering but a deft study in extreme ambivalence, which gives it a delirious, precise, and pressurized power.
Told in squibs calibrated into almost clinically dispassionate tones, the story begins with the fact of the father’s death from cardiac arrest and then veers back and forth on details and speculations about his life. Estrangement between father and son is severe but not absolute; filial determination to contrive enduring, meaningful, and positive connections to his forbear enforces a kind of psychological desperation that can never fully pull itself out of a logic of recuperation bound to fail. The complex attachment to the family is here brought to unbearable life with a nuance normally quashed for melodramatic surges and revelatory hysterics more suited to a sitcom.
Revelation does reside here—and concluding passages clarify the extremity of Ray’s terribleness—but it mostly emerges in the reader’s retrospective appreciation of the narrator’s deeper struggle, the conflict whether to relent or strive ceaselessly to embrace the seemingly unredeemable. Such an overture has broad ethical implications and applications, and Kimball serves the reader well in demonstrating the difficulty of fathoming the monstrous, the depraved, the awfully familiar. For all the extensive (non-judgmental) commentary on Ray’s grossly massive frame, he is ultimately an inconsequential absent present, a sounding board/body on which the son can cast his wavering claims on paternity, the weight of heritage, and the sustainability of even base-level affection. Rather than being written large like the immensity of the father’s body, the narrator’s chronicle of undergoing the strain of formulating humanist principle, mobilizing reluctant scruple, is subdued and subcutaneous, an intellectual questing. With Big Ray, Michael Kimball establishes a crucial fictional index of wrenching human dilemma and a sure-fire addition to his impressive body of work.
Originally Published September 14, 2012