When a copy of Big Ray by Michael Kimball landed, quite unexpectedly, in my porch I didn’t think that it would be my kind of book at all. The title didn’t speak to me. The cover, though striking, didn’t draw me in. And the concept – a son’s meditation on the life and death of his father – didn’t appeal at all.
But I thought that I owed the book a chance, that I should at least take a look inside before letting it go. When I did, opening the pages and reading one of the five hundred entries that make up the whole I realised that I had to start at the beginning and read to the very end.
“For most of my life I have been afraid of my father. After he died, I was afraid to be a person without a father, but I also felt relieved he was dead. Everything about my father seem complicated like that.”
I had to read because the works were clear and stark, because the voice that spoke those word was utterly real, and because there was a sincerity that made me feel that it would be wrong to turn away.
Big Ray died alone, morbidly obese, in squalor, and estranged from his family.
His son, Daniel, had to clear his apartment. And he had to work through his feelings about his father and his family history.
Daniel recalled what he knew of his father’s upbringing, of his own childhood, of his parents’ marriage and divorce, and of his father’s long and slow decline.
There is violence, there is abuse, reported with restraint and with honesty.
And, most strikingly, there is a moving story of ties that bind and that pull us back even when we don’t want to be pulled back. The need we feel for parents and family, even when we know that they are horribly flawed. And the pain, the resentment, the anger, all the complex emotions that brings.
The structure works beautifully, and Daniel’s journal is stream-of consciousness at its most accessible. The words say much, and the way that they are said says even more. The breaks between entries allow the story to move back and forth, offer space for consideration, and provide welcome breathing space.
The reality of the story, of the lives it took in, meant that there could be no real ending. But there were two entries towards the end that threw a clearer light onto events of the past and the effects that were still being, would go on being felt.
This wasn’t a comfortable book, and it has proved to be a difficult book to write about, but it was utterly real, and so very profound.
An accomplished piece of writing.