In Michael Kimball‘s books, writing is an act of quiet devastation. By treating emotionally charged subjects in a matter-of-fact, direct manner, Kimball lays bare the wounds on the body and in the mind, drawing us a picture of the blood and guts and yes, piss – without the excess of pathos that other writers might deliver up with it. This plain-spoken approach to the cruelest cuts is a brutal and truth-driven process; it forces the reader to look, really look, at the hurts that we inflict upon one another.
In his latest book, Big Ray, these hurts are, if anything, even more painful, because they are largely those of Kimball himself. In what he says is mostly an autobiographical novel, the narrator contrasts his father’s life story with his death story, using the familiar story-in-pictures frame in a way that feels appropriate and right for the book. The narrator has always felt distant from his father, and so seeing his father’s unfamiliar life unfold in photographs works well here, and enhances not only the distance between Ray and his son, but the idea that none of us can ever really have the whole person in our parents (or our children, for that matter.) Only a little part of our parents’ lives belong to us, and all of us are really strangers to each other in so many ways. There is so much distance between even and maybe especially families. Kimball writes:
I have a cracked photograph of my father as a newborn that is a kind of family portrait. My father’s parents are standing outside in front of their rented farmhouse surrounded by weeds. My father’s mother is holding him against her left hip, but she’s leaning her upper body away from him and looking at the camera in a challenging way. My father’s father is standing next to them, but he is leaning away…None of the people can get away from each other, but they have created as much distance between each other as they can.
Kimball also does something else quietly and expertly – almost like a clockmaker, with such precision that you almost don’t notice the way it’s working because it works so perfectly: he embeds observations and comments and small anecdotes in what I like to think of as the story buried in the story. For instance, he writes, in one small complete section,”I don’t know if my father ever realized he was having an unhappy life.” These fragments, thoughts, and ideas make up a whole sublayer, a philosophical backdrop to the life and death of Big Ray that is larger than any one story. This is the story of family, of relationships and pain and the infinitely complicated nature of love. Nothing brought this home more to me than this terribly sad and true and oddly comforting passage:
Of course, it wasn’t too long before I realized my father couldn’t really talk about himself and I stopped being disappointed with how little I got out of our conversations. Instead, I learned that gambling and eating were two of the few things my father and I had in common. And I learned that I should just do those two things with him while he was alive. I would worry about the rest after he was dead.
Big Ray is a lovely, very melancholy book, and one that leaves an imprint in the mind just like Big Ray’s on that armchair. It’s a story full of all the pain of family – sometimes so terribly laden with it that you feel guilty to keep turning pages. But it is also full of a strange beauty, a pause – a momentary grace in which we make not peace, exactly, but a kind of temporary accord with our past and the parents who gave it to us.