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. Continue reading