Big Ray, By Michael Kimball

This elliptical novel deftly tackles the modern malaise of obesity and problematic fathers

The death of your father is harrowing, even if he was a bad dad. When Big Ray's body is discovered, Daniel's feelings are mixed: "For most of my life, I have been afraid of my father… I was afraid to be a person without a father, but I also felt relieved he was dead." Big Ray was bad-tempered and violent, often slapping his kids around.

On top of his abusive behaviour, he was wincingly crude; when Daniel asks what attracted him to his mother, Big Ray cites her facility in a particular sexual act. But most importantly, Big Ray was super-obese, weighing in at more than three times the average adult.

He grew up in rural poverty, spent a spell in the Marines and took a series of mundane jobs, ending up as an industrial safety inspector. The roots of his obesity are unclear, although Daniel's mother says that as a child his parents made him cook many of the family meals, which meant he ate last and was left permanently hungry. The consequences were severe. Among numerous health problems, Big Ray developed diabetes and high blood pressure. Late in life he could not urinate hygienically, because he could not reach his genitals.

Michael Kimball's own father was obese, raising the question of how much of this novel is disguised biography; one can only hope Big Ray's worst habits are fictional. Kimball is an award-winning US writer and his approach here is imaginatively elliptical. He casts the novel in 500 paragraphs for each of Big Ray's 500 pounds of bulk. Many are self-contained anecdotes or reflections, dark vignettes slapped down like burgers or bags of fries. Daniel's overall tone is one of aggrieved bafflement that the huge emotional burden of his monstrous dad does not vanish when he passes on.

It is rare for obesity to be tackled this directly in literature and Kimball is ahead of the pack with his intimate account of a condition that is assuming centre-stage in developed societies. Even so, the core of the book is filial strife, pivoted on the contrast between Daniel's acute sensitivity and his father's remoteness. Big Ray's pastime was gambling and Daniel gets closest to his dad when he joins him in the casino. Unfortunately, like so many men of his generation, Big Ray's interior world remains firmly closed. Nevertheless, Kimball's delicately layered account of Daniel's efforts to connect with his dad builds to a whole that is intensely moving.