Michael Kimball’s father is dead, and so is Daniel Todd Carrier’s. Big Ray, Kimball’s fourth novel, uses hundreds of brief entries to artfully and empathetically explore the loss of a father—in particular, one who wasn’t very good; one who was, in fact, appalling. Begun as a memoir, Kimball turned it towards fiction because he wanted “more control over how it was told, a fiction writer’s prerogative,” and the result is a story clearly set in the truth of a writer who lived this relationship in all of its ugly, dark recesses. Hinged on the border between love and hate, between redemption and condemnation, Big Ray is a tremendously beautiful novel that tackles death and obesity and child abuse and forgiveness from a strikingly new perspective.
Survived by… is a standard component of obituaries, and those survivors in Big Ray are struggling with this subsistence to varying degrees. A confirmed molester, incestuous at his core, and obese almost to home-bound status, the titular character Big Ray was no icon of parenting. And while Ray’s daughter and ex-wife are able to mostly move forward after his death, his son Daniel isn’t as easily appeased in the grieving process. For Daniel, and for Big Ray as a novel, it is about learning to let go properly, and with justice, even without realizing he was holding on.
“I didn’t have to make many telephone calls, but some of them were difficult. There were a few people who needed to be reminded who my father was and I was surprised they had been able to forget him. I asked each of them how they did it, but none of them could explain.”
Kimball is an expert of the vignette, and in Big Ray they are used to sift through heaped memories, from the first instances of childhood through the last conversation before Ray’s death, to discover who Daniel’s father was, how Ray became that way, and what it means to be that kind of man’s son. Each moment in Big Ray is short, a paragraph or two, but these separate scenes are often overwhelming in their connotations, in their metaphors, and when stacked end to end they offer an enormously powerful examination of truth and love and cowardice and courage, between a father and a son.
“The more I think about my father, the more I think about myself.”
As he did with the beautifully rendered Dear Everybody, where Kimball made us empathize with suicide in a way we may never have before, Big Ray pushes readers to empathize with the death of a molester, of an abusive father, in the most unexpected ways. Big Ray is, in the end, about a love practically impossible to accept, and yet either unavoidable, or simply horribly, disgustingly possible. Daniel is endeavoring to get past his father, but he is also learning how to accept him, and that is the crux of Big Ray. Most of us will survive our parents, and some of them survived us, but the memories between those moments, the way our lives intersect, that is what Kimball unearths: there is no changing who we come from.