Michael Kimball
Big Ray
Bloomsbury USA
185 pp.

As his son, Daniel, turned a year older, Big Ray lay beached on his living room floor in front of the too loud TV, smelly and dead.  Alive, Big Ray was a nasty, domineering presence, preceded by his rage and obesity, as he was abusive to his children and the woman he married—who left him twice. In death, Ray is no less a presence, even years later, as his five hundred pound void troubles his son who tries, like a midlife crisis, to spark a connection with his father, but inevitably remains a man who “used to be a boy with a father.” Big Ray, Kimball’s fourth book (Bloomsbury 2013), conflicts the reader with dueling moments of disgust and compassion as Daniel, the narrator, is steeped in confusion and guilt as he contemplates the bond or lack of bond he shared with Ray saying, “I still don’t like my father, but I still miss him.”

In life and death, Ray is a juggernaut: he’s tragic and repugnant, lethargic and nauseating; however, his flaws verge on ones that elicit sympathy from the reader, but are flaws nonetheless, still painful and still hopeless. After Ray’s unceremonious passing, Daniel tries to reconcile the death of his father with the conflicting impulse to hate the person most boys unquestionably love. Michael Kimball’s Big Ray reinvents the proverbial hate the sin not the sinner (in its domestic form) as Daniel searches for closure where there is none, all the while knowing: “My father wasn’t what he wanted to be. My father wasn’t what I wanted him to be either.”

Structured like a family photo album, each brief block of prose serves as a faded Polaroid, sequenced with its own missing pictures, over the span of a troubled lifetime. The early photos of Ray are inconclusive yet indicative of a man who never did enough, a tendency that followed him to his death. The fragmented narrative ranges from Ray’s backwoods upbringing to his lackluster military career to a late-life job as a determined yet poor gambler living in a Vegas hotel. Kimball’s simple yet wrenching prose embraces the reader in the way strangers speak as if they’ve known each other forever. All the while, the moments in between piece together the present narrative as Daniel and his sister parse through Ray’s few worldly possessions and develop an understanding—one without catharsis—of a looming presence and undeniable absence.

The book is both heartrending and tragic in its depiction of a family held together and shattered by the vastly troubled Big Ray, but bold and beautiful in its simplistic prose and ambitious structure. With the elements of family (unconditional and tenacious) mixed with atrocities we, as a culture, have come to abhor (sexual abuse and gluttony), Big Ray masterfully engages a too human dilemma, one simple in its nature yet virtually unsolvable. This is a brilliant work about sons and fathers and the relationships that are forged or denied, heart touching, and endlessly complex.

--Eric Morris

Eric Morris teaches creative writing at Cleveland State University and serves as a poetry editor for Barn Owl Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The South Dakota Review, Puerto del Sol, The Laurel Review, Pank, Post Road, Thrush, The Jet Fuel Review, The Collagist, Anti, Devil's Lake, Redactions, and others. He lives and writes in Akron, OH. 

Also by Eric Morris
Review of The Louisiana Purchase by Jim Goar

From the archives...
Review of Us by Michael Kimball (reviewed by Michael Goroff)