One might accept or reject the notion of a word as the beginning of things, but one cannot omit the transformation in word and through word that takes place on the pages of Big Ray, a novel by Michael Kimball.
With the death of his father, the novel’s main character, Daniel, re-enters his father’s life, and there is something unsettling in the way he tries to grasp and then understand something that is not immediately defined.
For example, Daniel seems to be obsessed with the date of his father’s death, which is unknown, since Big Ray lived alone, and died alone. His body was found one, or two, or maybe three days after. From the very beginning of the novel, Daniel’s thoughts circulate around that undefined date like a hawk above a field in hope of spotting movement, between knowing that something is waiting there to be discovered and not knowing what that “something” might actually be. When the analyzing of the undefined date becomes uncomfortable, almost disturbing, one falls easily into the presumption that its significance lies in Daniel’s pain. Naturally, he is in pain, and that’s why his thoughts became repetitious. And only when we finally settle in this acceptable explanation, do we discover that the truth might be, not is, but might be different. Daniel’s own analysis of his state reveal that right before receiving the news of his father’s death, he was in a car accident that left him shaken.
This surprising revelation jolts us from the comfort zone of logic based on cause and effect into the unknown and indefinable, which as we learn in the course of the novel, is also the known and unspoken. It is the “something” that needs to be defined for Daniel for the first time, and the reasons for this urgency correlates unambiguously with Daniel’s sense of compromised identity.
The prose unravels itself in short bursts—this is how much I can tell you in one breath, Daniel seems to be saying. And that’s all he can offer after a lifetime of holding his breath perpetually. Slowly the rhythm of the prose becomes the reader’s breath—we can read it only in small bursts, because the “something” is revealing itself slowly, but is present from the beginning. Unspoken, yet visible in every detail revealed about Daniel’s father— about his super-sized body, about his persistence of being in the center of attention, about his alcoholism, about his abusive behavior.
Big Ray is dead, but he is also alive—he transcended into the memory of his son who must find the “something.” What is the “something”? Is it understanding? Forgiveness? Closure? Or perhaps it is something that cannot be articulated? Perhaps this is something that can be only defined by movement, by search, by constant circulation above words?
Is it the state of being in which language fails and all that can be experienced is the state of one’s mind wondering between the spaces among hate, betrayal, love, hope, longing? Kimball reveals that the novel is based on his own life, and the raw struggle of remembering to forget, and forgetting to remember, presents itself in a prose that carries more than the meaning of words. There is a subtle yet clear and powerful presence—perhaps it is the author’s life, perhaps it is the universal painful truth about our human condition—that speaks to the intrinsic quality of what we call a sense of humanity.
How else can we understand Daniel’s struggle? In the world we would like to imagine for everyone, father is the one who protects his children, not the one from whom the children need to be protected. He is the one who gives them comfort, safety, and love; not the one who steals money from his son’s piggy bank to pay his small daughter for things that should not happen, not the one who holds ultimate power over the most unbearable feelings of his own children.
On the pages of Kimball’s novel, Big Ray, Daniel’s father, is slowly turned into words, but he is not reduced by this transformation, nor is he elevated; for the first time he, the overbearing one, is defined on his son’s terms. Daniel uses the embarrassing word “fat,” and the painful word “hate,” and the too-much-to-bare “my sister’s small hands.”
Transforming his father into words gives Daniel the power to step into the inferno once more, but not in fear or being pulled by his father’s overbearing presence, but in confidence—however measured—of the one who is now in charge. For Daniel, through the power of his own choice, the world becomes empty and finally full; scary, and finally liberated; alone but finally not lonely. Big Ray is gone, and now he becomes his son’s story—Daniel decides how he sees his father, and his father can’t change, can’t impose, anything anymore.
After his father’s death, Daniel is here to know it all—the cruelty and the beauty of the world. He decides what to see, and how to name the things he chooses to see. For the first time he creates his own reality, he himself becomes the father of reshaping, molding, and creating. Daniel describes his childhood experience to first remove it from reality, and then put it back. He changes his life into a story to regain his own life, to resurrect himself, and to go on living. Through telling the story of his father, and ultimately of himself—through words and in words, in this powerful novel—he re-claims his own identity.
About the reviewer:
Danuta Hinc holds an M.A. in Philology from the University of Gdansk. She completed three years of postgraduate studies at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences under the direction of distinguished Professor Dr. Maria Janion. She is a Lecturer at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she teaches Professional Writing.
Hinc is the author of To Kill the Other, (Tate Publishing 2011) the fictionalized life story of one of the 9/11 hijackers. In the extensive research related to her novel, she formed close relationships with people from Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, and came to believe that the future of humanity can be saved only through a drastic shift in the paradigm of socio political engagement.
Hinc has published short fiction in the Little Patuxent Review, The Muse, Litteraria, and numerous features in the newsletter of the Polish Library in Washington, D.C.
She is currently working on a fictionalized memoir, Angels in the Forest, which is based on the life of her grandfather, Józef Król (Joseph King) and World War II. She is also working on a collection of short stories based on people and events in her family and the history of 20th century Europe, titled, Europe Without a Name. Hinc lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.