Benjamin Hale treats troubled characters with care in 'The Fat Artist and Other Stories'
By Michal Schaub
Jun 02, 2016 | 8:00 AM
Peter Cast, the protagonist of Benjamin Hale’s short story “The Minus World,” feels as if he has a broken compass. “How do other people do it?” he wonders in frustration. “How do other people navigate the world so easily, as if they already know the way, and never feel unmoored, lost, frantic … searching for a north that seems to be everywhere at once?”
It’s a question that could be asked by nearly all of the characters in “The Fat Artist,” the excellent new story collection from Hale, author of the 2011 novel “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,” an unlikely love story of an articulate chimp on the run. In this book, Hale’s heroes and antiheroes don’t glide through the world around them; they stumble, fall and get kicked while they’re on the ground. Sometimes they get up. Mostly, they don’t.
Take Peter, an alcoholic and drug addict in tenuous recovery, who’s burned most of the bridges once available to him. His brother, an MIT scientist, is the exception: “All of the possible people who might help Peter had been overfished, like a sea that has no more fish in it. But Greg, Greg had fish left for him.”
Greg finds Peter a job, but it doesn’t take long for him to relapse. The fallout is spectacular, but Hale doesn’t play it for melodrama; the tragedy is all the more affecting for its predictability. It’s the same with all the stories in “The Fat Artist” — Hale understands that whether people burn out or fade away, it usually hurts the same amount.
The collection begins with “Don’t Worry Baby,” which follows Miles and Odelia, two 1960s political radicals forced to flee the country after their organization’s plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange is discovered. They go to Morocco “to do the William Burroughs thing, do the Paul Bowles thing.” After having a baby, they head to Mexico City to hook up with some old radical friends.
But things go awry quickly when Miles secretly gives Odelia, who’s still breastfeeding her son, a dose of LSD. The flight to North America descends into the worst of trips, in both senses of the word, as a disconsolate Odelia becomes terrified that her baby has ingested the drug through her breast milk.
The plot is a hand that’s easy to overplay, but Hale holds back, delivering a frightening story that ends without an overly neat resolution. The reader finishes it unsettled, unsure of what’s going to happen, stricken with a mixture of hope and dread.
That’s also the case with “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” one of the finest stories in the collection. It combines three interlocking narratives, centered around the Iridium flares, phenomena caused by sunlight reflecting off satellites, often visible in the night sky.
The flares are witnessed by Johanna, an 84-year-old woman who “was losing information. It was as if her brain was a wall from which every day someone was carefully moving a few bricks, slowly weakening the integrity of the structure.”
As Johanna watches the flares, Hale’s remarkable prose is on display. “Every time she saw the light in the sky, she felt something moving inside herself,” he writes, “a feeling that was not quite terror and not awe and not humility, and not a feeling that she was catching sight of something of sublime beauty, but a feeling that combined elements of all of these, a feeling that must have been something akin to what early human beings felt millions of years ago when they looked up at the spectacular vault of sky above them, haunted with ribbons of starsmoke, and had no idea who they were or where they were or how big was the universe.”
It’s a setup for tragedy: Add Kelly, a perpetually exhausted construction worker and newspaper deliveryman, who lives with his wife and their infant son and is driven into a rage, and nearby in the woods, Fred, an aging hippie who’s taking pictures of his 16-year-old niece, Lana, who is naked.
Hale’s writing is measured and expansive at the same time; he constructs beautiful but never showy sentences. He has the capacity to shock, but he doesn’t abuse it; even his oddest stories seem believable, and that’s largely due to the care he puts into creating his imperfect, memorable characters.
The standout character in Hale’s book is the character that gives the title story its name. “I am thirty-three years old,” says Tristan Hurt, “and I am about to die.”
Tristan is a performance artist known for his horrific, explicit displays, one of which involves vats of his bodily fluids, latex casts of his genitals and live masturbation. “Critics praised my work as ugly, angry, abrasive, disgusting, violent, scatological, pornographic, antisocial, and antihuman,” he brags. “It’s not terribly easy, mind you, to get called these things anymore.”
After his girlfriend breaks up with him, he becomes despondent, and gains an enormous amount of weight. Broke, he decides to monetize his situation by putting himself on display at an art museum, urging visitors to bring food for him, effectively assisting his slow suicide.
It’s a beautiful reflection on what people are willing to do for art, or what they’re willing to let art do to them. Tristan is like many of Hale’s characters — controlled by something outside of them, but under the illusion that they’re actually in charge.
Some of them are about to die; some of them have to face up to the long, complicated lives ahead of them. Hale treats all of them with care, and like the flare of a satellite that will one day decay and crash back down to Earth, it’s oddly beautiful and impossible to look away from.