November 21: “Love Letters From a Fat Man” by Naomi Benaron

Hey hey, Story366! Today is the Monday of Thanksgiving week and I had off of school, though my kids did not. That should have meant some glorious time to myself, to ourselves, Karen and I, but of course, we make our lives more complicated than that. Karen volunteered to escort our oldest on a field trip (to a children’s book fair in my department, ironically enough) and I, well, I took a nap. So it was that kind of day. That tree that fell down the other day? That also got picked up … literally. Karen was gone and I took the oldest to school and the youngest to the playground, and in less than an hour, the tree was just gone. I’d pictured a couple of guys with chainsaws working on the front lawn for a couple-few hours, dicing the wood into piles, but no. Not long after I left, Karen got home and reported the tree to have disappeared. They had to cut down the stump—the fallen-over tree was still attached—but they must have severed the thing from the earth, thrown it all into a big truck, and just took off. It’s almost like they wanted it whole so they could take it home and replant it in their yard. Because you can transplant whole dead plum trees, right? No? Well, then, what the fuck just happened?

Yesterday, I posed some pretty serious Harry Potter lore questions regarding Hagrid and didn’t get much of a response. As in, not a single person responded. So, what I’m hearing from you, Story366 readers, is that you’re not into discussions about Harry Potter. I hear you. Today I was going to one day raise the question of whether or not Ron is real or just Harry’s made-up ginger friend, but nope, I’ll leave that discussion for various chatrooms to which I belong and for my friend Rusty. Rusty’s sitting here now, shaking his head. What’s that, Rusty? Of course Ron isn’t real? That’s what you keep telling me, but you still can’t point to a single piece of evidence, not in the books, not in the films, not in Rupert Grint’s garbage cans. What’s this? “Ron” spelled backwards is “nor”? What does that mean? That’s your evidence?! Sometimes I just can’t stand talking to you, Rusty. Go back in the filing cabinet, and no, I don’t care if it’s midnight yet or not.

Today I also had the pleasure of reading from Naomi Benaron‘s collection Love Letters From a Fat Man, out from BkMk Press as a winner of their G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize. I had not read anything by Benaron before this, so I went in totally unknowing, unsure what to expect. I do know that I’m a fat guy and have written some love letters, so in a way, Benaron was speaking to my romantic side. That’s what I told myself, anyway, as I sat down to read. The title story is the first story, so I started with that and determined, early on, I’d be writing about it, as it’s such a cool story and has a lot of write-aboutability. So, “Love Letters From a Fat Man.”

“Love Letters From a Fat Man” is an epistolary, told as a series of emails from a guy named Otto, a guy who in 2004 is writing legendary actor Marlena Dietrich a whole bunch. To note, Dietrich died in 1992, probably never had email, and well, that. Otto is undeterred, though, and writes in great detail, starting off with simple fandom, how much he adores her movies, that kind of thing, but then digresses into something else entirely. Of course, we get a lot of personal details, Otto’s origins, including how he became so obese (he weighs in at 428 pounds upon first revelation). Before I go any further, though, note how insane and imaginative and awesome this conceit is, for writer to come up with this premise, then actually produce it into a piece of art, then make that art the centerpiece of something that won a major artistic award. I love writing.

Once on this path, the author could really take it anywhere, but since this is a good story, Benaron makes Otto as real as she can, avoiding anything cartoonish; it’s not like Otto’s foaming at the mouth, getting chased by the guys with the butterfly nets from the institution. He’s a real guy, with emotions and motivation, and as it turns out, there’s a lot to his backstory that suggests why he’s doing this email campaign to a dead German movie star (sending them to her website’s info email address, by the way). Once, Otto wasn’t morbidly obese. Once, Otto had real people to love, flesh-and-blood people who loved him back. Even now, in the midst of his epistolating, he has human companionship in the form of Marta, a nurse/caretaker with whom he spends all of his time.

I don’t want to reveal anything else about the story, as really, the setup and variables—what I’ve already given you—tell so much of it already. There is more, however, and because Benaron’s not some cruel trickster, it all adds up to a strange, original, and touching story told in a unique form (if an epistolary is that surprising at this point of contemporary letters). Oh, and to note, I checked to see if all of Benaron’s stories were told in letter form and of course they weren’t. She has some “normal” stories, too, including one really beautiful and tragic Holocaust piece called “How to Write a Train Story,” poignant on a day that the news is littered with white supremacists speaking out in public forums.

In short, Naomi Benaron can do it all! Okay, well, I read a few stories from Love Letters From a Fat Man and she has a lot of skills, writes in eclectic styles, on eclectic themes. She also has sense of humor as well as the heart and the thematic stakes to make it all work, to put together a solid collection. To note, her Wikipedia page says that this collection and her novel, Running the Rift, both deal with the Rwandan genocide, which I seem to have completely skipped around, so I might have to go back and find that content, too. In any case, I’m pleased I discovered her work today: Lots here to admire.