An enigmatic science fiction and western novel set in modern times, Jamie Iredell's "The Fat Kid" unleashes an inscrutable force upon the Eternal Frontier. Origin unknown, it resides in a size-changing, "filigreed" gold-and-silver cube called the Machine. Through its avatar, Emanuel, a counterfeit "brim-stone preacher," the Machine controls (or seems to control) the actions of the book's principal characters, notably the thin man and his vengeful son, the fat kid.
Without a doubt, the questions — and terror — bubble up like lava from the cracked, contorted earth: What is the intelligence and motivation behind the Machine? Who is this mysterious stranger, or apparition, known as Emanuel? Will a shard of revelation be forthcoming in “The Fat Kid,” or will Jamie Iredell, the wildly imaginative Atlanta author, guard the story’s secret, keeping it for himself like a lordly ring?
The narrative, which moves back and forth in time, is made linear in the following explanation. In the aftermath of an odd family disturbance, possibly in the 1980s, a college graduate called the thin man commandeers and crashes a city bus. During his incarceration, he encounters Emanuel, a dramatic figure wearing “a black leather duster and black flat brimmed hat in the Spanish Texcuco style.” Emanuel tempts the thin man with his counsel: “This is a vast country of new earth, ripe for men set on making new lives. It awaits yonder, west.”
The thin man sets off, entering a fantastic world of swarming hobos and mock Christian ritual. Emanuel comes and goes, “a cloud-in-human-form.” Through desert trials and cannibalistic detour, he prods the thin man toward his final destination, the derelict “town by the lake in the mountains,” a perverse Shangri-La. Over the next few decades, the thin man “sires” the fat kid and, with others, plots to conceal the existence of the Machine, sequestered nearby on a “granitic monolith” known as the Rocking Stone.
Over the ages, the Machine has inspired zealous devotees who circle about it “like some heathen dance troupe in an infernal séance.” For the thin man, it offers enlightenment: He cares “nothing anymore for time,” and, as for belief in god, he has “finally abandoned all thought of such an entity.”
A new generation — the fat kid and his buddy, Cooter — see things differently. To them, it’s all about how they can “get in on it,” or, as Cooter says, “The Machine … will make us all rich.”
Tangling the action, the fat kid hates his daddy. As a boy, he tortured animals. His classmates humiliated him because of his weight, but now that he’s reached his 370-pound maturity, he seeks revenge. At every turn around the town’s boulder-strewn lake —“vast and blue, like a plate” — patricide, suicide, mass homicide, and every other side, hang in the leaden mist, things-to-come.
Half of “The Fat Kid” is a lowbrow celebration of slobbery, a prolonged burp of getting high and creating mayhem in a small town. The author stays close to the baffling, violent compulsions of male post-adolescence.
A writing teacher at Oglethorpe University, Iredell grew up in a “fog-drenched pocket” on the central California coast. At the University of Reno, he immersed himself in authors from Virginia Woolf to Barry Hannah. He studied philosophers like Descartes and Nietzsche, and, in due course, began to “[question] the [Catholic] faith under which I’d been brought up all my life.”
“The Fat Kid,” then, is exactly what it should be, a work of shifting modalities, crude one moment, refined the next. Iredell is a dandy who even moonlights as a fashion advisor. Throughout “The Fat Kid,” there are fastidious descriptions of natural splendor that rank with the very best of such prose, and it is here that Iredell’s future as a writer may well unfold:
“Morning brought rose strips stretching across an empty sky and the dawn-bringing star shone bright, diminishing as this side of the planet turned sunward … Great Devonian rocks grew out of the highway … Red shale alluvial fans spread from fissures in canyon walls. The white wisps and sparse clouds spotted the blue…”
Additionally, there are strong images of deep cosmic tenderness (“The black of the pines moved like fingers petting the stars.”) and carnal mirth (“It lasted seven minutes and 13 seconds, and they become human again.”).
In his final appearance, the devilish Emanuel, as emissary for the Machine, spins paradox upon paradox, pitching a fathomless nihilism as the benevolent driving force of the universe. The Machine, he promises, will end “slavery to entropy.”
Rhetorically, he asks the fat kid, “Is there such a thing as free will?” No, Emanuel concludes, answering himself: “There is no freedom. There is no hope. There is only life, death, life, death, and all of it — none of it — means anything.”
It’s not exactly an affirmation of life, but Emanuel has a fine appreciation for nucleic double-talk, the kind that bends around the backside of the double helix. There’s plenty of resolution in “The Fat Kid,” the diligent reader just wants more of it, which suggests some sort of sequel for Iredell, in which the real mission of the Machine might be more fully disclosed. (And, of course, there’s always the chance there’s another Machine hanging around out there with a different take on the galactic bang!) Rest assured, though, it probably won’t be with the fat kid, who, in the book that bears his name, delivers a little free will of his own with considerable finality.