A morbidly obese Puerto Rican misfit dominates the sleazy comic landscape of this intermittently amusing first novel from LaValle, author of the vivid story collection slapboxing with jesus (1999).
Three-hundred-something-pound Anthony James (also in slapboxing) lives in a multicultural Brooklyn neighborhood with his adolescent sister Nabisase, svelte mother (herself a former fattie), and frail (but mean—really mean) elderly grandmother. He’s “a twenty-three-year-old college dropout, a girthy goon suffering bouts of dementia” who works sporadically as a house-cleaner, hangs out with a loan shark named Ishkabibble, and makes mental notes for an “encyclopedia” of the sicko horror films he’s hooked on. Anthony, who narrates, has a fulsome comic voice that’s more than a little too reminiscent of that of John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces). Toole time, so to speak, is also suggested by the frantic plot, which centers in a trip to Lumpkin, Virginia, to enter Nabisase in a regional beauty contest for virgins (“The Miss Innocence Pageant”), and also involves Anthony with a “foundation” formed to support a serial malefactor who has reinvented himself as “Ahmed Abdel,” his neighborhood’s menacing layabouts and loose canines, and his likewise catastrophically overweight buddy, moribund Ledric Mayo. Nabisase marches toward womanhood, their mother keeps picking up unsuitable men, Grandma ages like rancid wine—and Anthony spins his wheels sardonically, occasionally getting off a few good ones (“I am the unattractive America”; a favorite B-movie The Dead Reserved a Room is thumbnailed as “a quieter version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). But the overall impression is of a writer who’s laboring to knock us dead with one farcical exaggeration after another.
LaValle has energy and wit to burn, but really ought to store some of it. Thus far, the short story seems to be his forte.