By Heidi Simmons
A dominatrix, a lawyer, a pool man and a drag queen are just a few of the characters living on the edge in Benjamin Hale’s The Fat Artist and Other Stories (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages).
Author Hale delivers seven short stories where the universe appears to align itself almost literally to wreak havoc on desperate folks just trying to maintain.
A young couple, their new baby and their lover, flee from Morocco after they believe the American government has discovered their whereabouts. “Don’t Worry Baby” finds the fugitives traveling with forged documents. They try not to draw attention to themselves, as they have a layover and a connecting flight in the US before heading to Mexico.
Everything looks good until the chocolate, laced with LSD they all ate during the flight, kicks in and the nursing baby has a bad trip.
“If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” the cosmos do align in the form of orbiting satellites, but the seven intersecting characters believe the benign lights in the sky are something more significant and meaningful.
Some characters have plans to commit a murder, two just want to make art in the dark and another wants to make contact with the “alien” life forms after the death of her husband.
The book’s title “The Fat Artist” is about a privileged man filled with self-loathing and hubris who becomes a famous artist for his genital casts and live masturbation. When his girlfriend leaves him, he locks himself away and grows fat.
Soon the man considers himself a work of art and decides to eat himself to death as his last performance piece, at the Guggenheim. The crowds come en mass bringing him food and to watch him eat. He weighs over 1,500 pounds but his goal is a record breaking 1,600 pounds. However, it becomes a struggle to keep putting on weight as the “art” patrons have lost interest.
A young drag queen navigates New York City in the eighties in “Beautiful, Beautiful, Beautiful, Beautiful Boy.” When he attends a party at The Beresford on Central Park West, he reconsiders the nature of his craft and begins to see the differences between cross-dressers, queers and transsexuals.
Nearing retirement, a lawyer is having an affair at home while his wife is away in the story “Leftovers.” Still drunk from margaritas and good sex, the lawyer awakes to what sounds like a robbery. He beats the burglar nearly to death before he realizes it’s his estranged son, whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in months.
A dominatrix and her favorite client, a US Congressman, finally part ways after he dies while in leather, cuffs and nipple rings. In “Venus at her Mirror,” the dominatrix must first look at herself before she decides if she should call 911. Not an easy call to make.
Every story in this collection richly engaged, surprised and entertained me. Author Hale is not only an interesting storyteller — imaginative, smart and real — he writes in a way that his sentences – fluid, precise and colorful – disappear as they blossom into meaning and narrative.
Although the stories above may seem dark, disturbing and or indecent, each has layers of psychological drama that include human frailty, vulnerability and a search for love.
Hale’s final story, “The Minus World” is about a recovering addict who has alienated everyone he knows. Only his brother offers help, of which his pregnant wife is not pleased. Although the addict wants more than anything to prove he’s on the right path, clean and sober, drugs have an even greater grip.
These stories are filled with characters we know and recognize, but Hale has a way of making it fresh. As with the addict, these people want to get life right. It is hope verses self-destruction.
In all seven stories, the author builds a narrative that draws the reader into situations, sharing an intimate look from where each character resides. Doing right or wrong is not always a simple choice. Hale shows the reader that everything has consequences.
I found myself absorbed in the prose and completely involved with the people and places. The stories are rich with ideas and there is a thoughtfulness that shapes the narrative. The well-crafted writing is such a pleasure, but it cannot be separated from the creative story telling. It is quality prose married to narrative.
A wonderful trait of the short story genre, especially in this collection, is that there is always more to consider after the last sentence. A short story is often only a glimpse or thin slice of life. Good short stories allow the reader to ruminate further on the subject at hand.
I have said in this column many times over the years, one of the best ways to find an author is to read his or her collection of short stories. I am thrilled to have discovered such a talented author as Benjamin Hale and his The Fat Artist and Other Stories is a perfect blending of art and craft.