Big Ray by Michael Kimball

44 of 90
Big Ray
192 pages; Bloomsbury USA
The death of a parent is always complex, but it's even more so when a parent has been tough to forgive while living. In this tender, gorgeous novel, Michael Kimball explores how we try to understand even the most difficult family members. The book begins when 38-year-old Daniel goes home to clean out his deceased father's apartment. Big Ray has passed at home in his chair from an as-yet-undetermined illness related to his obesity. Through illuminating flashbacks, we learn about Big Ray's history and marriage (and later divorce) to Daniel's mother, as well as Daniel's childhood. What makes this book so moving isn't raw, graphic violence (physical abuse is described), but the nuanced and honest portrait of Daniel's feelings about his father—his attempts to relate to Big Ray by playing poker, his compassion and disgust for the challenges of his father's size, even his need to know what TV program his father was watching when he died.

Why this rings so true is the conflict in it all. This is how human relationships often play out, especially when it comes to family. We love even those we shouldn't. We love them even as we dislike them to the point of revulsion. "For most of my life, I have been afraid of my father," Daniel says. "I was afraid to be a person without a father, but I also felt relieved he was dead. Everything about my father was complicated like that."