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I, Fatty
Jerry Stahl
2004
Found: Soho Original Books

 

Is there anything more popcorn-ready than old Hollywood gossip? All those geriatrics, well back in the fog of boredom and conformity that ruled before those Boomers changed society with their long hair and their Beatles albums, getting Lifetime Achievement Awards months before dying in unfashionable Hollywood neighborhoods…the sanitary images giving way to the bold whispers that Hearst shot Ince, thinking his was murdering Chaplin for sleeping with his teenage mistress. Drugs, promiscuity, and hard-hearted scheming, all even before cracking open the encyclopaedia of paranoid malevolence written on Howard Hughes.

Perhaps even better are the speculations you can draw from the period details; perhaps your great-grandmother soothed your infant grandfather with Bayer’s heroin but was wary of their strange new pill, aspirin?

Out of this hidden morass Jerry Stahl, himself a late-era Hollywood horror show, pulls the fictional biography of Roscoe Arbuckle, the sacrificial victim that conjured up the modern tabloid cycle. Better known as “Fatty,” Arbuckle was the highest-paid actor of his time, the first to make a million dollars per year, but today is mostly remembered for the three trials he underwent for the alleged murder of a starlet named Virginia Rappe. Although cleared of all charges, he never quite escaped the moral indignation, or the American public’s appetite for it, whipped up by Hearst’s papers against Arbuckle and Hollywood itself.

In the introduction, Stahl calls Arbuckle “the OJ of his day…aside from niggling matters of race, guilt, and innocence,” and, one could argue, talent, but also argues that the public condemnation was a logical and not entirely unexpected shift for “Fatty.” Mack Sennett anachronistically cribs from Mel Brooks: What I think, comedy is you fall in a ditch and die. Tragedy is I get a hangnail…people just naturally love watching bad go to worse.

Stahl makes an effort to distinguish his tone as presenter in the introduction from Roscoe-the-narrator. His fictionalised self speaks in something approaching early Chuck Palaniuk, but Roscoe’s tone too often drifts. Roscoe is recording this, we are told, near the end of his life while desperately in need of a fix, which his manservant refuses to provide until he’s worked through another chapter of his past. Given this state, he’s quite patient in describing his earlier years, unexpectedly in the moments he describes as a young child rejected by his father for “breaking Mama’s little flower.”

He seems to be talking from a stage to a larger audience, speaking dismissively of his servant, in the third person, rather than “you.” The one who controls the heroin Roscoe desperately needs isn’t flattered, isn’t coaxed. This man with a second-grade education peppers his narrative with Freudian observations and complex sentence structures that sit uneasily next to his childish worldview.

This opens up a distance between the narrative and the reader’s expectation that allows in the wrong kind of doubt. I should be looking for the clues of the unreliable narrator, the gaps in the verbal wallpaper that let through the truth he won’t admit; instead, I see places where the author isn’t in control of the flow. This leaves Fatty’s story feeling like a penultimate draft rather than the final novel, a work that needs one more rewrite to strip out egotistical turns of phrase that fit the writer rather than the character and adjust the flow to fit the frame.

Still, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the main subject, who may have been a poor conflicted sap set up by his studio owners and used to assure a titillated public that Hollywood was cleaning house of all immoral dangers.

Roscoe himself is so emotively fleshed in that even the flawed voice can’t prevent an instant bonding with the character. Stahl effectively uses a classic screenwriters crutch—the Freudian biopic backdrop—with a bit of a twist: his difficult, unassisted birth physically traumatises his mother, who “stopped being a wife” to his father. He had partially fulfilled the Oedipal complex before emerging completely into the world, and his father despised him and his girth, believing he took her from him sexually. His size, his fat, his identity as “Fatty” were the focal point of his father’s abuse, and later, that of his audience’s adoration—and still later, again, that audience’s abhorrence.

Unique among the fat-narrator genus of novels, Roscoe never loses or considers losing weight. As much as he may be feel unhappy or limited, his fat is him, not a separate element that could be shed. He often thinks of keeping up his weight as he polishes off extra food, his third milkshake. The weight is his paycheck, and his identity.

As an aside, how fat is fat, this elephantine beast? Five foot seven and 260 pounds at the height of his fame—today, the size of the charming IT guy, the one who gets a lot of interest in his Match.com profile.

Nevertheless, at the turn of the last century, that was tall and that was wide. Many were fascinated by his round childish body and wholesome face, the eternal energetic child. However, it seems that as “obesity serves as a cue for pathogen infection,” along with the more popular “people are borderline sociopathic jerks in general” theory, his audience was also primed to reject him as a morally depraved glutton. And much like the later—if less legally fraught—scandal surrounding Paul Reubens, it provoked extreme reactions on the part of the audience and studios, which agreed to pull all of Arbuckle’s movies from theatres and prevent him from working even after his aquittal. The childlike image (that one could fairly expect an audience of adults to conceptualise as an act) juxtaposed with the realisation of the adult person made Fatty and Pee-Wee horrifying, monsters capable of any imagined horror. It’s possible to continue the Freudian metaphor that, having identifying a performer as a child, their growth into sexual maturity provokes a different Oedipal fear, of being the parent who is deposed or erotically taken.

More simply, however, Stahl and his version of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle take us to the place where we struggle to remember what we believe of ourselves against the dark carnival of scandal, but grotesque gossip is what becomes history. Stahl has continued to muddy the Arbuckle/Rappe waters with his potluck of fiction and history, but in doing so may be a gifting the entire cast with one humane remembrance among thousands of pantomime villains and damsels.

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