Overeating is often framed as an issue of willpower, while drug addiction is commonly regarded as a disease. It’s not that the obese have a sickness, the thinking goes, so much as they lack self-control. But a 2011 New York Times blog post titled “Can You Be Addicted to Foods?” challenges this logic, suggesting that overeating may be genetically linked to other kinds of addictions. The post cites a study that finds that “adults with a family history of alcoholism [are] 30 to 40 percent more likely to be obese than those with no alcoholism in the family.” Addiction to food may manifest differently than substance abuse, but the two frequently run together in the blood.
So is the case with fifty-eight-year-old Greg and his son, GJ (Greg Junior), the main players in Lindsay Hunter’s new novel, Eat Only When You’re Hungry. When we meet them, drug-addicted GJ has been unreachable for almost a month. Fearing the worst, morbidly obese Greg sets out from his West Virginia home in search of his troubled namesake; he heads to Florida, where his ex-wife, Marie, resides, and where he suspects GJ might have washed up after falling off the wagon. As Hunter makes clear, however, it’s not only Junior who’s in a bad place; the father just wants “to put his arms around his son. Rock bottom, but together. Together at rock bottom.”
Hunter specializes in spotlighting characters at their low point. In a 2014 interview with The Believer, the author outlines the obsessions that fuel her fiction: “I find myself writing people who are desperate. Desperate because they’re lonely, or out of options, both. What they do to stop feeling desperate or lonely, that’s always been what’s fascinated me the most about being a person.” Just as Hunter’s first novel, Ugly Girls, presents a bleak portrait of teenagers in distress, her latest book depicts a family in crisis, torn apart by drugs, divorce and a desire for excess.
From the opening pages, it’s clear that our protagonist is overweight, though it’s not presented as a problem: “His belly straining at the shirt, pushing out out out, like it was pleased to meet the world. Greg often attempted to quantify its heft: a belly pregnant with triplets; the hull of a small ship filled with treasure; a laundry sack filled with beer.” Initially, there’s almost something cheery about Greg’s extra pounds—pleased, pregnant. But as the quest to locate his missing son drags on, we see the physical strain that comes with his obesity. Too exhausted to remain standing in Marie’s shower, Greg lies
on the cool tile floor… using the loofah as a cushion. […] He once had to spend a month sleeping flat on his back on the floor by his bed after he’d pulled something reaching for a shot glass. He hadn’t been able to lie on his back in quite some time. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get back up, pinned under his own weight. And it was true, it was difficult to rise, but when the water finally cooled, he found that all he had to do was fling his weight to the side and use his elbow to push up. His heart was pounding and he felt like a walrus trying to mount a bicycle, but it was possible; he’d done it.
Though this scene ends in a refreshing and rather slapstick triumph, the overall outlook for Greg remains grim. If he continues to ignore his doctor’s orders and keeps “reaching for” that next drink of alcohol, that next hamburger, his body is sure to give out.
As we follow Greg in his search for GJ, we’re led to consider: whose habits are more self-destructive? In Greg’s own estimation, all addictions are essentially the same, as they all derive from the same insatiable hunger: “Everyone [is] just a lonely mouth, a mouth with teeth, a mouth with ventricles, a muddy hole of a mouth in the crook of someone’s elbow.” When he recalls his first sexual encounter with Marie—the novel stitches together many flashbacks quite skillfully—it, too, is described in terms of oral fixation, with the body as “a giant tongue.”
In a book about binge eating, Hunter is always feeding the reader more metaphors, sometimes handfuls per page. What might feel gratuitous from a lesser writer is a signature success for Hunter; she serves up images that are at once salty and sweet, satisfyingly tragicomic. For example, when Greg finds himself short of breath, “his heart feels like a foot trying to kick its way out of cement.” Her writing is similarly effective when she drops the simile for a brisker syntax. The night sky is a “black wipe of nothingness;” the breeze is a “cold gate of air.”
Ultimately, Eat Only When You’re Hungry is an extraordinary trip of a novel not because of its scene-setting but the quality of its characters. Real in their despair, and unromantic in their depiction, they plainly struggle with life’s imbalances. Often, as in the case of father and son, one has the upper hand over the other:
It felt like GJ held Greg by his ankles over a ravine. At any moment he could let go and the whole world would go tumbling past. Soon Greg stopped trying to right himself; he got used to everything being upside down. All the blood rushed to his numb head. Everything numb, eyes closed against the floor of the sky.
Given Greg’s gargantuan physique, the thought of his son dangling him “by his ankles” is an absurd one, yet it’s the metaphor best suited to his circumstances: his world has been turned on its head because his son simply can’t get clean. Who wouldn’t sympathize with someone in his position? He may be numb, but he still feels attached to his son. And the reader feels for him, too.
“Why do so few novelists dare to write about being fat?” asked The Guardian last year. The article acknowledged that there are “fat characters in books out there, some of them quite enduring and famous. But they tend to be creatures of young adult, or commercial fiction.” I certainly don’t have the answer, though I suspect the phrasing of the question might betray part of the problem. Literary fiction doesn’t need more authors to “dare” to create “fat characters,” which sounds reductive and also implies a kind of faux heroism; rather, there should be more characters embodying a broad range of human experiences, obesity among them. Yes, Greg is dangerously overweight—and may die early because of it—but what makes Hunter’s protagonist compelling isn’t his size; it’s the complexity of his emotional profile. Faced with the prospect of losing his son, he’s at once panicky and resigned, heartbroken and numb. As Greg’s father’s girlfriend wisely reminds us, “People aren’t always one thing.”
Ben Purkert‘s first poetry collection, FOR THE LOVE OF ENDINGS, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in March 2018. His writing appears in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Agni and elsewhere. He is currently at work on a novel. You can find links to new work on Twitter at @BenPurkert.