Dear lifelong thin reader: Take your scrawny self elsewhere and skip this story. You'll probably burn 500 calories just turning the page. Go read the comics. Cruise the classifieds. Do whatever skinny people do with that high-energy metabolism. But do it elsewhere.
Because this is a story about fat people, a story for people who understand that one of the basic food groups is McDonald's, for people who believe the scale is always lying and that taking off your shoes, glasses and earrings before you get on helps to get closer to the truth.
It's a story about a book that has become a companion for people who have tried every diet, video and exercise machine that moves their legs for them. It's called "Something's Wrong With Your Scale!," a romantic, comedic tale about being dumped because of 75 pounds too many, then finding love at a weight loss clinic.
Van Whitfield, 39, who lives in Prince George's County, wrote the book, which was released in January by Doubleday, because he knows what it's like to be fat. Big and fat. Fatback fat. So fat that major events are not bookmarked by where he was but what he was eating. No longer hugely fat, he remembers what it was like to be addicted to food.
When his character, Sonny Walker, hit the big three-o birthday, he remembers what he was eating: "Deviled eggs and a hot open-face roast beef sandwich with lumpy gravy, fresh provolone cheese and a crisp Klausen dill pickle on the side. Actually it was two pickles." Back then, before 30, calories didn't add up to flab. "The combination of supple, white Wonder Bread and tender, gravy-riddled roast beef drew me in like a narcotic. Over the next two days, I had six more of those sandwiches. Sometimes with three pickles."
He surmises it may have been the pickles that did him in, tipped the scale and sent him waddling happily into the wilderness of fatness.
Whitfield is also the author of "Beeperless Remote: A Guy, Some Girls and His Answering Machine," a story about a man with an obsession for ESPN's "SportsCenter," money and going to the gym, who needs to expand his universe in order to find the right woman. So he goes "armed with a cell phone, a pager, an answering machine . . . in search of the woman of his dreams" and works his way around the pathetic D.C. area dating scene.
Three years after writing that book, Whitfield is sitting on a black leather sofa in the walk-out basement of the house of his parents--Salanda and Francenia Whitfield--in Lanham explaining his second book, "Something's Wrong With Your Scale!," and its success among local book clubs and national Weight Watchers groups. He says the book is not only for people with weight problems. "If you don't personally have a weight problem," he says, "you know someone who does. Weight is universal."
He has a remote in his hand. The big-screen television is playing a Pat Metheny video. He moved the interview down here after the photographer left--away from the kitchen. He has been staying with his parents for the past couple of weeks while his "dream house" is being built in Mitchellville.
He says he gained weight "intentionally" to write his second novel. He piled on the fat to get into the head of Sonny Walker, an out-of-control whale of a man who is obsessed with food--any and all food.
Whitfield ate his way to the meat of the story. "Eating and falling asleep and eating again. I did it on purpose. I gained 50 U.S. government pounds" in 16 months. That was the fun part. "I was eating whatever I liked whenever I liked and whatever rate I liked. Like instead of eating one steak, I'd eat two." At McDonald's he had two choices: "two Big Macs and a Quarter Pounder" or "two Quarter Pounders and a Big Mac."
Standing 5 feet 11, he topped out at about 265 pounds. He downed chocolate shakes and "low-fat" Twinkies. As he wrote, he kept a two-gallon canister of the Twinkies given to him by Robin Harrison, his public relations agent, at his side. When the writing stopped, he'd pop one open. Before he finished a page, he might have eaten a dozen. He didn't work out or play basketball. He was becoming Sonny Walker.
As the book grew, so did he. "I went up five waist sizes. I went from large to triple X." Like his character, his initial reaction to his new being was denial. He even refused to buy bigger clothes, "which made the problem even worse."
Because of his size, and only because of his size, he was able to capture the subtleties of weight gain. Nobody but a fat person could understand what happens in the car on the way home from a weight loss clinic, where some skinny counselor has handed over a bag of low-fat, taste-like-air groceries and a meal plan.
Having been fat, Whitfield could write: "I opened a bag of the cheese-curl-style FutraSnacks and ate them on my ten-minute trip home. Not bad. I couldn't wait to unpack my food to get my first taste of a real FutraSystem meal and I could hardly believe I was actually going to lose weight while eating well at the same time. I was so excited that I stood in the mirror, attempted to suck in my gut and imagined the new, thin me in a red, skintight Speedo swimsuit."
One good meal brought his character to this place in time. He was dumped politely by his fine, fit girlfriend, Marsha Minor, after she'd made him a dinner of "teriyaki steak and mushroom potatoes with mambo sauce and Parmesan cheese and a peanut butter cheesecake with some sort of gooey marshmallow glaze."
She fed him, and then ridiculed him about being fat and led him to her bathroom scale.
"I dropped the sheet to the floor (as if it would make me lighter) and slowly stepped onto the scale. I would have rather seen the shark from 'Jaws' jump out of her bathtub than witness the numbers on her scale climb off the chart. . . . I didn't want to believe it. She was right.
" 'Yo, Marsha,' I said, not hesitating to step back onto the floor. 'Something's wrong with your scale.' "
That one line summed up the whole story, says Whitfield. He is wearing a blue crushed-velvet shirt over tan pants.
"Something is wrong not just with the scale," Whitfield explains. "Something is wrong with her judging him. Something is wrong with the way society characterizes overweight people that leads to forms of discrimination that will never go addressed."
Becoming a big man was a sudden transformation and it happened for him on the basketball court. "I will never forget. A guy said to me, 'You need to give that shirt a break!' "
"I said, 'You know my dryer has been shrinking my clothes.' He laughed, 'You need to get in the dryer!'
"After that, it was fair game. I became 'the fat guy.' "
And all the problems in life were caused by the fat. "If I got a flat tire, it wasn't because I ran over something, it was because I'm the fat guy. If I missed a phone call, I missed it because I couldn't make it upstairs. People are mean, insensitive and cruel. They are not civilized when it comes to overweight people.
"It's easy to attack overweight people and to get away with mean jokes. Who's going to respond? Who is the Jesse Jackson for overweight people?"
Gaining 50 pounds, he said, was easy. "Losing it was an act of God."
Whitfield is about 210 pounds now, a smaller man. He "modified" his habits and dependence on fried foods. He has not quite cut out the late-night trips to the refrigerator, but now he makes "better choices": instead of a meal, a piece of fruit.
The writing career has been good to him, considering that he says he was fired from his last job in D.C. government because his boss told him he couldn't write. (There are some readers who still criticize his writing.)
His life sounds like a plot in a bad comedy--a "mediocre" guy born in Baltimore who moves as a child to District Heights and later works as a prison guard at Lorton, becomes a successful novelist. In addition to his novels, he is also a writer for a new television show, "The Grown Ups," scheduled to debut on CBS this fall.
A bad, bad date was his inspiration for "Beeperless." "No, wait," he says. "Bad is not fair. . . . I was traumatized."
It all began about three years ago at Jasper's, a fine establishment and hot happy-hour joint in Greenbelt where many in Prince George's young, affluent black middle class go to eat, see and be seen.
"I went in with overinflated expectations. From the moment she showed up, everything bad happened." She quickly began tapping into his entire $50 date budget. She ordered filet mignon and lobster and five glasses of white wine. She smoked six cigarettes and her pager went off four times and she answered every page. "The craw that sticks," he says, "was she ordered apple pie to go. She was using me. And she had the audacity to say, 'Next time, it's on me.'
"The most tragic part is my male ego became prominent, thinking, 'I can still make something happen with this woman.' "
He went home frustrated and started writing. That was Monday. On Tuesday, he said, he was fired from the mayor's youth initiative office. He was then given four months to find another job, which essentially gave him a four-month book leave.
"I went to work every day to finish my book. My boss would walk in and say, 'What are you doing?' And I'd say, 'Writing my book.' And she'd laugh and say, 'You are so funny.' "
When he finished, he started marketing it on his own and with friends, taking the book to focus groups and trying out the characters and plot. The focus groups--friends of friends of friends--would give their reactions. Turns out to have been a good marketing tool because after the book was published all those people wanted to know what happened. The first book signing drew about 400 people.
"Beeperless" was bought by a small publishing house in 1996. The book immediately went into a second printing and hit the bestseller lists of Blackboard and Emerge. Whitfield has since written a screenplay of the work and sold it to Al Hayman Productions.
The main character--sad, goofy Shawn Wayne--became an icon for African American men who could not find a date. "Shawn Wayne is a single, employed, hard-bodied, former All-American looking for his ideal woman," says a blurb about the book. Whitfield got dozens of e-mail messages from people who would say, "I know what it's like to be out on a date when the calculator goes on. I know what it's like to be dumped."
Whitfield became Shawn Wayne. "My agent began calling me Shawn, my attorney called me Shawn. Everybody thought I was this dimwitted goofy guy."
"Something's Wrong With Your Scale!" was his attempt to shed that character. He gained a whole bunch and something else. The name stuck.
Now everybody calls him Sonny.
CAPTION: As his book grew, so did local writer Van Whitfield.
CAPTION: For his second novel, Van Whitfield gained 50 pounds and lots of insight about a weight-conscious society.