Victor LaValle, 30, might be the next big thing.
Not just because Anthony, the main character in his new novel, "The Ecstatic," is a 315-pound schizophrenic from Queens. And not because regular-size LaValle himself once ballooned to within "spitting distance" of 400 pounds and knows that one day it could happen again.
More because after his first book, "Slapboxing With Jesus" (Vintage, 1999), Kirkus Reviews called him "one of the most eloquent new voices of the approaching century." (The short-story collection of urban coming-of-age exploits and exploitations won the PEN Open Book Award for writers of color.) Because in September, in a starred review, Publishers Weekly called "The Ecstatic," which came out last month, "captivating" and "remarkable." And because fans who came to Teaism in Northwest Washington on a recent Wednesday night to hear him read say his sensitivity and transcendence remind them of Faulkner.
Of course there were only seven of them.
So maybe he won't be the next big thing -- talent is a guarantor of nothing, writers of literary fiction often get no commercial love, and to date, the market for fat black schizophrenics who detail the humor and hurt of aching loneliness, squishy sexuality and a rancid-salmon diet is unproved. But in a world that rewards the ability to make folks stare, transfixed, when their every inclination had been to turn away, LaValle is the lick.
Set in Queens, "The Ecstatic" centers on a family shadowed by mental illness and reveals bits of the author's own unstable path. As with his characters, mental illness has been the subtext of LaValle's family story. The book's lead character, Anthony, is found naked and disoriented in his apartment by his mother, grandmother and younger sister after flunking out of college. They take him home, each sure they can fix him. He needs a job, according to his grandmother; he needs to lose weight, according to his mom; and his 13-year-old sister thinks he needs Jesus.
Anthony narrates their adventures at a tough-love fat clinic named for an overweight slave, at the off-circuit Miss Innocence pageant open only to the most virtuous contestants, and his own search for love and coitus with an overweight college student he meets on the 6 train.
The characters are messy and complicated and sometimes smell bad. And LaValle renders them raw and real, but with sustained doses of humor to take the edge off, because it can hurt to read so much vulnerability.
There was space for twenty normal-sized people, but ten of us filled the room to capacity. I thought there were nine big ladies with me but as my eyes adjusted I realized there were only five. The rest were men like me, curvaceous.
The book could have been "maudlin if I had written about it straightforward," says LaValle, who lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Columbia University.
It can be uncomfortable lunching with him. Although a third of Americans are obese and two-thirds are overweight, as a society we consign fat people to the margins. LaValle puts fat humanity on par, and the shift is so abrupt it leaves you scrambling for the safe harbor of political correctness.
"I'm always hyper-aware of what I'm eating," says the now 200-pound LaValle. "Even now, when no one would think twice about it, I feel like people see me and think, 'Oh what a fat pig, he's eating a Snickers.' In my mind, I'm still 300 pounds."
And you wonder, is it okay for you to order a chocolate brownie after that kind of admission?
LaValle -- 5 feet 10, attractive, not thin, not fat -- laughs at this. He was fat for more than 10 years before losing about 150 pounds three years ago. He is easy and open and thoughtful about his former self. "I like people to eat around me," he says. "I still like food a lot."
At his heaviest in the mid-1990s, he knew on some level that he was self-anesthetizing, but it played out more like "Man, they got those new Oreos with the half-fudge and half-vanilla. I gotta try those things."
He says it can be difficult to understand the way the culture treats fat people unless you live it. He began living it at about 14.
LaValle's parents divorced when he was an infant and he was raised in Queens with his younger sister and Ugandan-born mother and grandmother.
He grew up watching family members wrestle with schizophrenia and bipolar disease. He had to learn to avoid triggers: Simply pointing a pen could be interpreted as a secret message. And family time was punctuated by long stretches of voluntary or forced hospitalization of one or more close relatives. (LaValle fiercely guards the details of who suffered what.)
His teenage years were a time of increasing loneliness. He liked girls, but by the time he found the voice to ask them out, he was fat. He grew more isolated, shutting himself in the basement with rolls of chocolate chip cookie dough and ready-to-spread vanilla frosting.
He began studying English at Cornell University in 1990, and that's where he began self-loathing in earnest. Paying for school with loans and grants and working as a temporary laborer didn't leave money for extras, so he shoplifted Doritos and cookies by stuffing them down his size 50 pants.
That's also where, slowly, for about a year and a half, he lost touch with reality. He never saw a doctor, not wanting to find out if his family's medical history was catching up with him. He stopped attending classes and was kicked out of school for a semester between his junior and senior years. He remained in Ithaca, N.Y., doing janitorial work, and twice a month would take the bus to nearby towns. "I thought it was my mission to map out the mountains of the Finger Lakes region" of Upstate New York, LaValle says. He visited Cuyahoga and Oswego and came home with detailed drawings. He later realized there were no mountains in the places he visited.
It was writing that brought him back -- having a place to put his demons and names to call them. Only a semester from graduating when he was kicked out, LaValle was coherent enough to know he needed a vocation.
He had written bad poetry in high school and on the suggestion of friends, he began writing short stories. His first, "Chuckie," a tale of young boys from Queens and the ways they support and betray each other, appears in "Slapboxing." He worked afternoons and wrote on a campus library computer three mornings a week. Eventually he was allowed to finish his degree.
After graduating in 1995, he began a fine arts program at Columbia University. The stories in "Slapboxing With Jesus" were from his master's thesis. For the last seven years, writing has yielded enough of an income to intermittently pay the bills. (Last week his cell phone service was cut and he had to borrow $100 from his agent until he got a check from his publisher.)
Right now, he's doing well and his family is doing well, but LaValle lives with the fear that mental illness may one day overtake him.
With "The Ecstatic," LaValle says he wanted to show that some lives don't tidy up at the end, that some families can't help and some mentally ill people can't be helped.
If words helped get him sane, vanity helped get him slim. After he sold "Slapboxing," the idea of being on a book tour spurred him to work on his weight. It's no accident "I lost the weight after I finished school," LaValle says. His writing was praised, his self-concept was changing, and selling the book was just "the boost I needed to say, 'Maybe I can do this other stuff, maybe I can lose the weight.' "
In his essay "Big Time," on Nerve.com, LaValle details the life of a lonely young fat man: He meets women through 1-900 phone numbers. When he loses weight, he says, "I touch my [butt] and it's like I'm copping a feel of someone else's." And in "The Ecstatic," Anthony prefers a particular suit jacket because it hides his breasts.
These are the vulnerable admissions that take LeValle's characters from stereotypes of fat and jovial into the realm of something else -- something we aren't usually asked to think about deeply.
But before it hurts too much, we are made to laugh. At Teaism, with the seven people looking on, the author reads a passage from "The Ecstatic" set in the fictional Hillman AME fat clinic.
Without a warning Ledric opened a plastic container that emitted a smell bad as bunion paste. To my right, there he was, with the plastic container balanced on his serving tray of a stomach. His face was so greasy that it reflected light.
-- What are you doing? I asked him. What is that?
Ledric breathed heavier than lust. -- There's salmon and some perch in here. Pike too.
-- That's fish?
It looked too old to be fish. Maybe the rumor of fish. A fable of fish.
-- Not that bad, Ledric answered. I let this sit out for twenty-three days, he said.
The salmon wasn't even that appealing bright pink anymore. Just a gray custard saturated with orange oil.
-- I'll go get you some KFC, I offered. Anything's got to be better than that.
He shook his head.
-- You don't understand.
-- Just put the fish down and I'll take you out for some pizza.
Instead he mashed the stuff around with his spoon. Some delicate grayish-white bones stuck out of the meat. The food made squelching sounds when he touched it.
Ledric looked at me. -- I can't wait ten years to get skinny. I can't do it. Not no more.
It's good stuff. Not the rancid salmon, or that Ledric was trying to give himself tapeworms to lose weight. Just Victor LaValle, letting you into that world.
"I'm trying to rush a lot of life and a lot of books in now because I'm always afraid something is going to catch up with me," LaValle says.
Maybe it'll just be recognition.