I, FATTY

By Jerry Stahl

Bloomsbury. 277 pp. $23.95

The career of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle happened far enough back in the 20th century that, for some, only blurred semi-memories define him. He was one of the great silent film comics, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. These comics -- perhaps because of the primitiveness of the new medium -- operated off trademark personas: Chaplin with his funny walk and goofy outfit, Keaton with his famously stone face, Lloyd finding his prissy self in the most outrageous, "dangerous" situations. We see these old silents, sometimes, late at night on television, but a Fatty Arbuckle film is hard to come by. He disgraced himself so thoroughly (except he actually might not have) that just his name (if we remember what it stood for at one time) invokes an involuntary shudder.

For it was Fatty (and you know how we Americans feel about fat!), after years of making extremely successful comedies based largely on how immensely fat he was, who found himself in a cluster of San Francisco hotel rooms in a two- or three-day wild party gone terribly wrong, and -- allegedly -- raped a "nice" girl who bore the unfortunate name of Virginia Rappe. Unable to do the deed (the story went), Arbuckle used either a champagne or a Coca-Cola bottle, then murdered the poor girl by lying on top of her and squashing her to death. Our country, which lurches from prurience to Puritanism like a wino on a 50-day drunk, went into Yuck mode and put Fatty through three jury trials; even though he was finally acquitted, his life was effectively ruined.

In this novel (told in the first person, by Fatty himself), Jerry Stahl gives us a crash course in what the movies were, and are, in how movies first played to vast audiences of immigrants -- fresh-off-the-boat peasants to whom a treacherous banana peel was the perfect metaphor for how life played out in this enigmatic new country. He reminds us, gently, that actors, actresses, "celebrities," aren't always the brightest bulbs in the box for any number of reasons. If they are beautiful, they rely too much on being beautiful. (To be an actor in America especially at that early time was equivalent to being a basketball player in America today or a bullfighter in Mexico or Spain -- a way out of poverty, a profession that often valorized luck, guts and physical grace over intelligence.) Many of those early movie actors started out poor, or they wouldn't have worked in the movies. They moved, then, into worlds they weren't prepared for and couldn't really understand. They signed (invisible) contracts to act as part of the Great American Id. Generally, we take a dim view of the id.

Fatty, as he tells it in "I, Fatty," was raised in a shack with a dirt floor by a father who detested him on sight -- because of his size. To be detested by one's parents isn't that uncommon (think of what a writer like Pat Conroy has made of that subject). But Fatty was fat, repellent to start with. To say he was unloved is to understate his circumstances. Like anyone who knows himself to be unloved, he developed coping devices: He drank, he did drugs, he turned cruel laughter around so that it seemed he had generated it by his own jokes. He was such a good sport about being a freak that people (except for his own dad) just loved him for it. In a particularly poignant throwaway incident, he dined with Enrico Caruso, who asked him why he'd chosen comedy when he had such a beautiful singing voice -- because in Italy fat might be incidental, irrelevant. It's Americans who hate fat because it's so -- fleshy! Yuck!

Fatty, despite a dazzling career and a total of three very nice wives who loved him dearly, combated an essentially broken heart. He was swindled and jerked around by those early movie moguls, whose behavior left him completely bewildered and at sea. He was unhappy because he was raised to be unhappy. He hated himself because he saw happiness as fraud, a form of dementia.

And isn't that one of the very weirdest things about America? Leaving out the actual Puritans who inhabited our North and the gentlemen farmers who obtained great wealth from our South, you can trace almost any other American family back two, three, four generations and find the desperation of the impoverished peasant -- superstitious, full of dread, hatred and self-hatred. And it can't be one of us who turns out to be the freak; it has to be somebody else who "deserves" our scorn, revulsion, hatred. Even today, we take pleasure in the grotesquerie of Michael Jackson. Or Kobe. Or Clinton. Or those "few bad apples" in that Iraqi prison at the very, very bottom of the American food chain: again naifs whose crimes were surely born in brutish ignorance, not pure evil. What or who brings out the Yuck factor present in all of us? Jerry Stahl, a novelist and memoirist whose entire work is a study in self-hatred and garden-variety hatred, explores these themes with intelligence and compassion.