Andrew Fox's first two novels, Fat White Vampire Blues (2003) and Bride of the Fat White Vampire (2004), garnered some decent reviews and helped him begin to forge a reputation as a funny and off-beat urban fantasy author. However, his new novel, The Good Humor Man Or, Calorie 3501 marks something of a departure for him as it is a work of dystopian near-future SF. Well ... that is what it says on the tin. In reality, The Good Humor Man is more of a road movie; a journey through a number of iconic locations in search of the true essence of America. Unfortunately, all it manages to find is a jar of eerily erotic fat.
Dr. Louis Schmalzberg is a Good Humor Man. Not a 1950s ice-cream man but rather a member of a paramilitary organisation dedicated to destroying overly fatty food and confiscating the medical insurance cards of those people who consume it. After a raid on a compromised government cheese storage facility, Schmalzberg is badly shaken up, and things go downhill once he discovers that swarthy foreign agents are attempting to get hold of his birth-right: a jar of adipose tissue liposuctioned out of Elvis Presley just before he died. Unfortunately for Schmalzberg, he no longer has the jar. Unfortunately for the world, the jar may contain the cure to a mysterious wasting condition that is sweeping the country. In order to reclaim his birth-right and save the world, Schmalzberg turns his back on the Good Humor Men and sets off on a voyage that will take him through a spiritually re-invigorated Graceland, New Orleans high calorie speak-easies, Floridian liposuction cults, Disneyworld as run by a pharmaceuticals company, and the ruins of Las Vegas.
Despite The Good Humor Man being marketed as a work of dystopian fiction in the grand tradition of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), the book does not show much interest in constructing the kind of political nightmare that you might expect. Most dystopian fiction works by reductio ad absurdum, identifying and amplifying social trends to the point where they come to define a fictional society, thereby drawing our attention to the negative influence these trends might be having on our own cultures. For example, Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1953) rails against advertising, while Huxley's Brave New World (1932) frets about a future in which humanity is completely divorced from nature. However, despite the blurb on the back of the book, I feel that it is unfair to judge The Good Humor Man by the yardstick of the dystopian genre. While it is quite correct to note the influence of Fahrenheit 451, that influence is not thematic but narrative. Fox does not try to mirror the anger and horror felt by Bradbury over the issue of censorship by applying those emotions to the increasing demonisation of fat in Western culture. Nor does he really engage with the arguments for and against his chosen issue in the way that Bradbury does in his firehouse card game scene or the book's symbolic ending. Instead Fox simply "borrows" Fahrenheit 451's opening act, right down to the protagonist's love for his wife serving as a catalyst for transformation from tool of oppression to liberator. Unfortunately, while it is clear what kind of book The Good Humor Man is not, it is less obvious what kind of book it is trying to be.
The Good Humor Man's plot is an unambitiously linear, single-stranded McGuffin-hunt of a thing with no twists, turns, or real surprises to it. Aside from a few clumsy analogies (someone "fondles a sawed-off shotgun in his lap like a favourite grandchild" (p. 7) while the main characters feels "like a quadriplegic who's been ordered to perform a trapeze act" [p. 147]), Fox's prose style is fluid and spartan. The book smoothly bustles its characters from place to place without every tarrying long enough to allow the action to slow or the cracks to appear in Fox's thinly constructed world.
Despite sticking quite closely to the road movie formula, the book never really manages to conjure up anything more than a series of mildly entertaining set pieces. Fox's pharmaceutical Disneyworld is identical to our Disneyworld but with different corporate branding. His New Orleans is much like a tourist's vision of pre-Katrina New Orleans and his description of Elvis-based religions in Graceland and Florida feel underdeveloped given that Elvis is already something of a post-modern religious icon anyway. As the book takes us from place to place, it is clear that Fox is desperately trying to say something about America. For no reason relevant to the wider plot, Schmalzberg takes a load of drugs and goes on a vision quest inside Disneyworld but despite a lot of muttering about the true nature of America and a fondness for iconic American imagery, the closest the book comes to an insight is that Elvis' monstrous hypocrisy made him mysterious and paradoxical enough to be the perfect religious figure for 21st Century America. This failure to find a deeper theme, along with the half-hearted attempt at dystopia, makes The Good Humor Man feel like a book in search of some subject matter. Combine that with rather banal plotting and functional writing and you have a book that comparatively uninteresting. That is until you start to think about the characterisation.
Fox's characters are not particularly complex or well drawn. They are flamboyant creatures full of physicality and ethnicity, but deprived of any real internal life. In most cases, this results merely in generic characterisation but at other times this approach generates a whiff of something quite distasteful. The kind of odour that might filter up through the ground from things deeply buried but nonetheless unpleasant. For example, the character referred to as "the Ottoman" is described as
Turkish-looking—copper-colored face, thick black mustache, hair like glossy black plastic. (p. 62)
and as possessing fingers
As thick as blood sausages, and the knuckles are as weighty-looking as bolts on a bulldozer. I can't imagine imagine those hands playing a violin, or probing the delicate, fat-laden inner reaches of a woman's thigh with a cannula. But I can imagine them doing less pleasant things. (p. 63)
This character pops up throughout the book and never comes across as anything other than a crude racial stereotype, quick to promise death in the name of Allah whilst shouting "SCHMALZBERG! You insidious Jew!" (p. 259) at the book's protagonist. His swarthy animalistic physicality brings to mind the ugliness of the Robert E. Howard Solomon Kane stories set in Africa. The sense of unpleasantness that pervades the book's depiction of foreigners is not improved by a sympathetic Asian character begging the protagonist to trust him on the grounds that he is only working in America because there were no Americans to fill the job vacancy. What if he had beaten two hundred Americans to the job? Would that make it okay to distrust him for being a foreigner?
This kind of crude and type-based characterisation is more than enough to give the book a whiff of xenophobia, but to dismiss the book as lazy or prejudiced would be to ignore many of its subtleties. Subtleties that seem to suggest that Fox is an author who is committed to walking a decidedly fine line.
In the above quote, Fox mentions using a cannula on "the delicate, fat-laden inner reaches of a woman's thigh." A cannula is the metal nozzle used in liposuction to dislodge the fat. The book's protagonist repeatedly mentions that he and his wife enjoyed a sexual relationship built around her over-eating and him giving her liposuction. Later in the book, he wins the religious and sexual devotion of a young woman with the promise that he would continue to provide her with liposuction.
I push the green button on the cannula's handle, and the machine hums to life. A viscid flow of red, yellow, and white races through plastic tubing toward the storage canister. Margo's green eyes follow the spiralling flow, hypnotized by its ever-mutating beauty.
Her lips form soundless words. I can't tell what she's saying. But her earlier words repeat themselves in my mind:
I believe in you, Doctor Schmalzberg. I believe in you. (p. 165)
In isolation, the sexualisation of liposuction might have been a creepily interesting idea that could have tied together the book's anti-fat America with grotesque real world reality TV shows such as Extreme Makeover that suggest that true self-love comes not from acceptance of one's idiosyncrasies but from tens of thousands of dollars in plastic surgery. However, it is not an isolated plot point.
Fox's previous works also feature elements of weight-gain fetishism. His first book—Fat White Vampire Blues—stars a White vampire who preys on large Black women because he gets a thrill out of watching them eat before drinking their fat and sugar-enriched blood. But while Fox clearly sexualises weight-gain and tries to empower bigger women he is also quick to do the converse and de-protagonise skinny women. Indeed, the character who undergoes liposuction in the above quotation behaves like a small child, at one point even going so far as to call Schmalzberg "Daddy," before ending the book with a decidedly misjudged scene in which, consumed with worry, she declares:
"Yes, I'm bleeding. I've been noticing spots of blood ever since I started cramping. Just earlier ... Louis, my underpants were filled with blood" (p. 273)
Thankfully, a nurse appears and informs the poor dear that, at the age of twenty-nine, she has just had her first period. Fox describes Schmalzberg's reaction :
"All the ice inside me thaws in an instant. My arms are around her, and my fingers become Magellans, circumnavigating the incipient curves of the woman she's becoming. I'm laughing, too.
"Oh Margo, darling, you aren't dying. Not at all. You're living." (p. 273)
The implication being that, despite being twenty-nine years old, Margo did not become a woman until she started menstruating and growing curves.
The book's eerie sexualisation is not limited to weight-gain. It also applies to race. The protagonist of Fox's earlier works makes a point of only preying upon large Black women and this sexualisation of an ethnic type is echoed in The Good Humor Man's depiction of a gang leader as a large black woman of "dark brow" and "soft hand" (p. 124). An imperious Dominatrix who swans about the place in a cape made of peacock feathers, she handcuffs and blindfolds the protagonist before introducing him to the world of sensual delights found in New Orleans' high calorie speakeasies.
While not on the same level as the book's stereotypical "Ottoman," I cannot help but feel that there is something slightly unsavoury going on here. The Good Humor Man is not really a book about fat fetishism and the details of the relationships and motivations of the characters are hardly explored at all. Instead, the book empowers Black women and those willing to gain weight almost casually, as though these types of ideas are not up for discussion. This makes the book come across as dogmatic; as though it is presenting ideas that are to be accepted as wholesome rather than thought about or debated. This is problematic as while the book certainly empowers certain characters, it is the kind of power that comes not from being an equal but from being placed on a pedestal.
The book's tendency to belittle skinny women and dark-skinned foreign men clashes violently with its depiction of Black women and women who are willing to gain weight. This suggests that the book's pedestal empowers not because all weight-gainers and Black people are deserving of empowerment. Instead, it empowers because certain fat and Black people are sexual objects of desire. If you are a big black woman you are a sexually powerful queen; if you are a large dark-skinned man you are a sinister thug. If you are a woman who is gaining weight you are owning your own body; if you prefer being skinny you are a deluded child. This is a pedestal that exaggerates and fetishes differences between groups instead of challenging them. It is the same pedestal occupied by the Pussycat Dolls and some of the people who appear in porn films with titles such as Iz You My Baby Daddy? (2009) and Double Stuffed Plumpers (2008).
My feeling is that while there may well be an argument to be made for the importance of this kind of empowerment, the book does not seem interested in making it. Instead, the book's rather two-dimensional approach to characterisation reduces rather than enhances its characters; the gang leader is nothing but a powerful curvaceous black woman and Margo is nothing but a skinny girl obsessed with liposuction. Had Fox developed these ideas and characters more fully then I suspect he might have had an interesting book on his hands. As it is the result is simply a dull road movie with xenophobic and misogynistic undertones.
Jonathan McCalmont lives in the United Kingdom, where he writes, teaches, and edits Fruitless Recursion.