Flesh tells the story of Don's fascination with Max. But the heart of the
matter is what fascinates Max. They inhabit a world of academia, in a sense 'anycampus, USA', although actually set in the venerable halls of Ole Miss, USA. Don is something of an outsider, originating in New York, but the real outsider is Max. We are taken on a whistle stop tour of the dramatis personae of the campus and the town, a bit of voyeurism into their features and foibles, but the keenest quarry of our looking in is Max, right down to Don's peephole into his apartment.
So what is it about Max?? Well, a little like this preamble, following the
explicitly up front announcement of the title, we are only slowly and
gradually ushered through to the centre stage - that Max is an FA and his
attention is on big women. So what's an FA? Certainly the phrase doesn't
appear in the book. A for Admirer is the more general currency. Could be
Adorer...maybe Appreciater is best. No matter - the etymology and the
literal rendition is already unimportant; it's shorthand for men with a
taste, in the words of that FA blues, for Big Legged Women.
Flesh is a pacy, piquant and perky novel. Witty and entertaining. Its
vignettes of 'scripted' conversation and 'screenplay' action at the several
cocktail type agglomerations of the characters which pepper the book
sometimes verge on the hilarious and appear, here at any rate, as a forte of the author. But this is the stuff of many a novel and even many a good one - but not for this is the book remarkable, No, it is for its contribution to the
genre, indeed for its launching of the genre that FAs will be interested in it,
and perhaps celebrating it. After all - they (you?) may have read the pieces in FA
mags, and seen the pieces on FA websites, but before this had they ever seen a mainstream FA novel? I think not, and for this alone the author is to be congratulated. Perhaps a case of one small step for FAs, one giant step for mainstream publishing.
In a way the sheer title and the main feature of one of the central
protaganists remain the most remarkable things about it. The distinguishing marks of the book unfold gingerly - perhaps we're witnessing a sort of tentative coming out on the part of the author. Indeed, as he grows bolder, so each successive flame of Max's emerges with greater girth than the last. There are sorties into the territory of the wordsmithing of voluptuousness, although these too remain tentative and ambivalent - FA's will find them alluring, while for others they will remain descriptive and non-committal - Beatrice -'the whole of her was substantial, she seemed to overflow her boundaries'; Helen - 'her breasts warped the design of her T-shirt like twin Mercator projections'; Bibi - 'hard to tell where her bust ended and her belly began...she clamped his hand ...between her armpit and the fleshy swell of her upper arm'. And these too come with accelerating frequency in the latter part of the book.
Finally, there is the sting in the tail at the end of the narrative, and
having already said that, I'll resist saying any more to give the ending
away. (Yes, for those who've already read it, pun intended.) The ending
itself has to be, at least, controversial. There's a dark humour in it that
from the fat apologist's point of view could be thought regrettable; but the
book wan't written as a polemic, and as a mainstream publication perhaps
inevitably it would conclude with a catchy and dramatic rather than a happy ending.
For readers left wondering about the author's personal views on fat issues,
here's his statement: "I believe that fat people - or large-sized, or
whatever term you prefer - are still some of the most discriminated against people in civilized countries that ought to know and behave better."