Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I, Fatty by Jerry Stahl

I, Fatty is Jerry Stahl’s faux bio/novelization of the life and times of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Arbuckle’s is a classic rags-to-riches-to-pariah story. Rising from the wreckage of a broken home and abusive father, Arbuckle finds solace on the stage. He’s the fat, funny man that people can laugh at and with. To earn some quick bucks, he gets involved with the movies, a step down from his true and noble calling, the theater. Arbuckle is an instant smash at Keystone and rockets to fame with a string of one and two reelers before tackling and becoming an international success in features. Arbuckle was comedian numero uno, rising to fame before Chaplin and before Keaton, who he takes under his wing. Ultimately Keaton would remain one of his true friends to Arbuckle’s bitter end. As luck would have it, things go horribly wrong for Arbuckle. A wild weekend in San Francisco, a party turns sour, a woman found dead, Arbuckle accused of rape and murder. Prior to Arbuckle’s wild weekend, there was already a gathering storm swirling around the immorality on display in Hollywood. Arbuckle becomes the poster boy for all of Hollywood’s sins and the nation turns on him, his formerly adoring fans deeming him nothing more than a fat, uncouth monster. The studios, in need of a fall guy, feed him to the fire and Hollywood abandons him to his fate against a bloodthirsty public and a corrupt legal system.

Ultimately, this is a really good read that I’d highly recommend. The book starts slow and I must say I wasn’t that into the handling of Fatty’s childhood. At times the writing is a little glib, with Arbuckle coming across equal parts crass, matter of fact and self-deprecating. The early years’ portion of the book lacks the emotional depth of hard knock coming-of-age stories, be they novels (Edward Bunker’s Little Boy Blue, John Fante’s Wait Until Spring Bandini) or memoirs (Mary Karr’s Liars’ Club, Michelle Tea’s Chelsea Whistle) or bios gone wrong (Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt, The Elvis books by Peter Guralnick). Also, once Arbuckle’s star begins to rise, success and fame comes at him fast and furious, but I never get the sense of being caught up in the whirlwind of that ascendancy. Even with these flaws, the book is a page-turner and really comes to life and strikes the proper chord once the scandal breaks. Stahl does a fantastic job capturing the confusion and the despondency that Arbuckle undergoes as his life crumbles around him. The studios cowardice, the newspaper’s scandal-mongering, the dodgy judicial system and the public’s turncoat behavior are all taken to task. You can’t help but feel for the big guy.

I, Fatty is a unique look at one of Hollywood’s great scandals and also a pretty nice glimpse into the early years of cinema. Definitely a must for film buffs and anyone looking for a read about a good scandal.

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