November 1998

Big Fish

By Daniel Wallace
Review by
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Thank Daniel Wallace, first-time novelist from Birmingham, Alabama, now residing in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for a singular and surprisingly comic contemplation on the death and life of a father as witnessed by his son. But this event is not just witnessed, as the subtitle suggests, it is turned over and imaginatively recreated four times, to be exact until the son William Bloom can get it right. Edward Bloom, William’s father, is dying. A salesman from Ashland, Alabama, who, by his own confession, just wanted to be a great man, Edward is revealed in a series of amusing, backward glances as a man quick with a rib-splitting joke as well as full of wise if improbable tales of his heroic past that blend into the mythic, even fairy-tale-like material of transcendence. These backward glancesHe Speaks to Animals, How He Tamed the Giant, How He Saved My Life, for example—are the stuff of modern-day legend. All the while William narrates his father’s life and adventures, he waits by the deathbed preparing for what takes four different tries at goodbye, playing the serious son to Edward’s continued out-of-place witticisms. As William tries to finally understand and connect with his father before he passes, we realize the scene is not only about saying goodbye to Edward, it is also about truly listening to his stories.

A large part of the great pleasure that come from reading Big Fish stems from its structure. Loose enough to admit wonder and a strain of mystical realism, the novella also maintains the cohesiveness of good theater. In fact, it is easy to imagine the story as a tightly wound play. With an obvious debt to Willy Lowman, the traveling salesman/father icon of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Daniel Wallace takes the story a bit further, allowing his protagonist to act out and attempt to act through the exaggerated yet serious dynamics of this father/son relationship while inviting the reader to symbolically do the same. When the catharsis comes, one cannot help but feel that it perhaps arrives for the audience as well as the author.

Also admirable is the manner in which Wallace maintains the threadbare balance between the humorist’s tall-tell tone a device bound to slightly distract the reader from the novella’s earnest subject matter and the serious, poignant theme of how one father and son face death. And the implicit call to reckoning such an event elicits from the thoughtful, pensive mind of the narrator. Which brings us to the central, most revealing discovery this small journey evokes: depending on how much Daniel Wallace and his narrator, William, overlap, it is clear that one gift Edward gave to his son was the rare ability to spin a deft story no matter how much fact might be found in Wallace’s fiction.

Todd Keith is a freelance writer currently completing a publication about the rivers of Alabama.

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