The Fat Man, Maurice Gee
The Fat Man Book blurb
“When people like Herbert Muskie take up residence in your mind, there’s nothing you can do to get them out. Colin Potter is a skinny boy, hungry for chocolate. Herbert Muskie is enormously fat, hungry for revenge. A dramatic encounter down at the creek forges an unhappy alliance between the vindictive man and the fearful child. But who is the fat man and why does he hate the people of Loomis? What guilty secrets are hidden in the past and why are Colin’s parents such special targets? A taut thriller from the award-winning author of The Fire-Raiser, Salt and Gool.” ~ Fishpond
The Fat Man First Page(s)
“Colin Potter was a hungry boy. His mother said he had a hole in his stomach andone day she’d get a needle and thread and sew it up. ‘Ha, ha,’ he said. She never let a joke go until she had hammered it to death. And her sayings, most of them to do with food, nearly drove him mad. They were like the holey tea-towels she hung on the line to dry and should have been thrown out years ago. ‘Chew your food thirty-two times otherwise your stomach won’t digest it,’ she said. Or: ‘You should was each swallow down with Adam’s ale.’ Colin wanted cordial and fizz. He wanted cake and biscuits and fresh white bread and strawberry jam.
‘Hard food for hard times,’ she said, and gave him a crust with a smear of dripping on it. She sent him to the scullery for some Adam’s ale. ‘And use the same glass, don’t take a new one,’ she said. Fat chance, he thought. They only had four glasses – four old peanut-butter jars – and all of them were dirty already.
They were hard times. They were hungry times. Colin could remember when his father had a job and brought home two pounds ten a week and they had roasts for dinner, with gravy and baked kumara, and date roll for pudding, and a custard trifle for a treat. Now they had mince stew, and not enough of it, and curly kale, and a spoonful of mashed potato without any butter, and once a week a bread pudding to use up the crusts. Sometimes they had sago. Of all the puddings in the world, he hated sago most.
He was a skinny boy. As well as being hungry he was greedy, which got him into trouble so bad that he could have ended up in a hole down by the creek. He did end up with a broken arm, but that healed quickly. It took longer for other things to heal – but [-p.10] we must not get ahead of our story, which begins on the day his mother gave him bread and dripping and sent him outside.” (pp.9-10)
Ref: Maurice Gee (2000) The Fat Man. Puffin Books: Auckland.
Themes in the novel
FAMILY; COMMUNITY; POWER; particularly THE POWER OF STORY and THE POWER OF ADULTS IN THE ‘WORLD’ OF THE CHILD; THE CORRUPTIVE INFLUENCE OF MONEY; POVERTY; GREED; REVENGE; FEAR; THE DECEPTIVENESS OF APPEARANCES; BULLYING; COWARDICE; EMPATHY…
Possible directions for study/questions to apply to The Fat Man:
Characterisation, family, and community
- The novel starts by describing Colin Potter as a “hungry boy” (p9). Why? What does this do to our image of the protagonist and how does it set things in motion for the story to play out on our imaginations?
- In fact, the novel begins by talking about food and the protagonist’s relationship with food and how food shapes Colin’s relationship with his mother. The narrator even states “our story… begins on the day his mother gave him bread and dripping and sent him outside” (p10) as if food were essential to the story…. Is it?
- By contrast, how is the fat man characterised? What of Colin’s parents, grandparents, the rest of the community, etc…
- I think it is worth considering how these characters are characterised not in some sort of isolation, but through other people. Other people’s perceptions; their own perceptions of others; the way each character treats the others especially. This last aspect influences the reader’s perceptions too…
- How are the characters characterised through appearance? What of the ‘worm‘ in the Fat Man’s cheek, for example? Does how we ‘see’ this scar, as a reader (listening to this narrator), change over the course of the novel?
- How does Colin’s family see itself? (compared to the fat man’s?) How does the narrator portray their relationship(s)? Does the narrator use Colin’s point of view or an omniscient one, or do we see events unfold and form a picture from the events (more so than actual descriptions) etc.? Does the family’s knowledge of itself change over the course of the novel?
- How does the Fat Man see Colin’s family?
- How do we see the fat man (at first – and then towards the end of the novel)? What social theories are we accepting of as we change our perception?
- How does Colin see his father? …at first? …towards the end? How does his relationship with his ather change through the novel? Why?
- How do Colin’s actions define him? How do the fat man’s actions define him? In the novel, how do one’s actions lead to consequences, that in turn, determine a character’s (or his community’s) fate? Is this a belief you agree with?
- Are these characters strong/weak?… (how do you know this?) How does this shape the story being told? If strong – where do they get their strength from; if weak – where does this come from?
- Where do the main characters’ strengths/weaknesses come from/lie? Are they social, physical, internal, familial, communal, economic, spiritual, etc.? Do the characters have imagination, ‘inherent’ abilities, ‘taught’/’learned’ skills, ‘personalities’ to draw on…?
- Compare Colin and the fat man…
- it seems we are asked to accept that The Fat Man is not wholly evil. Is there such a thing? What redeems him? Are all characters fallible in this novel?
- What does it mean ‘to be an adult‘ when the novel seems so deliberately contrasts the adults with the children in terms of fallibility?
- When Verna and Colin sit talking at the end, Colin comments that “They all think I cut the rope because I was scared of him.” (p142) The final line further asserts that “Verna is the only one who knows why Colin ran with the fat man in the end, and cut the rope.” (p142) What does this say about how adults have viewed these events differently to the children involved? What does it say about the adults’ capacity for empathy? Or for Colin and Verna’s capacity for such empathy? What does it imply about how the adults view Colin’s relationship with the fat man – and how is the reader involved in this opinion?
- The ending is revelatory both of how we view children and of how a child is expected to view life. I think it’s an incredibly practical ending, but some would say a dark one. In any case… Why describe how Verna’s and Colin’s relationship didn’t continue? Why include this point – and end on this note?
- We are encouraged to see the people of Loomis as a united people. We certainly don’t meet all of them, though we see Mrs Muskie and the children hassling her; we see something of the children in Colin’s classroom. We hear about the teachers; we meet Colin and his family, as well as the Muskies. Throughout the novel, the words “people say” reappear (usually in a negative fashion). What does the characterisation of the ‘people’ of Loomis add to this novel? How is the community of Loomis responsible for setting the events of this novel in motion?
- Consider, for example, the description of the children of Loomis picking on Mrs Muskie. Why include this? Consider, in the same way, how Verna is mistreated by the children of Loomis because of her short hair and nice shoes; again, why include this? What does it say of the Loomis community that the Fat Man has returned to? It is perhaps worth isolating each character from the story and considering how s/he is described; what behaviours are attributed to her/him, and in what way this helps the reader make sense of the Fat Man’s story… and also make sense of Colin’s story…
- Who has authority?
- In what ways is money referred to in this novel?
- How is money connected to the events of the novel? What is ‘for sale’ in Loomis? and at what price?
- How is money perceived differently by different people/ during the course of the novel? …to what effect?
- What do Colin’s father’s boxing cups add to the story? How is their presence/absence significant in terms of character – particularly in terms of a character’s ‘actions’?
- Are we to make anything of how Colin’s parents return to displaying both these cups and his mother’s cups at ‘the end of the story’?
- How many times are we exposed to ‘false appearances’? (in terms of physical description, lying, behaviour, etc.)
- In what ways are people’s appearances perceived by others as reflective of their character? By whom?
- The Fat Man observes that “Loomis doesn’t change.” In what ways has childhood remained the same from Herbert Muskie’s experience of Loomis through to Colin’s?
- How do people’s appearances influence their relationships?
- How often are people described, like the stained glass window, from within and without?
- What do Colin and Verna ‘see’ in people that other children and, especially, the adults do not?
- How does the Fat Man gain control of Colin and his family? What role do deception, falsehood, and a willingness to see only the surface of things play here?
- What is cowardice? Does cowardice play a role in the events of this novel? Does the reader’s understanding of cowardice differ from Colin’s; from Laurie’s; from the Fat Man’s etc?
- What are Colin and his family, or Verna and her mother afraid of? What do they fear will ‘happen’? Does this fear shift over the course of the novel? Why does the Fat Man get into the flying fox? What makes you think this, as a reader? Do the people of Loomis see what the reader sees?
- What is threatened? What is the crisis, or conflict, and how is it resolved?
- Is there a strong sense of place in this novel?
- How important is the setting to the story told?
- What role does the creek play in this novel? Maurice Gee often talks about the creek of his childhood; his comments about his childhood are probably worth considering here…
- What does the Muskie’s stained glass window bring to the text? It is referred to repeatedly, viewed from outside and within – and is also destroyed in an act of purposeful violence by Herbert Muskie at the end.
- The first chapter introduces us to the creek (described almost as another world into which Colin enters, but which all adults except the fat man seem to avoid); the second chapter, in particular, creates a sense of Loomis town. It is mapped out for us, complete with some of the town’s characters. What does this offer the reader? How does this knowledge of the setting guide the reader into the story?
- For me, I think the sense of adult community depicted here is important – Loomis is described in terms of its (struggling) businesses and it is in this world that these events happen…
Storytelling, genre, style, influences, etc.
- Maurice Gee has been interviewed numerous times, about writing, his childhood, his views in general. Does this material inform one’s reading of The Fat Man? (Gee’s childhood alongside the creek in Henderson – or his memories of his parents, for example)
- How is ‘what is normal‘ disrupted in this novel? (eg. what is established as normal (family ties and responsibilities, communal security etc.)… and how is this idea of ‘the norm’ challenged to create the story? Is this the norm? What is the result of this disruption to the status quo (in terms of character growth, for example)? Are the results culturally acceptable in New Zealand society?
- If this is a ‘coming-of-age‘ story, what makes it so? How is ‘of age’ defined in this case? (in relation to Colin’s vision of his father/community? In relation to Colin’s ability to empathise? …)
- Compare this story to the Pied Piper of Hamlin…
- Who is the narrator? Does it matter? The narrator seems to have a unique perspective on these events. There is an aspect of looking back at events to frame them as a story – and perhaps understand them better (though Colin and Verna seem to have been fairly understanding while things were happening). What role does the past play on the events of today? on who we become and how we behave?
- How could this story be told differently?
- What is included – and what is not – in this story? Whose perspective are we given? To what effect?
- How often, in this novel, are stories ‘told’ or ‘not told’ and what effect does this have on the course of events? What effect does the telling of The Fat Man, as a story, have on the reader?
- How powerful are stories?
- I also put out a whole heap more possible questions to unite The Fat Man with Where Cuckoos Call, by Des Hunt, and El alma al diablo, by Marcelo Birmajer in a separate blog.
- For Maurice Gee’s comments or opinions (or more on his work), click here – or click on his name in the tag cloud to the right. As I think of things to add, it will show up under these tags.
Texts that invite comparison
Other Maurice Gee books, …
I just read Des Hunt’s Cry of the Taniwha, and, as mentioned in that blog, I’m very tempted to unite these texts… on one level, both novels share the notion of there being ‘consequences to our actions’ (that can be both simple and complex as well as minor and personal or extreme and far-reaching). On another level, both authors also seem to share a certain willingness to place human villainy within its everyday context… The Cry of the Taniwha ends on a much more utopic note, but really might prove a worthy text for comparison!…
Actually, along a similar line, and as mentioned above, Des Hunt’s Where Cuckoos Call… (I put out a number of possible questions to unite these texts in a separate blog).
There’s a list of NCEA level 1 books online in which The Fat Man is included. English Online have something similar. In fact there are plenty such lists (just search the web) (eg.1, eg.2)… perhaps there is something that links the books listed on these sites… still thinking…
How to use this blog
Mindmaps help me think critically. They help me see the links between things and plot a course through all the observations and questions that a text provokes when I read it ‘as a text.’ This blog is a mindmap of sorts; full of random thoughts and relevant-seeming quotations or ideas.
- There is a tag cloud to the right of the blog, which shows the topics I am exploring as ‘tags.’
- You can also use the search bar at the bottom of the page to see if a particular word/book/author/theme is mentioned.
- Each time I bring an author into the discussion for the first time, I add an “Introducing the author” blog. This is easily found at the beginning of the section under that author.
- I have a section titled ‘Blog Notes’ in which I explain my blogging style.
- I have a ‘Literary Resources’ section which includes general ideas on literature and its study as well as the questions I apply to any text I study.
- These questions (eg. Character Questions) may be useful to any other reader wishing to look at this text differently (refer to very early on in the blogging history of this section).
- I absolutely welcome discussion: comments, suggestions, ideas, criticisms… please do!
Gee’s The Fat Man: a History
Winner Aim Junior Fiction Award
Winner, The Esther Glen Award, 1995
Winner Aim Children’s Book of the Year
US Publisher’s Weekly Top 10 Children’s Books of the Year
First published by Viking (Penguin Books), 1994, it is still on Penguin’s list – and is now available as an e-book.
Bibliography of secondary literature:
- there’s not been much academic criticism done on Maurice Gee’s children’s books, though it is starting to surface! (1 May 2011).
- There’s a lot of stuff on his adult books (some of which will certainly inform a critical reading of his children’s literature).
- There are a number of interviews and reviews around the place, and lots of stuff on his childhood (which he inserts into his writing and is often of relevance).
- Vivien Jean van Rij‘s PhD thesis The Pursuit of Wholeness in Maurice Gee’s Fiction for Children. Victoria University of Wellington: Wellington (freely available download)
- Vivien Jean van Rij “A Straight Steal”: “An Affair of the Heart” and Maurice Gee’s The Fat Man. (freely available download)
- Purcell, Uta.: “The Fat Man by Maurice Gee: who is the implied reader?” Talespinner (2) 1996, 44-50. (1996)
- Peter Beatson on The Fat Man (freely available download)
- CMIS Evaluation refer to a lesson plan by Catherine Kelly on the english.unitecnology.ac.nz website but I’ve never found this… (still if you know where to look, start with the CMIS link)
- RadioNZ have a reading of The Fat Man for sale (see their website)
- The Fat Man lesson plan from TKI (freely available download)
- Vivien van Rij gave a paper on The Fat Man and The Champion at a symposium on children’s literature in 2005. The paper was titled “Patterns of Exchange – the Villain, the Hero, and the Child in Two Novels by Maurice Gee.” …and…Louise Clark also gave a paper, titled “The Shadow behind the story: the Dangerous World of Maurice Gee’s Children’s Books.” The symposium, held at the University of Auckland, was titled ”The Place of the Child in Children’s Literature“ and was run by Claudia Marquis and Rose Lovell-Smith, but I don’t know whether the proceedings were published or not – or whether she considered The Fat Man in her paper.
Refer earlier blog: Introducing Maurice Gee