Book Review: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes Is a Bildungsroman and Issue Book for All

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Let me preface this review with a life update:  I’m back in grad school!  I’m about to embark on my first ever online course: ENG 561: Giving Voice to the Voiceless, a literature class taught by the Hillary Homzie.  We will be reading books where the writer has given voice to an otherwise voiceless child or teen, whether that child is physically incapable of speech, she is forced to be silent by adults, or her situation is such that her voice cannot be heard, and examine the techniques and forms used by these writers in trying to genuinely capture a voiceless voice to be able to emulate these in our own writing.

This class is going to consist primarily of realistic fiction, and a lot of it will be darker.

Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is not the first book on our reading list, but it was the first that I was able to get my hands upon, again, having found it at my local used bookstore.  It is a hard read.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is narrated by Eric “Moby” Calhoune, a once fat middle school student, now a somewhat slimmer high school swim team star.  Eric’s best friend is Sarah Byrnes, a tough and clever girl who has been outcast because of the severe burns that mar her face.  Those burns she claims to have gotten when, as a toddler, she pulled a boiling vat of water off the stove.  At the beginning of the novel, Sarah Byrnes (who goes only by her full name because she is aware of its irony and would prefer others to ridicule her on her terms to her face rather than behind her back) has ceased talking and ceased responding to the world at large.  She is living in a psychiatric ward, where Eric visits her.

The bildungsroman follows Eric as he tries to negotiate the secrets that he learns and the pain that he experiences.  Apart from Sarah Byrnes’ apparent withdrawal from the world, Eric is in a new class where they discuss relevant contemporary issues (abortion and religion are the main issues to which Crutcher devotes scenes), is striving to ready himself for the state swim championships, gains a girlfriend as his mother gains a boyfriend….  Issues that arise in the class force him to reevaluate his rival, who is a legalistic Christian.

Crutcher incorporates more of a villain and more of plot into his bildungsroman than some (Salinger) have done, and I greatly appreciate that for its good-versus-evil battle familiarity.  I think that this and the broader spectrum of issues with which Crutches deals (abortion, child abuse, the dangers of a narrow worldview and a worldview that allows only perfection, suicide; issues that should be talked about, dealt with) make Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes more readable than some others and rescue Staying Fat from the casual label of “boys’ book” that I would throw at it on the grounds of it being a bildungsroman from a male perspective.  I believe that Staying Fat is readable, enjoyable, and helpful to both genders.  Another “well done” to Crutcher.

As per giving voice to the voiceless:  Crutcher uses voicelessness in two ways: first as a disability or effect of abuse (as with Sarah Byrnes, Jody Mueller, and Mark Brittain) and second as a shield against abuse or hurt (as with Sarah Byrnes and Carver Middleton).  This paradoxical dichotomy lends an original voice and complexity to the very idea of voicelessness and makes the novel both more enjoyable and interesting.

The epilogue resolves what it can and allows for a generally happy ending to a heavy and dark read, while acknowledging that high school and the beginning of college are a time of flux and it cannot be tied in a neat bow.

***3/4

Crutcher, Chris.  Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  New York: Greenwillow-HarperTempest-HarperCollins, 2003.  First published 1993.

This review is not endorsed by Chris Crutcher, Greenwillow Books, HarperTempest, HarperCollins Children’s Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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