A heartrending novel about one man’s search for meaning in a difficult life
A child ridiculed for his weight, a son overshadowed by a favored brother, a husband who falls short of his wife’s ambitions, an old man with a broken heart… As Orbits’s life passes, he doggedly pursues a simple dream a little place in the country where a family might thrive while wondering if he can ever shake free of the tragedies that seem to define him.
Fatboy Fall Down is the lush and heartbreaking musings of a man trying to understand his place in the world. Though shot through with sadness, Fatboy Fall Down is also full of surprising moments of wry humor, and Rabindranath Maharaj's deft touch underscores the resilience of the human spirit.
About the Author
Rabindranath Maharaj is the author of seven novels and three short story collections. His fifth novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy , won both the Toronto Book Award and the Trillium Fiction Prize. In 2013, Maharaj was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He resides in Ajax, Ontario.
Read an Excerpt
Fatboy Fall Down
When he was fifty-eight years old and preparing for his retirement in a slumberous cocoa village nestled within a valley's crook, Orbits would look at the parakeets, so tiny and green they could be mistaken, from a distance, for skittering leaves, and he would recall his dream of reading the weather report with a macaw perched on his shoulder. The bungalow, its walls wrinkled by vines that trailed from the lemon and guava trees and seemed to glide into the open windows, he had coveted for half his life, and his ease in acquiring it at an affordable price encouraged him into speculating about other long-delayed pursuits.
He would visit his daughter, whom he had not heard from nor seen for over a decade. He would populate the pond at the back of his house with red tilapia and augment the yard with fruit trees — cashews, mangoes, custard apples, cherries and plums. He would attend to his growing vision problems and finally finish his meteorology course. All of this, he mentioned in letters to Wally, his old friend from the Ministry of Agriculture. It was Wally who, before his relocation to Toronto, had introduced him to life in the capital and who had explained how aspects of the island's past had ingrained themselves into a culture of lime and unexpected generosity always twinned with reproach. Wally, too, had noted that the faddishness of the boom years did not completely displace the old way of thinking: the refusal to be persuaded, the childish presumptuousness, the nursing of grudges, the fear of competition, the absolute dread of being ignored.
Wally's heart attack had preceded Orbits' by a few years, and in a letter, Orbits had joked about both men resting side by side on hospital beds. But Wally had survived his heart attack.
In the evenings, Orbits walked across the yard of the old shop where tufts of knotgrass sprouted from concrete and asphalt and he mentioned his plans to the sceptical shopkeeper. "Just a few months again for my pension," he told the shopkeeper. "I have my bucket list."
The shopkeeper, offended by Orbits' optimism, replied, "Careful the bucket don't tumble down the hill and take you with it. Remember what happen to Jack and the other miserable little one." The shopkeeper knew Orbits only as a local politician of negligible importance, an unremarkable man trying to be remarkable. If Orbits, in an uncharacteristic burst of candour, had described the torment that marked his childhood and which had left both scars and a faltering imagination; if he had spoken of the events that had forced him to return to his parents' house following his brother's suicide, only to witness the life squeezed out of both; if he had mentioned that for most of his life, always expecting rejection, he was forever preparing for it; if he had confessed any of this, the shopkeeper, a tiny man with an unevenly shaped moustache and bristly eyebrows that gave him a harried and reflective look, would not have seen Orbits as any different from anyone in the island.
But Orbits had grown to see himself as different, and separate. For most of his life he had little idea of what the future might bring; he never planned for anything and when a little slice of luck fell his way, he briefly imagined it was the world settling itself, balancing the turmoil of his early years.
* * *
Yet, at the beginning of his life, before the birth of his brother, he never suspected there was anything unusual or shameful about himself. There was nothing unnatural about the rolls of supple fat that hung from his waist and which his mother pinched and tickled whenever he fell from the sofa or the front stairs. Or with his father's amused comment, "Clear the road, Mamoose. The steamroller coming through." He assumed the responses of his parents to his weight and clumsiness were normal and that in every house in the village, there were little fatties like him rolling around to the amusement of the adults.
Then, a few months prior to his fifth birthday, his slim and perfect brother was born. And shortly after, he was sent off to school. He expected he might find there some variation of his parents' jolliness, but he discovered that school was a place of hardened bullies and frustrated teachers waiting patiently for students like him while they nursed their hangovers. He also learned quickly that it was a bad idea to run away from the other boys because invariably he tumbled on the road, drawing even more ridicule. One day while he was trying to pull himself from the slippery mud, a group of boys pretended to be applauding his effort. As he rolled back and forth to get some traction, one of them said, "It look like Fatso rocking himself to sleep."
"Like a little piggy."
When he came home, his blue shirt was smeared and there were two clumps of hardened mud like horns on his forehead. "I not going to school again," he declared.
"And where exactly you want to go?" his father asked genially.
Orbits had always believed that if a genie or prate granted him a single wish he would ask for the power to float. Not to swoop across the sky with his hands punching the air and one calf raised like Superman but to gently glide on cushions of air, feeling the warmth of the feathery clouds as they tickled his toes. He didn't care about shooting beams from his eyes or web from his fingers, and he was unimpressed by super strength or dazzling speed. He just wanted to float above everyone.
Before he could answer, his mother said in a joking voice, "Look at your clothes, boy. You playing steamroller again?"
"Only frogs does play in the mud," his father said in a reflective voice as if he were introducing a solemn guest. "Or maybe is toad. To me the two is the same. Don't know why they have to give different name to the exact same things. Halligator and crocodile. Turtle and morrocoy. Goat and sheep. Toad, frog and —"
"Crappo!" the mother exploded. She hoisted her son into the air and asked with each catch, "Who is a crappo? Who is a little crappo?" Orbits was certain his brother in mid-air pointed to him.
In Orbits' second year at school, a teacher brought a bottle filled with squirming tadpoles and instructed the class, over the following days, to watch the bottle while he slept off his hangovers. The girls seemed both entranced and disgusted by the big heads and the little flicking tails and Orbits, alone among the students, wondered whether these ugly little things would transform into dainty creatures the way the subject of another project, a lumpy caterpillar, had metamorphosed into a butterfly. He was deeply disappointed to learn the tadpoles' future was the frogs kicked around by the boys when a football was not handy. He felt no grief when the teacher emptied the bottle beside one of the latrines. Maybe the slimy tadpoles deserved their fate. He got that notion from the principal of the school, a man whose habit of scratching his crotch had landed him the nickname Master Crab. During an assembly, following the closure of the school for a week because of an infestation of bats, the students returning to twitching, bloodied mammals on the floor and desks, Master Crab had tried to soothe the disgusted girls by saying that it was okay to kill animals like bats and pigs and frogs because they were ugly. "God made them ugly for a reason," he had said. "That is why is a capital offence to interfere with a peacock."
One year later, Orbits got the nickname which would stick for the duration of his life. His mother was breastfeeding his brother who, at four years, was half Orbits' age, and his father was at the table vigorously attacking a bowl of gizzard, shaking his head like a shaggy dog to get a proper bite. Both parents were listening to a radio news item about the unplanned crash landing of a Russian satellite. His father said, "I wish that thing could land right in the backyard. We could salvage the radio and seatbelts and all the rows of bulbs. Or if it still good, we could paint it over and sell fruits from it. Everybody will rush to buy. Eh, Mamoose? Big fancy sign saying fruits from outer space. Moon mango and Pluto pineapple."
Orbits' mother never knew whether her husband was joking or serious, and in both instances, she used the same rejoinder, "You and all your fancy ideas, Papoose."
Orbits wanted to say that it was a stupid idea because the lab would be destroyed before it touched ground, but his little brother beat him to it. He loosened his lips from around his mother's nipples and recited in a clacking voice, "Papoose-Mamoose-brother-moose."
Orbits could predict the stupid bantering that would ensue. He hated the stupid nicknames his parents used for each other, and he was fed up of his little brother, who seemed to be conniving with the entire world to make his life miserable. And his mother said, "Hush, baby. Your daddy not going to do anything but settle on his hammock."
His father, who had finally defeated his plate of gizzard, placed his meat-eating dentures next to the pile of rugged rubbery bits that had his resisted chewing and looked like a tattered bolt of canvas. While adjusting his thinner and lighter dessert dentures, his father said, "That is where I get my best ideas, Mamoose. Like for instance, how this thing that floating for dozens of years suddenly decide to drop to earth. Sometimes, is one little nut or bolt that cause the big problem. Something that didn't tighten properly. I wonder how much nuts and washers a helicopter have? More than a washing machine, you think? The two is nearly the same. Uppers and lowers."
The father was an impractical salvager who packed junk all around the house and in every corner within, but recently, most of his ideas had begun to revolve around local materials for his business as a denturist, for which he had gotten the name Swallows. The name had been given because of a series of denture accidents, but it suited the father who, with his narrow chest above his gently pushed-out belly and his thin feet, looked like an elongated bird. The feeder, birdlike too with his insistent beaky lips, looked at his mother expectantly, but before she could say anything, Orbits cut in. "I want to float."
"Boy, you too fat to float," his father said. "You have the correct round shape for floating, but you too heavy." The feeder giggled and Orbits felt, as he had so many times, the urge to pluck him from his mother's breast and fling him straight through the window to land on the banga tree outside.
"But didn't the Buddha used to float?" his mother asked mischievously. "That is a nice name for you. Little Buddha." The mother, who had a sturdy body set upon thin legs, more yard fowl than flight bird, glanced down at the feeder. "Boo Baby Bumkins. Buddha gone a humkins." The feeder gurgled malevolently at his mother's jumbled joke.
Orbits recognized the mood and regretted saying anything. He should learn to keep his silence at home, as he had at his school, where protracted bullying by the other boys and the teachers had stiffened him into an almost mute butterball. Still, he couldn't resist saying, "Anybody could float. Is different from flying. Look at all these big goose. I thinking of it a long time now."
"Float like the ..." His mother began to convulse like a fowl shaking off dirt and the feeder's head was thrown left to right. Orbits watched his brother's fingers clutching air and thought of a frog climbing a wall. "Like the ..."
The father offered a pre-emptive laugh. "Like the ..." he encouraged.
"Michelin man!" the mother exploded.
After the laughter had died, the father said, "Boy, your head always in the cloud. You have to come down from that orbit."
"Look who talking now," the mother said. "You and Orbits no different."
And so, he got his name.
It was not a name he disliked, and because he preferred it to his nicknames at school, he was relieved when word got around and everyone began to call him Orbits.
* * *
He had always lived in dread of the walk from his house to the school, and each morning and evening, he tried to forget the nicknames and the bullying by focusing on the buildings rather than their taunting inhabitants. If he were older and less traumatized, he might have noticed that every house had a different shape: some were tall and angular like lighthouses, others squat like pillboxes and yet others were roundish with many windows and doors or rectangular with multiple pillars and arches. He may have noticed not only the profusion of fruity, flavescent colours that tickled his appetite but the range of building materials. Houses were built from concrete and brick, brick alone, cedar and teak, corrugated aluminium and plyboard. All were incomplete, even the elaborate structures, and this incompleteness gave the street the air both of stagnation and progress. As he hurried along, he wished he were living on another street, in another village. I wish Mamoose and Papoose could move somewhere else, he thought, as he struggled up the slight incline before his house. Even a small house.
But Orbits' street was no different from those in all the other villages in the island. Here as elsewhere, wealth was displayed as prominently and with the same pride as grinding poverty, and a house was the most visible representation of status. The house in which he grew up was of middle size and ambition and a passing traveller might see it and know that its occupants were not farmers or tradespeople, nor were they contractors or proprietors. The traveller might guess at a profession, perhaps teaching, and he or she would not have been far off the mark.
Orbits' father was a self-taught dentist. Every village had its own quack and they were expected to extract teeth, install fillings and scrape tongues as well as fashion dentures. His father's lab was not in the village but in a town about five miles away. To get there, the father had to get a taxi at the junction, which was an intersection of parlours and a small dry goods shop opposite two rumshops. When his father had opened his office eighteen years earlier, the town had been a place of family-run stores, but over the years, all the gaps and spaces between the buildings were stuffed with parlours and stalls, some just eight feet wide. These cubicles were congested with limers smoking and sooting the passing schoolgirls. Orbits' school was in the opposite direction and on his way there, he felt he was sinking deeper into the village, the opportunity for escape lessening with each footstep. After some brutal day, he would say, "I finish with school."
And his mother would reply, "Don't worry, Chunkalunka, that baby fat will melt off just now."
It increased every year. So Orbits was relieved when the new nickname stuck, and to ensure it would not be displaced, he would stop suddenly on the road and look up. Once in a while, he shaped his hand like a gun and shot away the birds that were obscuring his view of the sky and of the clouds. Occasionally, a housewife would watch him from the window and ask, "What the fat boy staring up at the sky like he crazy?" And the husband would reply, "Oh, that is Orbits. His father is the quack. Swallows."
As the years passed and he went from one school to the other, skipping classes and failing most of his exams, the name suited him even more. Teachers were especially cruel to him, and it was because of this group that he missed classes. During his first year at a high school, the teacher, an aristocratic whiskered man who walked like a general, lectured the class about students who had failed all their exams and who were herded into private schools like this, clogging up the classrooms. These students would forever be burdens, to their parents, to teachers like himself and to the island. "Look at this beast here hiding something in his hand and eating." The teacher, nicknamed Snakebelt because of the way he smoothly slipped off his belt, pointed his rod at Orbits. "Come up boy and let me see what you gobbling."
A month earlier Orbits had developed grainy warts on his fingers. His father's sulphurous concoction, rather than removing the warts, had hardened them into thick brown scabs. Orbits had discovered that each time he bit off the scabs the warts grew smaller.
"What is your name, boy?" When Orbits remained silent, he added, "You don't have a name? Eh." He swished his rod against his pants.
"My name is Orbits."
"What you say, boy? Horrific? Orifice?" With every mispronunciation, the class bellowed.
"Orbits," he said quietly.
"Who give you that name, boy?"
"Is it him who patched up that shoe to resemble an alligator?" Orbits' father's penchant for inventive repairs extended to shoes, bookbags and uniform. Orbits tried to hide the offending shoe by crossing his legs and almost fell again. The class erupted.
"Yes, sir," he said, his eyes burning.
"You know why he give you that Orbits name? Is because he wish you was far away from him. Is because he know that gobblers like you will bring down the entire family because of your lickrishness. Now open your hand and let me see what you was eating. Both hands!" Reluctantly Orbits pushed out his hands. The teacher got up from his desk. "You blasted little cannibal. Is flesh you like to eat? Well, I going to help you with that. What you waiting for? Continue eating." Orbits looked at his fingers and at the teacher and at the howling class. "Eh? Your belly full." He repeated the sentence each time he brought down his rod on Orbits' hand, on the scabs he had been gnawing at. "Go and stand at the back of the class." When Orbits was walking to the back, a boy pushed out his leg and he tumbled. The teacher's annoyance changed to amusement. "Fatboy fall down," he said, and the class erupted.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fatboy Fall Down"
Copyright © 2019 Rabindranath Maharaj.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Fatboy Fall Down,
About the Author,