Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Book Review: Nero Wolfe Series by Rex Stout

So I'm one of those people who has to have a slab foundation house for fear the weight of the bookcases will simply send them crashing through to the floor below. Every available wall has books on it. That said, I'm actually pretty picky about what I read.

Pulp fiction and detective novels really, really aren't on that list.

But JD has a collection of books from the 1930's onward by an author named Rex Stout, about a Sherlock-Holmes-like detective named Nero Wolfe.

Amongst other eccentricities (he's also a brilliant agoraphobic gourmet orchid enthusiast), Nero Wolfe is fat. I mean deathfat.

It's interesting to see the difference in how the character is presented and treated in the 1930's, before the moral panic against fat really sank its teeth into our culture. The author doesn't bother trying to make him into a morality statement, but instead treats both his weight and public judgement of it refreshingly matter-of-factly.

Of course, it's hard to say if his weight is being exaggerated. Wolfe doesn't weigh himself, but the narrator (his Watson-like assistant) estimates him at 300 pounds. I wonder if this is a case of not really knowing what 300 pounds looks like, or if Wolfe is short enough that 300 pounds on a certain frame would really result in the mobility issues described in the book, or if the mobility issues are assumed as part of his eccentric character, rather than an actual limitation. The last could be inferred by the fact that while he uses his weight to excuse himself from rising for most visitors, he makes exceptions. Also, as the series progresses, he can move pretty decisively when it comes to defending himself from an attacker or running from a prize bull. He even manages to hike twenty miles through the mountains of Eastern Europe in a later book.

So far I'm about halfway through the 40+ book series, and find myself reading from an FA point of view in criticism. For example:

There's some fat snark at him from the other characters, but usually in the sense that they're lashing out in resentment that he has shown them up or has some power over them. He's much more offended when they call him an idiot.

His weight is implied to be a result of his love for gourmet food, but also there seems to be (at least in the first few books) a strong implication of his having an actual binge eating disorder. When he's depressed he plans hugely elaborate meals with exotic ingredients and obsesses over them as a way of avoiding his potential failure in the case he's working on.

So far in the series he has twice lost quite a bit of weight by essentially adopting anorexic behaviour for a very specific purpose (once to join the army and "fight the Nazi's" and once to conceal his identity). Both times he returns to his normal weight (i.e. deathfat) as soon as he stops actively starving himself. I like the realism of this. His partner describes Wolfe as looking "deflated" rather than thin, which is a good imagery for the sagging, formless flaps of skin typical after losing that much weight. Also, while the character demonstrates that its possible to lose weight, he also demonstrates that it takes extremely unhealthy measures, and is both miserable and temporary.

At one point he claims to have "let" himself get this fat as a layer of protection against intimacy. He hasn't yet encountered a love interest. This is pretty problematic for me, but then again it's consistent with his general misanthropy and reclusiveness.

The author seems very aware of the "little things" fat people have to deal with on a regular basis. For instance, on the few times he leaves the house he has trouble because people don't keep armless, sturdy chairs in their homes and offices.

Wolfe is fat, but he is impeccably well dressed, clean, intelligent and has exquisite good taste. in everything from art, to literature, to food. In this way he challenges a lot of stereotypes you find of fat people in detective fiction, especially in the pulp era when someones external appearance was often taken to be a reflection of their inner self.

Wolfe's assistant makes mention of his weight, but usually in a good humoured way that shows he genuinely likes and respects the man. He's much more frustrated by Wolfe's agoraphobia than his fatness.

Overall, though, while the books don't hit a high water mark for Fat Positive, they're much MORE so than many I've read. They also have a refreshing realism that keeps the character as a normal, complex human being who happens to be fat. His fat isn't fetishized, stereotyped or moralized. I've no idea how it actually stands up to other pulps of the era, since I'm not exactly a connoisseur. The writing is pretty good and the characters are clever. The first person voice, Wolfe's assistant, is a misogynist ham pretty typical of the film noir type detective, but he has his charm. Pretty much I'd say that if you like the style of classic detective fiction but don't feel represented as a fat person, this might be a good series to look into.


Alice said...

A&E did a fantastic TV series of Nero Wolfe with Maury Chaykin as the titular character, and Timothy Hutton as the "narrator", Archie Goodwin. Wolfe was portrayed more like a recluse, IMO, someone who really didn't like to leave his house. I really enjoyed it.

His character reminds me of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock Holmes' older (smarter) brother.

JoGeek said...

Didn't know that! I'll have to see if Netflix has it. Thanks for the tip! :-)

Trabbs said...

I grew up on Nero Wolfes, with my Dad reading them to the family aloud, and I love them all with a passion. It's quite possible that they coloured my view of fat generally. Fat, in men anyway, always seemed to indicate strength, power, larger-than-lifeness like Wolfe possesses.

I think Rex Stout was somewhat fat himself, though not the size of Wolfe. I'm surprised by the 300 pound number as well, since Wolfe is supposed to be fat enough to be very fussy about chairs.

The lack of moralizing about it is nice. Yes, there are assumptions that he is fat due to food consumption, but no one ever acts like he should be ashamed of that.

My folks liked the A&E series, but said that Wolfe wasn't sophisticated enough. I could never bring myself to accept Timothy Hutton as Archie. Nowhere near cool enough.

Thanks for reminding me of these. I haven't read them in a decade, and I might just have forgotten who dunnit in a couple of them.

Bonnie said...

Nero Wolfe is one of my fat heroes! I always imagined him as shorter, so the 300 pounds made sense. I liked that he had such a good relationship with food. I never read him being described as overeating, just really enjoying fine food.

Sirriamnis said...

The A&E series is good. Much better than the modernized network series in the late 1970s with Michael Ironsides as Nero Wolfe.

I love the Nero Wolfe books. And honestly, as much as Wolfe says it's his fat that keeps him housebound, as you said, when he needs to he moves quickly and sure-footedly.

spoonfork38 said...

Oh, wow! I just bought the A&E Nero Wolfe set as a present to myself.

I'm a huge Rex Stout fan--I've hooked my MIL on Nero Wolfe, too. most libraries have a collection of these, but the books are also being rereleased.

That "seventh of a ton" reference has always interested me--it sounds so much heavier than 285. And I do think Mr. Wolfe does have control issues with food--he has many rules and can't abide to see someone miss a meal. But one can't deny he has dignity--and he rarely responds to fat-related insults.

I also have a couple of major literary crushes on Archie Goodwin and Saul Panzer. I think Timothy Hutton--whom I greatly admire--does just fine, but Conrad Dunn is perfection as Saul. . .