As I type this review of Big Fish by Daniel Wallace (Penguin: N.Y, 1998) I have yet to see the movie by Tim Burton starring Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume, Marion Cotillard, Steve Buscemi, and Danny DeVito. Judging from the director and the cast, this should be a rather interesting film adaptation of a very unusual novel.
The New York Times Book Review called the book “comic and poignant” and Rocky Mountain News said it was “magical and heartwarming.” Our own Nashville Book Page said of it: “A singular and surprisingly comic contemplation on the death and life of a father as witnessed by his son…Wallace maintains the threadbare balance between the humorist’s tall-tale tone and the serious, poignant theme of how one father and son face death.”
As the father is dying he tells his son: “I wanted to be a great man…I thought it was my destiny. A big fish in a big pond---that’s what I wanted. That’s what I wanted from day one” (p. 21). The father then asks his son if he knows what makes a man great. The son generously responds: “I think that if a man could be said to be loved by his son, then I think that man could be considered great” (p. 22). The son then goes on in his mind as he muses: “For this is the only power I have, to bestow upon my father the mantle of greatness, a thing he sought in the wider world, but one that, in a surprise turn of events, was here at home all along” (p. 22).
Is your father or mother a “big fish” in your opinion? If not, why not? If yes, why so?
Do you think you will become a “big fish” one day? How will you achieve this status if that is something you desire? If you don’t desire this, why not?
Of the dying father: “It was said he could charm anyone, just by walking through the room. It was said he was blessed with a special power. But my father was humble, and he said it wasn’t that at all. He just liked people, and people liked him. It was that simple, he said” (p. 33).
When his father left home as a young man he first found himself in a strange town, much like the one he was leaving, where a vicious dog would bite your finger off if you were not sufficiently motivated to escape into the wider world of opportunities. This is all a very mythical venture, a tall tale, unbelievable, yet very real. One of the characters inhabiting the town says: “You get used to it, that’s what this place is all about…Getting used to things.” Edward says in response: “It’s not what I want.” The response is: “That, too, you get used to that, too.” (p. 42).
The author is challenging the readers and warning them that habits, especially habits of complacency, are very dangerous. It is like a part of you is missing, a finger, maybe more, so that you are not whole if you just learn to get along and accept life without challenging it, without being the creative human being your God wants you to be.
In what ways are you being complacent? Don’t tell me you are not complacent! That simply means you are not aware of yourself. Think about it for awhile. How many fingers are you missing???
The dying father has throughout his life been a teller of tall tales and jokes. When his son tells him he doesn’t believe in them, he says: You’re not necessarily supposed to believe it. You’re just supposed to believe in it.” His son responds that “Even when you’re serious you can’t keep from joking. It’s frustrating, Dad. It keeps me at arm’s length. It’s like---you’re scared of me or something…Scared of getting close to me” (p. 112).
His son is terribly frustrated because every time he tries to get past the façade and discover who his father really is, his father just sucks him into another tall tale. What his son doesn’t appreciate is that you don’t have to get beyond the façade to love someone. You can love them as they are, rather than try to change them. When you demand that they change, then the opposite is more likely to happen. People change through love and acceptance, not through demands that they change. I found the father to be a wonderfully interesting person, as did many of the people he met throughout his life. If the son could only see this, could only accept this father as he is seen by others, then he would have what he wants. You often are only able to get what you want by letting go of your desire for it. In this sense this is a very spiritual, a very Zen way of seeing what is going on in this story.
At the end of the book, in the final page, the father doesn’t die, instead the son takes him out of the hospital and puts him into a river and he becomes a big fish and lives forever. So, in a sense, by telling the story of his father’s death, the son reveals that he has become more accepting of his father, and that he is like his father, a teller of tall tales, a very tall tale about how his father became a big fish.
After the book is over, you find the author has written an introduction to the book. In it he says:
“According to legend, traveling salesman Edward Bloom has
conquered giants, saved countless lives and befriended a beautiful
mermaid. He has ripped out a wild dog’s
heart, survived a night outdoors during
“Big Fish is a wide-eyed account of the way children see their parents, and the myths they construct around them, in an effort to understand and also to connect with them. It asks what, ultimately, we hope to learn from our parents. Daniel Wallace ponders whether fictions distort the truth or make it more comprehensible. He also reminds readers of the lasting power of jokes. William’s efforts to know his father never arrive at a pat conclusion, but they reach a balance as a son’s need to understand and a father’s need to be appreciated intertwine.”
Note: His father was absent for most of his son’s life. He was on the road, a traveling salesman. It would be interesting to compare this story with two other famous stories about salesmen that were made into movies. Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman” and “Elmer Gantry”.