Reviewed by April Line
John McNally’s The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex (Elephant Rock Books, December 2017) is a refreshing, engaging read. McNally shows us a pubescent boy who is fat, a teenager who is not, and a sometimes-fat, sometimes-not man who never fully escapes his earliest identity as a fat boy. McNally’s working-class, suburban Chicagoan roots are vivid in these pages, and the essays about working for his haplessly entrepreneurial father are weird, wonderful, and relatable. There’s also a fire, moving in the middle of the night to avoid angry landlords, ruminations on race, and narrowly avoiding abuse at the hands of one of his father’s cronies. Due out in December, this slim memoir (at only 140 pages) is full of sometimes funny, sometimes strange, and always emotionally and personally honest essays.
I thought it might be difficult to read the parts about becoming and being fat sympathetically, because McNally is a white man, and because even a fat white man has a privileged experience. But that’s where the tone of this memoir is at its most enveloping. McNally expresses being simultaneously horrified and amazed by his body’s transformation. He presents himself candidly and avoids editorializing his fatness, making excuses for it, or minimizing its importance; revealing a largely lonely fat period where he cultivated a love of comedians and writing, of pop music, of bicycling, and of collecting.
Sometimes the essays seem to meander around something McNally is, understandably, holding at arm’s length—his mother, by contrast to his father, for instance, appears infrequently and is often either distant or judgmental; she seems bewildered by her own complexity. While it is always tempting to read a memoir as an armchair psychologist, to analyze and root out what the unstated thing might be, the prose does not invite this impulse. Nor does it present a person who is improbably rosy and unblemished. McNally consistently invites us to withhold judgement, as if to say, “This is me. Take it or leave it.”
In the essay, “In the Field Behind the Condo Where the Fat Boy Plays,” we learn that McNally beats on a tree with one of its own branches, “tortures insects,” and finds himself inside dumpsters in pursuit of discarded treasures. In “The Genius and I,” Jimmy Finger gets McNally’s help to rob a vacationing family’s home under the guise of the house being deserted.
In this collection, McNally comes across as a person who is fully comfortable with himself and the twisty mess that is being an imperfect person living in an imperfect world. Imbued with bald pain, pleasure, humor, and grace, McNally’s lean prose and unflinching insights make for a delightful read.