Eschewing the Fat

Charlotte Hays | Posted on 05/10/10

When the book opens, the Fat Bastard is a fun-loving, underachieving Yalie who lives in squalor with his cousin, Skippy. Skippy and Sam, who miraculously does manage to hold down a job at a small suburban newspaper in Laurel, Maryland, are "two good-natured, booze-soaked idiots who love drinking and spending money and letting the dealer come over with Ecstasy and cat tranquilizer when things got strange."

The Urban Hermit: A Memoir, by Samuel A. MacDonald, Picador, $24.95, 304 pages

Even though The Urban Hermit isn't a new book, I knew I had to grab a copy of this underground classic by Sam MacDonald, a former fatty, the minute Rod Dreher raised certain intriguing issues about, not to put too fine a point on it, fat people. Fat people are not the luckiest people in the world. Fat people are the new smokers.

The Urban Hermit is the saga of how Sam MacDonald lost more than 100 pounds, got out of debt, and ultimately transformed his life from one that approximated those of the disheveled losers portrayed in the movie Knocked Up. In fact, MacDonald has said that if a movie is made of Urban Hermit, he'd like to be played by Seth Rogen. MacDonald thought of himself as the Fat Bastard.

When the book opens, the Fat Bastard is a fun-loving, underachieving Yalie who lives in squalor with his cousin, Skippy. Skippy and Sam, who miraculously does manage to hold down a job at a small suburban newspaper in Laurel, Maryland, are "two good-natured, booze-soaked idiots who love drinking and spending money and letting the dealer come over with Ecstasy and cat tranquilizer when things got strange."

Although MacDonald may have weighed more than 300 pounds, it wasn't stepping on the scale (in fact, he didn't get on the scale at the outset) that set him on a new path. It was debt. College loans were coming due and MacDonald had attracted the notice of the IRS. He owed his long-suffering parents for repairs on his broken-down Taurus. The total amount of MacDonald's indebtedness was not staggering-around $4,800-but his bar bills were. He blew several hundred dollars a week on booze and was a regular at a bar called Kisling's. MacDonald was inevitably late with his rent, and annoying debt collectors kept his phone ringing.

Something had to give. MacDonald decided to cut down drastically on his grocery bills and to forgo booze. Against the advice of a nutritionist cousin - who advises that the healthy minimum intake is 1,200 calories a day - MacDonald embraces a diet consisting of 800 daily calories derived primarily from lentils and tuna fish, chosen because they are cheap, and becomes the urban hermit. He was only going to do it a month, until he got a handle on some of those debts.  

MacDonald embarked on what would be a rebirth of sorts on Easter Sunday: "So I was a hundred and twenty pounds overweight and dead-ass broke on Easter Sunday in the year 2000 as I walked through the front door of my crappy Baltimore row house, began reading the preparation instructions on a bag of lentils, and started counting the days," he writes. "It was a strange and dangerous plan. A shitty plan, actually."

Unable to spend his evenings on a barstool, MacDonald in a fit of boredom dispatches a story proposal on the Rainbow Gathering, the meeting of a group of hippie types, to Reason magazine. He gets an assignment. The lentils are awful, but people begin to tell him he's losing weight. He's saving money. In fact, all goes swimmingly until his boss sends him to Bosnia to report a piece on soldiers from the Maryland National Guard serving there. MacDonald actually sticks to the basic plan until a hotel bar proves too tempting on the way home. He blows a great deal of money in one night and is almost broke in the morning. Some reviewers have seen Urban Hermit as a tale about alcohol and addiction, a notion that MacDonald, now apparently a more moderate drinker, rejects. I'm not going there since my interest in the book lies more in his eating habits than in his drinking. He does get back on the Urban Hermit plan after the disastrous, alcohol-soaked evening.

As someone who struggles with diet, I must point out one thing that MacDonald faces that all of us would-be weight losers endure: constant advice from our svelte pals. You should eat this, not that. You shouldn't embark on a drastic diet but rather do something more moderate, something that I, thin busybody, think you should do. Nobody actually says, "Just push back from the table," (my personal favorite from thinnies), but you get the picture. Job's false comforters love fat people.

The story unfolds engagingly as MacDonald works a second job, the quicker to get out of debt, and goes, along with Skippy and another cousin, out west to report on the antics at the Rainbow Gathering. There is a hint of Ken Kesey in the trip, though I doubt if any of the people on that bus were as generally abstemious as MacDonald. MacDonald realizes that his program is not without its possible health-related drawbacks ("Don't try this at home," he advises), but he is attracted to the simplicity. Having made one big choice, he doesn't have to make small ones. He's committed to a spartan diet, and so he doesn't have to decide what to eat every day.  And, amazingly, having made one decision, MacDonald finds his entire life improving. He sweeps out one little patch, and the rest begins to become more promising. His story on the Rainbows proves a huge success, and he begins dating.

MacDonald, now married and a father, teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburg. I would love to know what he thinks about the government's recent interest in those of us who enjoy our food a little too much. As he became Washington bureau chief at Reason, which is libertarian in philosophy, after his coup with the Rainbows, I imagine that, like me, he is a bit dubious. I'm not sure that being told the number of calories in a Big Mac, at the government's kind insistence, is going to make much difference.

Your typical fatty is just going to feel bad-while eating that Big Mac. As MacDonald makes clear, it has to be a personal decision, a personal struggle, requiring the kind of determination that one can only summon from our own (adipose) depths. But Rod Dreher raised the question as to whether there is a moral component to being fat. After all, MacDonald's life began to fall into place only after he eschewed the fat. Let's stipulate that some of the great people in history were well padded - Winston Churchill springs to mind - and some skinnies were less impressive - think yon Cassius. But is being fat a personal failing? I'm only going to say that, on this issue, MacDonald's book is food for thought.

 

 

 

blog comments powered by Disqus