A Review of Fat Kid Rules the World, by K.L. Going
Putnam Juvenile, 2003
by REBECCA, April 15, 2013
Troy: this secret punk fan is paralyzingly self-conscious about being the Fat Kid
Curt: anything but self-conscious, he is an infamous, often-homeless and always-hungry punk rock dropout
Mr. Billings: Troy’s ex-military father who is by turns disapproving and supportive of Troy and Curt
Dayle: Troy’s fit, jockish little bro who seems like an asshole but might just need a little TLC
Curt MacCrae startles Troy out of throwing himself in front of a subway train and demands that he is owed lunch in exchange . . . and that’s just the beginning. Soon, Troy finds himself one half of the punk band Rage/Tectonic, even though he can’t play the drums and hates anyone looking at him. Can Troy overcome his self-consciousness to embrace the musician inside? And can he save Curt from his own demons in the process?
As I began reading Fat Kid Rules the World, I kept thinking, “gosh, you know, this book is kind of reminding me of King of the Screwups for no apparent reason,” forgetting completely that the wonderful K.L. Going also wrote King of the Screwups. I mention this because Fat Kid Rules the World affected me similarly to King of the Screwups: I found myself really moved by the voice and consistently surprised by the incredible nuggets of wisdom that characters managed to smuggle in under the pretense of casual observation. Fat Kid Rules the World is Going’s first novel, and it’s the novelistic equivalent to what my friend, A—, refers to as “the perfect 90-minute movie”: it’s 183 taut, beautiful, disciplined pages in which every new scene adds layers to the characters and every bit of dialogue further fleshes them out.
Seventeen-year-old Troy is 296 pounds and 6’1”, as he tells us in the second sentence of the novel, just before he tells us that he’s “trying to decide whether people would laugh if [he] jumped” in front of a subway train (1). “I’m not being facetious; I really want to know. Like it or not, apparently there’s something funny about fat people. Something unpredictable. Like when I put my jacket on and everyone in the hallway stifles laughter. . . . I don’t get angry. I just think, What was funny about that? . . . There’s got to be something, right? Right?” (1). Troy’s entire sense of himself is as The Fat Kid, so when the skinny kid on the floor of the subway distracts him long enough to prevent him from taking that “fateful step forward,” he’s shocked that anyone is even speaking to him. And thus, a friendship between Troy and emaciated, smelly, mismatched Curt is born.
Fat Kid Rules the World is set in early 2000s New York City and the descriptions of filthy subways, busted diners, and punk dive bars are the perfect backdrop to Troy and Curt’s adventures. Curt is a force of nature and he has set his sights on Troy. Troy finds himself doing things he’d never have imagined, but he can’t understand why Curt would want to spend time with him because he still can’t quite see himself as anything other than The Fat Kid. Slowly, as he meets some of Curt’s friends—like Ollie, who gives him drum lessons—and finds joy in drumming, Troy begins to imagine that there might be more to him than his weight. And it’s this realization that struck me the hardest.
There has been a lot of necessary discussion here and on other YA book blogs about the depictions of fat people in YA novels—see, in particular, Kelly’s excellent post, “Weight, Body Image & Body Portrayal in YA Books” over at Stacked. One thing that keeps coming up in these discussions is our dissatisfaction with authors who write fat characters as possessing no character traits except fatness; characters who have no particularity—as if they’re constructed from the outside-in, from the views of those who gaze upon them. In Fat Kid Rules the World, Going manages both to capture the incredibly damaging self-consciousness that comes from Troy hating his fat body for what he considers its limitations and the attention it garners and also to show the way that Troy can leverage his joys and talents against the messages that society gives us about weight, which he has internalized. And, most importantly, this isn’t the story of a character who finds himself by losing weight; it’s the story of a character who finds himself by losing himself in music.
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
At the heart of Fat Kid Rules the World is Going’s rather sophisticated thesis that the punk scene’s DIY ethos is the antidote to Troy’s sense that he is worthless by the standards of mainstream culture into which he has been indoctrinated. Because he’s fat, Troy dresses in the plainest clothes possible, to avoid drawing attention to himself; he has nothing up on his walls, as if he’s created a prison to punish himself; he keeps his love for a local punk band secret because he believes it’s at odds with being The Fat Kid. In short, Troy has stripped himself of any distinguishing features in an attempt to disappear:
“‘You have got to . . . I mean, really you should do something about this room,’ [Curt] says. ‘You’ve got nothing up here. No Big T trinkage or any such sort of thing. Where are the band posters? Where’s the graffiti?’ He frowns disapprovingly, then turns his gaze to me. ‘And you must spice up those clothes, man. Not for the sake of spiciness, per se, but simply because they’re not you. There’s no Big T in your big Ts.’
He’s cracked himself up and I stop long enough to stare at what I’m wearing. Bland tan pants. A T-shirt that reads DOG DAYS OF SUMMER.
‘There’s not much in my size—’ I start, but Curt interrupts.
‘Screw that,’ he says. ‘ You make your size. You make your walls. It’s not about what’s out there.’
Then what’s it about? I almost ask.” (50)
What it’s about, is Troy learning that just because he’s fat it doesn’t mean that he can’t claim the things he loves: “I am a participant. With one gesture I’ve moved from the world of imagination to the world of funky sweat stench and ear-ringing volume” (94). What it’s about, by the end, is Troy learning that he can turn his unique, and sometimes shitty, experiences into art. (I won’t ruin them for you, but chapters 70 and 71 are exquisite.) Troy doesn’t come to love his body, but he comes a little bit closer to accepting it as a part of him instead of renouncing it; he doesn’t get a major record deal and become a rock star, but he finds joy in self-expression; he doesn’t change the world for everyone, but he changes things for his brother and for Curt. If King of the Screwups hadn’t convinced me that I should make K.L. Going a must-read, Fat Kid Rules the World definitely has.
Matthew Lillard (who also performed the audiobook of Fat Kid Rules the World) recently directed a film version, which I watched immediately after finishing the novel, and which I really disliked, unfortunately. It takes Going’s gritty, reflective story and translates it into a slick, toothless forming-a-band story that only gestures at the hard edges of the book. But I’ll give Lillard a pass because I love him so much as Cereal Killer in Hackers.
Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). Runaway Punkzilla hops a cross-country bus from Portland to Memphis to see his dying brother for the first time in years. On the ride, he catalogues his misadventures in Portland in a very unique voice.
King of the Screwups by K.L. Going (2009). Liam has made it, as far as high school life goes: he’s handsome, stylish, popular, good at sports, and fun. But everything he does disappoints and infuriates his businessman father. Finally, his father kicks him out of the house and Liam goes to live with his uncle, Pete. In a new school, Liam decides that maybe he can reinvent himself into someone his father could respect . . . and maybe even love? Adore this book!—check out my complete review HERE.
Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (2011). Best friends Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie are Sister Mischief, the all-girl hip-hop group that wants to take Holyhill (aka Holy Hell) Minnesota by storm. Along the way, they find first loves, lyrics, a PA hijacking, 4-H (Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, that is), and, of course, goats. Check out my full review HERE.
procured from: the library