The Fat Man
Reviewed by Edith L. Crowe
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:12 (#341) in December 2010.]
Sometimes books “in the spirit of the Inklings” can be found in unexpected places. Like many a lover of mythopoeic fiction, I am also a voracious reader of mysteries. In addition, I like authors who play games with literature. Since I enjoyed Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” and “Nursery Crime” series, this book sounded like it might be similar in its appeal. Quirky, amusing, full of literary and cultural in-jokes—these I expected and found. What I did not expect was an almost Lewisian moral undercurrent which became more obvious and explicit as the book progressed.
The protagonist and narrator is a hard-boiled elf named Gumdrop Coal, age 1300. (That phrase alone should demonstrate the quirkiness involved here.) As the book opens, Coal is happily in charge of the Coal Patrol (which he founded), depositing lumps of same in the stockings of those who’ve made his assiduously-kept Naughty List. Coal is one tough elf, dedicated to bringing proper punishment to those who’ve transgressed (some of whom, admittedly, could give Eustace Scrubbs a run for his money). He’s been through Zwarte Piet’s rigorous elf-commando training. He’s been handing out a hefty ration of coal for a long time.
No one is more surprised than Coal when he’s suddenly replaced by smarmy up-and-comer Candy Cane, who has convinced the Santa that even naughty children shouldn’t be punished. Coal worries that the wave of greed unleashed when all children get toys—despite their behavior—will be too much for Santa, and will drive him and the elves to exhaustion as their toy-making quota ratchets up. He suspects that Cane is up to something, and investigates with the help of a tough-elf-dame reporter, his best friend Dingleberry, and others who lend a hand along the way. He travels through many places besides Kringle Town, and we learn that it’s not all sugar cookies at the North Pole. There’s Whoville, but also the Island of Misfit Toys, the dreaded Forest of Mistletoe and bleak Pottersville. What Coal discovers is a plot bolder and more horrifying than he imagined, one that would shake the foundations of the North Pole.
In the earlier parts of the tale, the hard-boiled voice and popular-culture Christmas humor predominate, but even as early as the second chapter, a very Christian undercurrent peeks out. Santa’s philosophy of giving is clarified by a reference to his well-known remark: “A child gave the world so much that night in Bethlehem, I just want to find a way to spread the spirit of that wonderful gift!” As the story progresses, and the seriousness of the threat becomes clearer, Coal becomes less bitter and cynical, and the references to the “reason for the season” become more frequent and clear. Our heroes survive many a life-threatening threat, not the least of which is the monstrous Tannenbomb. Our heroes prevail in the end, however, and emerge better for the experience. It’s hard to be more detailed without revealing more of the plot that would be wise, but The Fat Man packs a lot of incident into its pages.
There’s a certain hokiness in the relentless march of allusions, puns, and both obvious and oblique references to a lot of Christmas-themed characters from books and media—primarily twentieth-century contributions to Christmas folklore. (Reading descriptions of many of the oddball misfit toys, it’s hard not to think of what Pixar might make of them.) It’s a curious combination of characters and traditions that are for the most part thoroughly secular, but with a strong moral message that is frequently presented clearly, though not dogmatically, in Christian terms. For some this strange mixture of noir mystery, Christmas-cliché silliness and moral/religious message might feel too dissimilar to hang together; I sometimes thought so myself. For example, the noir tropes in the early chapters are sometimes presented in a way that is jarringly violent, and inappropriate for younger children. However, the sheer oddity, and the often bizzarely creative twists on familiar Christmas themes, make this worth a look. For those willing to try something a bit off the beaten path, it’s an interesting hodgepodge that a number mythopoeics might find a fun holiday read.