The problem with Tommy Tomlinson’s inspirational new book, “The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America,” is that reading it will make you hungry.
Tomlinson grew up in Georgia. He’s an ardent scholar of the glories of the South’s vernacular cuisine: fried chicken, biscuits, barbecue, catfish browned in flour and bacon grease, and “tea so sweet it could hold its shape without a cup.”
“There has never been better food created anywhere than the food of the American South,” he writes. “There has never been any food that will make you fatter.”
Southern eats are a working people’s eats. The pandering calories, the dishes baptized in butter and other cooking fats, are meant to be burned off outdoors. Tomlinson is a writer. He mostly sits at a desk and, between paragraphs, ingests cubes of cheese.
A few years ago he topped out at 460 pounds. Scales at Weight Watchers meetings would not hold him. He tended to turn chairs into matchsticks. His shirt size was XXXXXXL, or 6X in clothing-store lingo. He was the biggest person, he writes, that most people who knew him had ever met.
Tomlinson would probably have been merely an M.B.G. — a Mildly Big Guy — if he didn’t also have a taste for fast food. He writes exceedingly well about the lust for grease and salt.
If you’ve ever been in a fast-food parking lot, wolfing items from a big hot bag and praying for no contemporaneous judgment of your behavior, know this: Tomlinson is the laureate of this experience.
“On those days when the gravity of solitude tries to pin me down, fast food serves as a little bridge to the other side,” he writes. He’ll sit in his car and people-watch. “At least, I tell myself, I’ve been out among people for a while.” The food “pushes the hurt down the road a little bit.”
He walks us through the excellence of, among other things, the double with cheese at Wendy’s: “The part I really like is out on the edge, where the meat and the cheese and the bread melt into pure umami.”
Calvin Trillin used to write about his friend Fats Goldberg, a pizza shop owner who’d lost a great deal of weight. “I did not get fat on coq au vin,” Goldberg said. Neither did Tomlinson. Krispy Kreme doughnuts, bowls of peanut M&Ms, chili dogs, Hardee’s cinnamon biscuits and sleeves of Chips Ahoy cookies were among his fetishes.
Tomlinson did not grow up with money. His parents made minimum wage at a seafood processing plant. He’s observant about chain restaurants and working-class life. “It’s easy to look down on fast food,” he writes. “But it’s a cheap night out of the house, and when you’re poor, that counts for a lot.”
Tomlinson was for many years a reporter and columnist for The Charlotte Observer, where in 2005 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. He’s since written for many other publications, often about sports.
“The Elephant in the Room” runs on two tracks. In the first, Tomlinson tells us, in something like real time, about the year he tried to lose weight.
He bought a Fitbit fitness tracker. He went on what he calls the Three-Step Diet: “1. Find a way to measure the calories you eat and drink. 2. Find a way to measure the calories you burn. 3. Make sure that every day, number one is smaller than number two.” This begins to work for him.
This book’s second track is an affecting memoir. “By the time I was old enough to know anything,” he writes, “I was fat.” He recounts many stories of being picked on and left out.
We follow him through high school and college and into journalism. He has, in many respects, a very good life: plenty of friends, a job he loves, a wife he adores. But he broods on the things being heavy has kept him from.
“When I was a kid, I never climbed a tree or learned to swim. When I was in my 20s, I never took a girl home from a bar. Now I’m 50, and I’ve never hiked a mountain or ridden a skateboard or done a cartwheel.”
He decided to lose weight after realizing he was digging his grave with his own incisors. “Guys like us don’t make it to 60,” he writes. He has serious health problems, and fears his life will “stop like a needle lifted off a record.” He wants to grow old with his wife.
He has no argument with fat-positivity advocates. But he writes: “I’m just going to speak for myself. I don’t want the world to expand to make room for me. It’s not good for me, and it’s not good for the world. I need to make myself fit.”
He adds: “I’m not supposed to be this big. Maybe other people are. Not me.”
Tomlinson goes out of his way to praise the movie critic Roger Ebert, not just because he was “a fat guy who thrived on TV through the force of his talent.”
He admired Ebert, too, because “he wrote about big ideas for a mass audience.” Tomlinson’s prose does something similar. His clean and witty and punchy sentences, his smarts and his middle-class sensibility made me yearn for the kind of down-to-earth columnist I often read in the 1980s and 1990s but barely seems to exist any longer.
Tomlinson may not be for everyone. Like Rick Bragg, he can sometimes seem like a Southern boy with just a bit too much syrup in him. If tears and frequent use of the word “mama” set your teeth on edge, he may start to resemble, in your mind, a pre-moistened towelette.
As for me, I loved this book. I found myself sneak-reading it from the moment it came in the door. As with a sack of White Castle burgers, I hated to reach the end.