I rarely read murder-mystery or thriller-type novels, especially not those without supernatural elements to them. Stories with lots of non-supernaturally-motivated murders rarely appeal to me. So Eating Bull was a bit of an adventure–not the sort of book I would normally read.
“Eating Bull” is the cruel nickname given to the novel’s protagonist, Jeremy–an overweight teenager who becomes the primary plaintiff in a lawsuit against fast-food companies in Ohio. He is supported by his good-hearted but overworked mother, Connie and his nurse, Sue–a determined woman with a strong sense of social justice.
Arrayed against Jeremy, Connie and Sue are school bullies, unsympathetic co-workers, and even Jeremy’s own grandfather–an agoraphobic Army veteran. Sue faces the additional difficulty of her loving but extremely protective husband, who dislikes her risking her own safety by courting the wrath of public opinion.
In addition to all of this, a serial killer calling himself “Darwin” commits a series of grisly murders–all of them targeting overweight people, whom he deems “sheep”.
I won’t go through the plot in too much detail and risk ruining the appeal of watching it unfold. I will say that all these elements are combined very well–each chapter is told from the perspective of either Jeremy, Sue or Darwin, and all of them balance out and keep an extremely gripping pace. For the final fifty pages or so, I couldn’t put the book down, and the ending is very emotionally satisfying.
Jeremy is very sympathetic and likeable, and Sue is an admirable portrayal of a heroic woman who nonetheless has a flaw–she tends to value her concern for Justice over the more immediate concerns for herself or her loved ones. This is well-done, because such a character could have easily become cloyingly saintly, and Rubin does a good job of making her seem heroic and also still human.
The Darwin chapters are naturally quite disturbing, and a good example of why I don’t normally read this genre. Not that they are badly-written–rather, that they are so well-written as to make me feel slightly sick just reading them. The portrayal of the killer’s mental state is quite sharply-drawn–among other things, it’s one of the best depictions of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that I have ever read.
These chapters are definitely heavy on gore, and that was a little tough for me–which is kind of funny, given that my own books have a fair amount of carnage in them. The parts with violence against women were especially hard to take. But again, these are my own tastes, and I suspect fans of thrillers will be used to this sort of thing.
All in all, I came away extremely impressed by Eating Bull. In spite of the violence, I enjoyed the characters and the pacing. And Rubin also has a real talent for clever descriptions and almost Chandleresque turns of phrase. There were a few hiccups here and there, but overall it stacks up well against the few modern thrillers I’ve read. (Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in particular.)
I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed the book, since thrillers are normally not my cup of tea. It was something I pondered for a while as I was reading Eating Bull: “Why am I enjoying this so much? It’s not like me.”
And then it hit me: there’s another side to the book, apart from the engaging plot.
Eating Bull‘s main theme is the problem of obesity–Jeremy is obese, Sue wants to cure the societal causes of obesity, and Darwin wants to exterminate obese people. All the minor characters, in some way or other, comment on Jeremy’s condition–some positively, some negatively–but it’s the central theme of the book.
Now, some would just use that as a cheap “hook” or gimmick to tie everything together. But Eating Bull goes to some lengths to explore the causes of obesity.
For example, there are several scenes where Connie gets some fast-food for Jeremy to eat after she returns from work. She knows this isn’t optimal, and is apologetic to Jeremy’s caregivers when asked about it, but explains that it’s cheaper and faster to get bad food–and as a single mother working two jobs, this is no small consideration.
There are many other examples of this throughout the book, all aimed at showing the various factors that contribute to obesity. At times, it raises some serious issues regarding how food is marketed, reminding me of the non-fiction book Fast Food Nation.
In some ways, Eating Bull is really what they used to call a “problem novel”–a novel meant to illustrate and draw attention to some societal problem. These were especially popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of Charles Dickens’s novels are examples of the genre, as is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
It’s very difficult to write a social problem novel that doesn’t come across as preachy and heavy-handed–the author has to balance all the mundane facts (and sometimes even figures) needed to make the social point with a compelling dramatic narrative that is interesting to read. (In The Jungle, Sinclair seems to simply give up towards the end, leading to entire chapters that are just lectures and Q&A sessions on Marxist theory.)
For the most part, Eating Bull avoids this pitfall, keeping the action going at a brisk pace while exploring the larger social theme through minor incidents and at well-chosen intervals. When some detailed sociological point needs to be made, Rubin wisely has it said by Sue, for whom it seems logical and in-character.
This social aspect was really what set Eating Bull apart for me–it was something more than just an interesting page-turner. Whereas most thrillers are normally easy to forget once you have learned How It All Works Out, this one gives you a bit more to think about.
One word of warning: if you enjoy eating chips or similar snacks while reading, well… you probably won’t while reading this one. You may decide to opt for a salad instead, but then of course it’s harder to eat a salad while reading. And that’s to say nothing of the Darwin chapters, after which you may not want to eat anything at all…
Still, it’s a good book. Check it out.
[Audio version of this post available below]