All right. I’m just going to come out and say it. I know that it will open me up to criticism by some, and will endear me to others – so here is goes. No turning back. I first heard about this book from a table tent at Waffle House. There – I admit it. I own it. My family and I grew up Southern, remain Southern, and enjoy taking the occasional Saturday evening to drop a few quarters in the jukebox at our local Waffle House and enjoy breakfast for dinner. It was during one of those family outings that I discovered “Big Appetite”.
This book is billed as Sam McLeod’s “southern-fried search for the meaning of life”. Realizing that he isn’t getting any younger, healthier, or thinner – Sam takes stock of his life. He receives an invitation to attend a neighborhood reunion of sorts back in his childhood home of Nashville. At the urging of his family, he sets off across the country on a road trip to attend the block party, and also search for the meaning of life.
Along the way, McLeod recounts stories and people from his childhood. In most cases, those stories seem to come back to food and friends. We learn about his family of larger than life southern characters, his first girlfriend Lexi, and the exploits of his cadre of childhood friends – (my personal, laugh-out-loud, favorite story being the origins of “Pee Rock” and the epic contest that was spawned off of the rock during one long, hot summer). All the while, he is ostensibly searching for a deeper meaning to life – and a way to drop a few pounds.
There were parts of this book that I enjoyed. The foods were uniquely southern and as comfortable as an old pair of blue jeans – Brunswick stew, deviled eggs, chess squares, sweet tea. There were moments of inspired storytelling. Near the end of the book, everyone has finally gathered for the reunion. As they reminisce, they fondly recall Mr. Birdsong – an elderly man who used to keep the children supplied with hard candies year round. His candy bowl is set at an empty seat during the reunion, in honor of all those who had passed. It was a nice moment.
At the same time – much of the book didn’t work for me. Many of the stories felt tired and clichéd, and the narrative focus gets lost about halfway through. What started as a quest for deeper meaning in life really doesn’t get paid off in the end. The ending itself had all of the trappings of a dramatic moment; a big revelation – but it didn’t materialize. McLeod tried to resolve the story with a lesson learned about the beauty of those around you accepting you for who you are – but the story ends too abruptly. It tries to deliver an emotional resonance that it just hasn’t earned.
When all was said and done, I learned something important when reading this book. I am at the age now where I want to spend my time fondly looking back at my own childhood – not the childhoods of my parent’s generation. I’ve seen “Stand By Me”, I’ve read “It”, I’ve watched “Andy Griffith” – we’ve heard these stories before. That was what ultimately disappointed me about this book. I know how great it was to grow up in the 50’s and 60’s – I’ve been hearing it my entire life. What I wanted was something new – something less recognizable in its familiarity.
I think as we Gen X’ers begin to reach middle age, it’s time for us to tell our own stories. Maybe that’s what I’ll do. I’ll take the time and write my own book – and then have some anonymous blogger tell ME how boring MY life was, and how tired they are of hearing about how great the 80’s were. Yeah, that’s the ticket…
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