Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jon Reiner's "The Man Who Couldn’t Eat"

Jon Reiner is the author of the debut memoir, The Man Who Couldn’t Eat. The book is based on a story of the same title he wrote for Esquire which won the 2010 James Beard Foundation Award for Magazine Feature Writing, was nominated for a National Magazine Award, and was translated into multiple languages for international publication.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Man Who Couldn’t Eat and reported the following:
Excerpt from page 99:
I must lick this French fry. It’s calling me, and I have no choice. I'm not asking to eat the fry; that would be a mess. I just want to lick it. Taste its salt. Have it in my mouth and melt into me. Just a taste, man, that’s all I need. I’m standing in our kitchen now, home from the hospital—hiding, actually, from Susan and the boys at the dinner table—wooed to the stove by the smell of cooked hamburgers and french fries. The smell should be a draw to a real meal, the satisfying act. In the sensuality of eating, the nose teases and the mouth consummates. The intensity of the dinner’s aroma is playing havoc with my senses, as so many smells have lately, and I’m transported.

The chestnuts smelled like this.
Ford Madox Ford’s p. 99 belief is a shade more generous than the dictum once told to me by a literary agent considering a novel I’d submitted: “I only read the first paragraph. Then I make my decision.” In the case of my memoir, The Man Who Couldn’t Eat, I’m fortunate by the slimmest of margins. Page 99 starts a new, and pivotal, chapter in the story. Page 98 is a blank divider.

What I’m doing in my family’s small apartment kitchen in p. 99 is jumping dangerously into an abyss. It’s the start of the bottom curve in the story’s arc, and things will get much worse before they get better.

In the complicated aftermath of life-saving emergency surgery for a ruptured gut, I’m on a “Nothing-By-Mouth” prescription: All food and drink have been restricted for months, and I’m “fed” by a food pump 18 hours a day, hoping for my condition to improve so I can return to the global table of eaters. At desperate moments like the one on p.99, hope mixes with fantasy, and I tumble further from family and friends and the normal life I knew.

Food is the body’s second-greatest pleasure, but its absence in my life had dire consequences beyond the physical. The psychological, emotional, social, and cultural dimensions of food, and the impact of living without it on my identity, marriage, parenting, career, and desire to live are at the core of the story. Food is the sustenance of my personal history, a destination where the remembered smell of chestnuts will lead me. Food is both the driving force of the narrative and the means to explore the essence of life.

Craving to lick the french fry, I’m at a crossroads. Desire and craving are life-affirming impulses. Cravings are the sharp hook on to your personality, the expression of your essential self. I want to stop the erosion of a person who has been diminished by half and is at the risk of disappearing entirely. But when my wife and kids discover me in the kitchen, they’ll see a frightening act committed by a stranger in their home. At that instant, finding a way out of the abyss does not seem possible.
Learn more about the book and author at Jon Reiner's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue