Let me begin by stressing that Jerry Stahl is, by all means, a good writer. I, FATTY is an enjoyable read in some ways; but also a distressful one, particularly to fans of silent film comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Johnny Depp is quoted as describing the novel as "the true skinny" on the comedian. With all due respect to this very talented actor, I am somewhat puzzled by his statement. Having read the novel twice, I found the Roscoe of Stahl's novel to be pretty much a bitter, rudely-spoken and generally depressing incarnation, which is hardly synonymous with how Roscoe's friends and associates remembered him. Though I cannot be certain, of course, it seems to me that Stahl's main motive for writing this novel stems from a fascination in a life which, certainly, was plagued by much pain and injustice. Roscoe had a very sad childhood, left alone to his violent, alcoholic father after his mother's early death, and constantly teased at school for his overweight; and while he admirably managed to outwin much of the traumas of his early years, going on to become one of the most celebrated film comedians of his time, his career was ruined after he was wrongly accused of rape and manslaughter in 1921. Roscoe played the sidekick of Charlie Chaplin early on in the latter's film career, and was the one who directly introduced Buster Keaton to the world of celluloid.
A fascinating subject for a novel, no doubt. However, the fact that all persons directly involved in Roscoe's life have, in all probability, deceased by now, should not mean that ehtical deference can be ignored altogether. The events described does not require that far a dive into the past, after all; the scandal which ruined Roscoe's life happened less than a hundred years ago. In my opinion, Stahl far too seldom seems to take into consideration that his characters are based on real human beings. Perhaps this is a matter of necessity from an author's point of view; in order to make a character come alive on the page, focus on plain facts may indeed be a hindrance. A character based solely on facts and authentic observations would possibly turn out too realistic to be believable in the context of a novel. Yet, what troubles me most with I, FATTY is that it recalls Roscoe's entire story, seemingly first-hand from his perspective, and I'm not convinced that the book's admission of being a "novel" on the cover will prevent people less acquainted with Arbuckle's life to interpret too much of this as the truth or close to it (Charles Nordhoff and James N. Hall's novel "Mutiny on the Bounty" and its arguably inaccurate portrayal of Captain Bligh comes to mind).
A few distressing examples: in the novel, Roscoe suffers a severe drug addiction right up to the end. In actuality, there is no proof whatsoever of this having been the case. Roscoe was prescribed morphine by his doctors at one point in 1917, following an infection which developed into a painful carbuncle on his leg, and this may have led to an addiction for a while; but all reports I know imply that he overcame it within some months. Perhaps most provocative is the depiction of the fatal event which ruined Roscoe's career; here the comedian's "thoughts," as projected through Stahl, make him into a less than noble character, to say the least, despite his innocence and the fact that he, by all reliable accounts, tried to help the girl he was later accused of having abused. Granted, Stahl may have wanted to make the event more interesting by attributing Roscoe with an apparently conflicting state of mind even under such desperate circumstances, but I just wonder: was it necessary to depict this horrible event at all?
It may not have been Stahl's intention to make his portrayal of Roscoe truthful in the first place, but rather to use his story as the basis for a novel he wanted to share, but also in that case, Roscoe deserved better. That said, I did actually enjoy the novel, if for other reasons than to witness "the true skinny on Fatty" brought to light. Stahl is a gifted writer, who seasons his work with highly quotable lines. I very much enjoyed the chapter on the making of the Keystone films, which nearly brought that bygone era back to life to me. I don't know if it was the moment when Chaplin placed his boots on the wrong feet that Roscoe realized that the young newcomer was a "genius," but he does make this amusing observation in I, FATTY and it has stuck with me. In the end, I do recommend I, FATTY to anyone seeking an entertaining, well-written read; but please keep in mind that the narrator is not the actual Roscoe Arbuckle. Far from it, I would believe. (This review was updated and revised in May, 2012)