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Thinner Than Thou

an extract from the novel
by Kit Reed

"Multi-faceted, witty, and endlessly inventive. This nightmare vision hits the pressure points like acupuncture. [Reed is] very good at wrinkles... not facial, but new variations on the theme: the kid who eats competitively, the mother being forced into plastic surgery, the priests all in hiding." -- Geoff Ryman

"This particular satire on the Obese Society, the slimming industry and materialistic religion is Reed at her mordant best. Reed makes hilarious, terrifying sense of the world many of us live in, where supermarket aisles are actually widened to accommodate the size of their customers and where young women believe they are overweight if they get to eighty pounds. A timely, witty page-turner which tells us the truth about ourselves and our society while making us laugh aloud." -- Michael Moorcock

Journal Entry, Sylphania, AZ, 200-

I am here to tell you, don't believe everything you see in the ads, the Reverend Earl may be the last hope of the hopeless, but I've been Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reedhere for days and so far he hasn't shown me shit. Jeremy Devlin speaking, in case this journal makes it out and I don't.

RIGHTEOUS REDUCTION, the signboards trumpet, neon streaking the skies, WEIGHT LOSS GUARANTEED.

God help me, I believed.

OK, I'll admit it, I hate the way you look at me. I hate the way Nina looked at me the night we called it quits. I hated shopping at Big Men Outfitters and I hated paying for two seats every time I got on a plane. Me, J.M. Devlin, respected broker and person in his own right, damned for something I can't help. You rubbed my nose in it. The Reverend Earl promised salvation and I bit.

Maybe it was the choir music that got to me, maybe it was the kick in the butt that I got from the slogan:


Promises, promises backed up by the DVD they FedEx when you send in your letter of inquiry, along with your deposit, all those promises reinforced by the photos and diagrams in the Reverend Earl's special gift to us the really big spenders, mind you everybody wants to come here but only us in the Fortune Five Hundred can afford the entrance fee.

Meet the Reverend's financial guidelines, write a fat check and you get the DVD and the brochure along with his special gift to us high rollers: the Morocco bound, specially calligraphed and hand illuminated gold-leafed edition of the Afterfat Bible, complete with directions to the environs and contracts tucked in behind the site map tipped into the six-color brochure that comes with.

You might as well know, coming here was not my idea, but by the time our bus nosed over the horizon and into the Hidden Valley I could hardly wait.

I should have known that in this day and time what you see is not what you get.

Look carefully at the Sylphania brochure. There are fold-out color pictures of the Reverend Earl's great glass cathedral in the desert just here and the glittering clubhouse over there, a glorified oasis like a transparency laid over the arid Arizona desert map, sure, but I'm here to tell you, what you see is not what you get. Don't take it at face value, caveat emptor and all that, buyer take note. At first glance it looks great but on opposing pages there are ghost images of each grand building stamped in red letters promising expansion: YET TO BE BUILT

Buy a brick in the heavenly kingdom, the cover says. Earn your place in the Afterfat.

I resisted for years and then things happened. Partly it was Nina. OK, it was Mom. Don't ask, when I'm feeling stronger I'll explain. I bought into Sylphania and now look.

Look at this place!

Look what I was promised, see what I got. Plastic zipper bag with toothbrush and razor and trial sizes of toothpaste and deodorant, oh yeah, fine-toothed comb and hairbrush in the Sylphania colors stamped with the Sylphania logo in gold. Toxic puce coveralls so the locals can pick you right off if you try to escape; nobody walks free from this place until the Reverend Earl Sharpnack certifies them saved. Oh, yeah, the fluffy beach towel, like this blasted, rock-littered wasteland was ever anything like a beach. Color coordinated flip-flops, and that's it.

And for this I am paying through the nose.

Welcome to Sylphania, the Reverend Earl's high ticket desert spa, his exclusive, high end nirvana for us high rollers, the gilded Mecca of his global religious enterprise. Sure there are quickie spas and walk-in shrines in every strip mall but those are only outposts for the hoi polloi. We who make it to Sylphania are special because we can afford to pay for what we want no matter how much it costs. People like me sell everything they own for a slot on the waiting list for this place. I sold short to buy into the Reverend's heavenly kingdom here, I sold my half of the house to Mom and liquidated the rest to expedite the thing, I paid through the nose to leapfrog the waiting list and what do I get? Rusty trailer at the perimeter, a few yards off the abandoned sweat lodge and dog years away from the unfinished clubhouse where the Reverend Earl and his special anointed chosen ripple their abs in the jacuzzi or flex their pecs in the cloverleaf pool between takes. Yeah, takes, these are stars of the Reverend's infomercial. Guys and women who look like museum quality bronzes, and every one of them cut from the perfect pattern and greased until they're all shiny, sweet-bellied and taut and intensely buff.

The special chosen ones get wraparound shades and gourmet treats, velvety robes with the Sylphania logo in gold for they are the stars, and me? My chances of scoring a walkon in the 24/7 evangelical infomercial beamed into the global living room by satellite relay? Pretty much nil. I'm stuck here in my rusty trailer until the Reverend takes the final measurements and declares me saved. I can't break out or fly up to the clubhouse because of the shape I'm in and I can't run away because I don't have a car and I can't walk away because I signed the Sylphania contract including durable power of attorney and all that this implies.

I'm stranded in this wasteland with no money and no car. I can't just leave because this place is surrounded by desert and I'm branded by the puce coverall and -- my secret: in spite of everything that's happened, I'm still strung out on promises. One of the Five Stages, the Reverend Earl preaches in his nightly harangues to us, is despair.

"Rejoice," he says, "rejoice in the dark phase you are undergoing. This is a Very Good Sign."

"It's gotta get dark," he preaches, "before it gets light."

Promises. Hey, what if they come true?

This is the genius of the Reverend's establishment. The pyramid of belief. Safe behind the picket fence his clubhouse is heaven- the Afterfat -- and we the converts are somewhere south of purgatory, because only the buff and perfect enter there. Success, the Reverend Earl preaches. Success through sacrifice.

And all over the nation the middle class faithful who will never be able to afford it here make their own little altars to the gods of the Afterfat and fill their own little mite boxes to send in because the Reverend promises to stamp their initials into one of the bricks in the clubhouse which they are too poor and unfit and ungraceful ever to visit, let alone get close enough to look for their names.

You don't want to be poor in this day and time. Not in this world.

And me? Financially, the clubhouse -- and the Afterfat -- are within reach. I can make it if I try hard enough. I'm in the place. This is the time. I have everything I need to make it, the Reverend Earl says nightly. The rest is up to me.

The clubhouse is just over yonder ridge, behind the fence in the green patch where the sprinklers whirl, and if I do everything he says and keep at it I may actually get thin enough and fit enough and buff enough to become gorgeous and if I can get even halfway to gorgeous I may make it to the top. It's in my contract. I have the Reverend's handshake on it. I even have that lackadaisical last-minute grin he slipped me after the entrance interview, just before he slapped me upside the head and turned on his heel.

I started this journal because it's gonna be a while. But I am not without my resources. I am, after all, a broker and a professional man. If I tank here I can always do the expose: interviews on all the network news shows, book deal with Talk Miramax, the works. Even the nightly strip searches won't find this trusty PDA of mine, when I weighed in here the trusty who strip searched me didn't have a clue; when you are a man my size, no matter how much weight you lose, there are folds.

At our daily weigh-ins the Reverend gravely assesses me. Not worthy. Again.

I stand there shivering. "I lost the weight."

Icy, he is icy. "Some."

"Most of it." I love him, I hate him, I want him to approve.

He pinches more than an inch. "There's flab." That glacial blue glare is killing me.

"I'm dying here." This is the nature of the training. They starve you. They make you work out until you are exhausted and when you are at your lowest metabolic ebb, they preach and over time it wears you down. I am a mess. I am ashamed. I will do anything to please him. The clubhouse and the Afterfat are so close. "I will do better."

"Yes." Ice crystals glitter in the air between us. "You will."

Wait a minute, I think as he stalks away. What happened to the lovable Reverend I saw on TV, the one who shook my hand with a big welcome after I bought in? His Monday morning smile vanished the minute he read the scales, and this is his genius. You will do anything to make him smile again.

Right, you are thinking, I, Jerry Devlin am a sinner. Well, listen, I'm telling you. You may think the Reverend Earl is warm and wonderful, but I have seen into his heart and take it from me. The man is cold.

If you don't believe me, all you sitting out there in the dark mesmerized by the Reverend's infomercials, maybe when this journal gets out and you read it, maybe you will.

Now on TV the Reverend comes on all warm and loving, preaching from the crystal cathedral on a perpetual loop. When he talks the talk the man is hot -- hotter than early Billy Graham and the Reverend Al Sharpton that you read about in your history books, fused with the legendary Tony Robbins that you hear about in Top Forty songs. The Reverend is the last great persuader, but look at the way he works you and you'll understand what he does out here in the desert to the faithful who buy into this place.

You're safe in the dark in your living room while the Reverend Earl compels you and then just when you're feeling all uplifted and glorified, just when you mumble the Thirteen Steps along with him and therefore drop your guard, he sticks in the knife: "Look at yourself," he thunders, and you do, and you cringe.

He goes on, "You're disgusting," and you blush.

Then when he has you riven with shame and guilt Reverend Earl exhorts you, "You don't have to be that way!" while a heavenly choir of pretty, emaciated angel girls hums backup and digital clouds skate across the sky behind the great glass arch; fix on those polar eyes and, zot, you are mesmerized. Hours later the Reverend Earl and his choir hit high C and no matter what time it is where you are the sun comes up via satellite relay beamed into every living room in the civilized world and trust me, your heart swells and you believe! Next comes the testimony of the converted, stories a lot like yours, even though the Reverend's gaudy, gorgeous converts look nothing like you. They step up to the mike like Ghosts of Christmas Future, I would do anything to be that thin.

They were never like me, you think, but they were. One by one the chosen testify. And look at the Before pictures: wow. Fatter than you!

If you've seen the Reverend Earl, you know the power. If you've heard, you understand. You are personally responsible for the way you look and until you figure out how to look perfect, you feel soiled.

Like old-time religions, the system is built on guilt.

We're not talking Sodom and Gomorrah here. We're light-years away from those days. Sex is no longer the secret unspeakable forbidden, we've moved on to something deeply personal and even more intense.

The Reverend Earl has hit on the great weak spot in the fabric of contemporary life. It's so big that it leaves the Seven Deadlies in the dust and us poor mortals writhing with delight and feeling all dirty and glad because this is our secret and we know it's so terribly wrong, and it's...

Think soft cheeses in gobs: baked Brie and triple creme dripping off your knife; think Porterhouse steaks, so richly marbled that the fat goes straight into your heart valves; think chocolate in any form.

Food is the forbidden fruit.

And eating? The primrose path to hell.

It's the ultimate seduction, the guilty secret you keep -- that box of Godivas you sneaked before sex, the ice cream after and none for her -- the joy of scarfing hamburgers on the sly, secretly larding your veins because you know it's bad, and being bad is such a tremendous rush. Overeating is the last guilty pleasure and the hell of it is, most people get away with it because they go to one of those clinics or they work out or do drugs to burn it off or they scarf and barf and nobody knows.

So you understand as well as I do that the orgies I am talking about are the last jump before you go off the diving board into perdition. It's only the next-to-last step.

The last big sin isn't overeating.

It's getting fat.

I know you look at me: eeewww. I see you leering, like I'm an escaped Jumbo Jiggler, a walking piece of fat porn that you are dying to touch. You're excited to look, you're ashamed because of the thoughts you get. Looking makes you all evil and lascivious and OK, superior: Oh man, I am never going to get like that. You want to touch but you're afraid to touch; you'd like to poke that finger into my soft belly and see how far in it goes because I am the physical expression of your own secret, cherished vice. What would it be like, you think. What would it really be like? What if I let myself go?

Admit it. You are excited and revolted, shrinking as I pass, like I am overflowing into your personal space, and the only difference between you and me? Body weight.

Shrink says I'm overcompensating. Mom says I was born big boned. I blame thyroid. Those pesky brown cells.

OK, it was the food: sausage grinders and pizza at midnight, the B.L.T. garnished bacon -- undercooked, so you get the creamy fat; ice cream sundaes at four a.m., my specialty -- Ben and Jerry's Everything But, with hot fudge sauce and white chocolate and pork rinds crumbled on top to cut the sweet; slouch into the megaplex and buy out the candy counter, add two buckets of popcorn at the midnight show and gobble it in the dark, and this is exclusive of my daytime three squares. See, foodaholics are not so different from those losers confessing over coffee at their earnest, dismal meetings of AA: think secret debauchery, empty fifths in the bedclothes, brandy flasks cached behind potted plants.

And the difference between us? Alcoholics can quit drinking cold turkey, any time they call the shot. They can detox and never have to touch another drop, and us? Nobody can live long without eating. Your alcoholic can walk away from demon rum whereas people like me face the devil every day. You've gotta eat or you die and the next bite you take may be the one that puts you on the skids.

And we know ways of eating a thing that leave no trace.

When you're seriously addicted, nobody sees you binge. At mealtimes I was a model of restraint. Seconds only, and only when pressed. Sweet'n Low and no milk. Even Mother wondered; OK, I lied. The rest, I sneaked, in the dark hours when nobody sees you gorging in secret, where nobody can hear you belch; slip out of bed and tiptoe downstairs after your lover goes to sleep, if she wakes up she will reproach you: wasn't I enough?

In daylight, nobody knew. Listen, when I dress for business, I get respect. The lower classes have to grapple with weight issues and fight off the Fashion Police but people in my income bracket are protected. We are not without power. If it becomes necessary, money changes hands. It isn't what we do to people who piss us off that makes the difference. It's what we can afford to do. So what if I buy my shirts and underwear at Big Men Outfitters, the XL rack? The black suit, I had hand tailored with matching vest, vertical pinstripes, and if I do say so I look impressive. Like Gibraltar. Like, who wants to buy munis or T bills or shares in major corporations from a young guy? But no matter how successful I am, I hear you snickering as I pass you in the street. Wuoooow. Huge.

I have not gone without women. Amazing what turns some people on. Girls came into my life and then they went; it was a mutual conclusion arrived at over time. I had my needs. No woman could compete.

I moved home after the last breakup, because in the settlement Nina took the apartment and all my stuff. I would be there still if it hadn't been for Mom. After her fat Saturday night dinner, Mom nudged me into the Barcalounger and dropped a fruitcake in my lap. She tipped me back and flipped on the tube. "Be good. Have fun." She stuck the remote in her pocketbook and left. If you want to know the truth, at that angle I had leverage issues because of the distribution of the weight. Now, Mom is thin as a pin so maybe she wasn't thinking about my situation when she walked out and shut the door, but, me? I couldn't get up to change the channel. I was stuck in that recliner until she got back, staring at hours and hours of the Hour of Power, featuring Mom's idol, the Reverend Earl.

I was looking at him in living color on the giant HDTV across the room. I couldn't get away!

This is how he works you, the unconverted. He rubs your nose in it. The way you look. "You're disgusting." Every bite you ever ate. "Stop," I said; I would have done anything to cut him off but given the distribution of my weight, the recliner kept my feet higher than my head. I struggled but I was stuck, looking up at the Reverend Earl between my highly polished Bruno Magli shoes. I threw my can of beer nuts at him, begging. "Please stop." My five-pound fruitcake missed the screen. "Stop it. Just stop."

It went on for hours.

"You can do it." Then he went into the litany of the offenders. Names. Body weight. Reverend Earl's thousand mile stare bored right into me and I could swear he said, "I mean you, Jeremy Mayhew Devlin."

"Wait a minute!"

"But you need my help."


By the time the sun came up over the Crystal Cathedral on TV it was after two in Greenwich, Connecticut, and I was convinced. I was overturned by emotion and drenched and shaking. When the choir rolled in at the crescendo I could swear somebody had oiled them and rolled them in gold dust. Good thing my Nokia was charged. Nina was still on my Speed dial. Late as it was, she picked up.

I was raging. I shouted into the phone. --Nina, was this your idea?

She tried to get off the line. --Oh, Jerry. I was just... She couldn't think of an excuse.

--Was it?

--Can't hear you, you're breaking up.

--Did you send in my name?

--Can't talk now, I have to see a person about a thing.

--Nina, it's the middle of the night!

--Not really. They're waiting, gotta go.

I said to Nina, --What can I do to get you back? Mind you, Nina was not the first, she was just the next.

--Lose the weight, she said, and I am here because she made it so clear that she didn't mean it, she was done with me. I heard that weary sigh, right before she finished and hung up, like, what's the use. --Just lose the weight.

I shook the phone, we were in separate states of mind at the moment, so she has no idea how mad I was. --That's easy for you to say!

What are the stages of death? That night I went through rage and denial through bargaining to acceptance. By the time Mom came home I was in tears.

"Well Jerry," she said, "Did you like the show?"

I was too beat up to speak. "OK," I said. "OK."

I sent for the brochure.

You know how sometimes you decide to do a thing just because they say it's going to be hard? Like hard is a religion. I sold everything and came here. Who knew it would be this bad? Think maximum security. Think detox. Think results guaranteed.

But the first day I was happy and excited. We were lined up in the courtyard of the clubhouse, men and women together waiting to be classified, who knew that was the last of the clubhouse we were going to see? Waiting, I scoped the women: humiliated in their muu muus and flip-flops, most of them, although there was one stupendous redhead with her head raised defiantly and earrings like chandeliers picking up the gold threads in the brocade tent she wore. She tossed her head. I caught her eye. The next thing I knew she was gone. All the women were gone. Then we were gone. One of the acolytes started us marching downhill, goodbye clubhouse, goodbye life. We kept marching after the grass gave way to gravelly sand and we didn't stop until we reached the classifications shed. We were in the fucking desert. Except for a few sheds, desert was all there was. I was sweaty and exhausted. I said, "Yeesh."

When the guy standing on line in front of me shook his head his jowls flopped and the ground shook. He said, "Pretty much." His name is Nigel Wilson, and his nickname, that no longer fits? I saw what he put down on the form. Nickname: Slim. "It's what the Reverend wants."

Yitch, I thought as he waddled up to the Armed Response box where the nurse-trainers were waiting. I'm never going to let myself get that bad. But I had, and I did.

So they separated us then, the men from the women, who filed off to their designated hell.

The evaluation makes getting into the Green Berets look like an ice cream social and the physicals at Fort Benning and Parris Island look like church. The place is built on the principle that drives the high end spas where the rich and lovely do ten day fasts and work out and submit to heavy duty massages that are more like beatings and finish off with salt rubs and glasses of lemon juice because you have to make people suffer to convince them that they're getting their money's worth. When he turned THIN into a religion, the Reverend Earl took it all the way. There's the carbolic shower; after they take your clothes away, one of the Rev's trustys comes in with a loofah and scrubs all those parts you've gotten too bulky to reach. Then you're issued the uniform of the day: paper smock like the one you have to wear in a doctor's examining room, and you march outside for roll call with the desert wind bringing in sand to abrade your butt.

Once you're lined up the Reverend's lieutenant leads the group confession. Raw and humiliated like all the other new recruits, you take your place and everybody shouts in unison:

"OK, I'm here because I hate myself for being fat. I hate it and I am ashamed."

Next comes the interview. You go inside and sit in that waiting room for hours. When you think you can't wait any more they shut you into the solitary examining room. The staff doctor comes in and pokes and prods you without speaking, takes his notes and goes. As he shuts the door behind him you hear sobbing coming down the hall: some other new recruit in the last stages, with the Reverend just winding up that interview. You are cold and humiliated in your paper outfit and sore from the shower and hungry -- it's been hours! You try the door but it's locked from the inside so you are cold and humiliated and hungry and sore and what's more, you're trapped. It's then and only then, when you are at rock bottom, that the Reverend Earl comes in.

"Look at yourself. You are disgusting." The Reverend Earl fixed me with those eyes. If you want to know the color, look into the heart of an iceberg and look hard. "Jeremy Devlin. What do you want?"

Everything in me welled up and I croaked, "Thinner!" I wanted to look amazing and live in the clubhouse and testify on the infomercials as advertised, and maybe I wanted Nina to come begging so I could blow her off, but I was too beaten down to say.

"And what will you give to get it?"

He was my leader; I would do anything he said.

I said what he wanted.



© Kit Reed 2004
Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed

Thinner Than Thou is published by Tor (June 2004, ISBN: 0765307626).

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