WHILE NOT “ABOUT” HAIR LOSS, THE NOVEL WITH A BALD PROTAGONIST IS AN ENJOYABLE READ.
Addie Prewitt is not the titular character of Leslie Stella’s 2001 comic novel Fat Bald Jeff, but as the narrator of the book, she makes sure that she is the star around which the story revolves. Indeed, given Addie’s quite amusing predilection for self-absorption, it’s rather surprising that she allowed Jeff to steal away with title status.
Addie, Jeff and the other characters that inhabit Stella’s debut novel will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever experienced the joyless drudgery of toiling at an unrewarding job. Fat Bald Jeff belongs to the genre of “worker revenge” tales, and while it doesn’t add anything particularly new in terms of plot or insight, it’s a decidedly enjoyable read. Stella has a flair for identifying character quirks that is greatly appreciated. She also employs a pen filled with equal parts ink and venom, although the venom obviously comes from a baby snake or perhaps merely one of the less dangerous vipers. Addie’s constant stream of criticisms is too mild to kill; they prick, they sting, but ultimately they’re harmless, much like Addie herself.
The revenge plot that Addie and Jeff put into motion at the fictional National Association of Libraries (NAL) is not quite so harmless. The two are odd co-conspirators: Addie, whose self-preoccupation does not prevent her from aggressively shying away from anyone who is at all offensive to her delicate sensibilities, and Fat Bald Jeff, whose girth, slovenliness and lack of table manners can’t disguise a genuine wizardry in all matters computer related. In the strict social strata of their workplace, copy editor Addie is several rungs above techie Jeff, but Jeff’s realization that Addie has a mean streak, combined with her accidental acquisition of an embarrassing picture of a nasty middle manager, brings them together with one goal: to shake things up at the NAL and give some payback to the upper management snobs who reward themselves with expensive perks while denying the lower-level workers raises and basic necessities.
Again, this is hardly a new plot, and it’s certainly a bit disappointing that Stella doesn’t stretch herself in this area. At one point, after Addie and Jeff have expanded their campaign and have succeeded in arousing a public relations nightmare for the NAL and its self-centered bosses, one gets the feeling that Stella might be heading into some interesting territory. Addie’s immediate supervisor is killed, and at first it’s reported as a suicide related to our duo’s anonymous revelations about his affairs. Suddenly, what was lighthearted, subversive fun becomes serious. Questions are raised about culpability and cause and effect; a whiff of anxiety enters the air that goes beyond Addie’s typical fashion-obsessed worries.
But Stella backs off from pursuing this angle. The situation surrounding the death becomes ambiguous; it may have been an accident, not suicide. While the incident serves to scare Addie and make her want to step away from her activities, the sidestepping feels like a cheat.
Fortunately, this and other flaws in the plotting don’t seriously affect one’s enjoyment of the book. Stella’s way with a phrase more than compensates. For example, Addie memorably describes her mother as having “all the maternal feeling of a serving fork.” Bemoaning the cheap watch she must wear, Addie asks plaintively, “Why not just strap a stone sundial to my head?” And when a character comments that he thought Addie didn’t believe in God, she responds, “Of course I do. Someone’s got to make my mother pay.”
As mentioned previously, the story revolves around Addie, with the result that none of the other characters are as well defined. Even Jeff, who is called Fat Bald Jeff as a way of distinguishing him from another techie named Jeff (called merely “The Other Jeff”), is merely a supporting player and therefore not as fully rounded as Addie. It’s tempting to perhaps read a certain degree of maliciousness into Jeff’s bald state (and into the comb-over atop Addie’s boss’s head). But Addie is so hypercritical of everyone and everything and makes such note of anything that is different or beside the norm that, in context, baldness actually comes across as more of an identifying characteristic than a criticism. Certainly, there’s no greater concern attached to it than to her roommate’s attempt at a Lynyrd Skynyrd mustache or to Other Jeff’s messy mat of curls.
It’s refreshing that Fat Bald Jeff’s character is the prime motivating factor in the book’s central scheme, as well as the character who eventually draws Addie out of herself and into contact with the rest of the world. He’s also presented as someone who seems at home with himself the way he is. As always, that’s a pleasure to see in a character without hair.