Monday, May 20, 2013

Reading: What's Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges

What's Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges is the story of Gilbert Grape, a 24 year old grocery store employee who finds himself stuck in his hometown of Endora, Iowa because of an elaborate affair with an older married woman, his dangerously overweight mother and his mentally retarded brother Arnie.  The Grape family is preparing for a big celebration because Arnie is about to turn 18, something the doctors said would never happen.  Meanwhile, Gilbert can't decide what he wants or who he is.  He is just Gilbert.
Something is eating at Gilbert but he can't quite decide what it is.  The novel plays heavily on the idea of the American Dream and that the dream can more often times trap us than set us free or set a standard to strive towards and be happy about it.  As the novel progresses the reader sees how Gilbert is being sucked further and further into this mold society wants but isn't him.  At the start of the novel we meet Gilbert who works at Lamson Grocery, the stereotypical small town grocery market.
"[Lamson Grocery] is composed of only four aisles - each one only twenty-one feet long.  Lamson Grocery contains everything that a reasonable person requires.  But if you need the trappings of technology to think you're getting a good bargain, than I guess you better mosey your brainless body down to Food Land.  We at Lamson Grocery price every product by hand.  We talk to our customers, we greet them without faking a smile, we say your name....If a person wants to write us a check, we don't take down all kinds of information or make you prove that you're you....We say without saying it that your word is good." (pg. 16-17)
The Lamsons, the family Gilbert works for, are like the parents Gilbert never had.  They love him and care about him and his well being, as well as his family's.  They represent a people that don't need the American Dream to be successful or happy.  They have strayed from the American Dream like Gilbert and he can relate to that.  At the same time, it is what he wants to get away from.  He doesn't want to be stuck in the small town of Endora forever.  He doesn't want to end up like his friend Tucker who's life goal is the work and someday manage a franchise of the popular fast food chain, Burger Barn.  To slap the icing on the cake, Gilbert also looks and acts exactly like his dead father who committed suicide by hanging himself in the basement of the house he built and still houses the family in the novel.
"If [all the kids are winners], then please tell me why we even bother having prizes and ribbons.  If everyone is a winner, then what is the point?  I will tell you what the point is - and I will tell you because I think you might be able to understand.  The point is that the man making the lying.  Not all of the costumes were good....We should be embarrassed at our attempt at patriotism.  My brother's costume is the exception.  He looks like an American.  In fact, he behaves like one.  When he tried to pick up the first kid he knocked down, he smashed into several others, it snowballed, chaos ensued.  My brother very much resembled America today in pretty much all things." (pg. 175)
The novel is truly a literary refreshment.  The coming of age story combined with the American Dream is something we can all relate to.  Each character blossomed though none better than Gilbert himself.  Hedges does a fantastic job mapping out a character who really has no idea who he is or what he wants and gives him a unique spirit and relatable factor.  The plot is very rich in subtle flavor and reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye.  It was a very enjoyable and thought provoking read and I will give it 4 out of 5 stars.  I highly recommend it.

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