Butter, or Marshall to give his real name, is a junior in a high school in Scotsdale, Arizona, a virtuoso saxophonist. Marshall is also 423 pounds (192 kilos) in weight – morbidly obese.
Butter has an online alter ego. He is JP, a sports star and a private school student who of course has lots and lots of friends. JP’s online girlfriend is called Anna and attends the same school as Butter, a slender blonde. While JP basks in virtual success, Butter sits alone on a reinforced bench, befriended by no-one.
Butter has had enough. He decides to take his life, but to make his exit with a spectacular gesture. He sets up a website called Butterslastmeal.com and advertises the fact that on New Year’s Eve, one month after the start of the book, he will literally eat himself to death.
Of course the one achievement that has eluded Butter in his life comes easily as he faces death: he attracts the attention of his schoolmates, who all start posting menu suggestions on his website. What a laugh his impending death has become. Two boys named Trent and Parker make friends with him in school as well as online. They want to be part of the spectacle. Soon people are making bets on how long it will take Butter to die, how much he can eat. The book rotates around this genuinely existential question: will Butter live or die? And in either case what will be the aftermath?
This is a brave book by a fearless author. It poses the question whether an individual’s destiny is governed by the life choices made by that individual, or by the reactions of a potentially hostile society to anyone who is different. Is this a case of individual tragedy or societal oppression? Maybe both. Despite the undoubted merits of this book I would add one word of caution. I would not advise anyone who is feeling vulnerable, or whose self-esteem is under pressure to read Butter’s story. It will make any such person feel much worse.
Reading the book I was struck by the belief that uncontrolled obesity is like a disability. Yet just as I was beginning to feel some sympathy and liking for Butter, I would get swept away by irritation: the boy just will not appreciate the value of anything he has or can aspire to. Grrrrr.