Rising from the belly of the beast

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By Pat Wellington

The timing of this book is remarkable in that it concerns a 25-year-old man who is fat, broke, and in debt after a decade of binging – bringing to mind unregulated financial binging that has Americans today reeling in shock.

Sam MacDonald’s memoir is clear about the motivation for his drastic changes. It comes not from a sense of shame but rather from a threatening IRS letter and a bad transmission he couldn’t afford to fix.

Sam admits “I would have lived that way forever if I could have. I just couldn’t. It cost too much. Ten years of eating and drinking and spending had finally come crashing down that April.”

To Sam, his own image is a mirror of what surrounds him: “The year 2000 was an age of excess, NASDAQ. Enron. Reality TV. People were fat and happy. But things were about to change.”

Sam’s half-baked decision to change his life means not consuming anything unnecessary. He does the math and concludes that he can live on 800 calories a day and $8 a week for food, the same food everyday – lentils and low-grade tuna.

Indeed, the 300-lb. young man actually loses 100 pounds in six months. But MacDonald warns in his Epilogue that his is not a diet book and anyone who follows his plan is likely to suffer kidney failure.

To distract himself from his constant hunger he takes on a second job to the fish warehouse one – writing for a small local newspaper. The job opens up a whole new world for him and along the way he discovers his passion for journalism.

There’s a harrowing trip to Bosnia in a cargo plane and a trip to Montana to party with hippies. And huge temptations everyday that he handles well for the most part, although even a proffered piece of cake at an office party can test him cruelly.

Sam has learned discipline and how to ignore his stomach’s growling, protesting, demanding more. He’s young, he tells himself, so he can take it:” Screw the hunger. Screw the noise. When I saw something I wasn’t suppose to eat, I didn’t pick it up. When I saw something at the store that looked good, I didn’t buy it. Easy? No. Simple? Yes. And simple was exactly what I needed.”

When Sam begins doing 150 sit-ups, things become positively Rocky-esque. Young readers will no doubt find Sam’s exploits hilarious, though I’m not sure his humor is intended.

Because I’m not into Animal House fun, I came away with different reactions to the memoir. I found the tale more subtle than the teller, who seems to be telling us to live up to our potential and find jobs that are satisfying rather than lucrative or secure.

And who could argue with the outcome of Sam’s courageous if excessive odyssey when he says at the last, “I was debt free. I was a political journalist. I was camera-ready. A fellow with a job and a girl and a future. I had struggled. But I had emerged from the Beast of the American Belly. And I had emerged victorious.”

Pat Wellington is a retired English professor, freelance writer, and faculty member of On Top of the World’s Master the Possibilities, who shares her passion for books with others.