“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” by Peter Hedges
Paperback, 319 pages
Published Nov. 1, 1999, by Simon Schuster (first published Sept. 1, 1991)
The best answer to the question posed in the title of this book might be, “What’s Not Eating Gilbert Grape?” The title character is working a menial job at a dying mom-and-pop grocery store in a dwindling small town in Iowa. In the absence of his late father, he’s the man of the house. His family includes a morbidly obese mother and a mentally disabled little brother. His love life is, to say the least, dysfunctional. His best friends, a funeral director and a fast food assistant manager, mean well but drive him crazy.
When a mysterious beauty named Becky rolls into town to live with her grandmother, Gilbert feels like he might have found a bright spot in his miserable life. But she has a lot to teach him about real love and most importantly, what it will take for him to love himself.
As a lifelong Iowa resident, the obvious draw to this book and its movie adaptation – which I first saw in middle school (because of Leonardo DiCaprio, obviously) – was the setting. Obviously it doesn’t paint a very exciting or hopeful picture of the Hawkeye State, but it hits awfully close to home if you don’t live in a metropolitan area like Des Moines or Iowa City. My life has been nothing like Gilbert’s, but I can relate to the frustration of feeling trapped in a small town. And every family has skeletons in its closet, so it’s easy to sympathize there.
Peter Hedges, a West Des Moines native, has crafted a novel that’s darkly funny (there’s a lot of biting and somewhat shocking humor in the book that was toned down in the movie) and achingly sad. It’s full of characters whose stories feel familiar and realistic. Fittingly, it’s written from Gilbert’s point of view, which is honest and poignant. One of my favorite moments in the book is a description of Gilbert’s employer’s imposing rival, Food Land, undeniably a nod to a certain grocery store chain where I used to work: “They say a smile can be found in every one of their fourteen aisles.”
A man who works all day, every day and loves each apple he uncrates, who cherishes each can of soup – a man like that surely puts us all to shame.
That’s a big thing in Endora these days. Identities. And the bright side. We got people here who’ve lost farms to the bank, kids to wars, relatives to disease, and they will look you square in the eye and, with a half grin, they’ll tell you the bright side.
The bright side for me is difficult on mornings like these. There’s no escaping that I’m twenty-four years old, that I’ve been out of Iowa a whopping one whole time, that you could say about all I’ve done in my life to this point is baby-sit my retard brother, buy cigarettes for my mother, and sack groceries for the esteemed citizens of Endora.
The more Christian you are in this town, the more makeup you wear. I’ve always thought that it’s because if you were to die suddenly, you’d look better for God.
It’s nights like these that I have to get out of my house. I drive around town and dream about going places. I dream about the kind of families I watched on TV as a kid. I dream about pretty people and fast cars, and I dream I’m still me but my family is someone else. I dream I’m still me.
“You’re the only one, Gilbert, who defies a kind of definition or comprehension. I mean, one doesn’t know what you want. You don’t travel, you don’t read, you don’t expand yourself. I arrange for you to fly to Chicago, but you won’t get on a plane. You play it safe in all things and I’ve never known if it’s because you’re scared or if it’s because you’re just lazy. Of course, I love you and don’t in any way mean to hurt you. You need to examine your life on a deeper, more honest level. Quite simply – you don’t know what you want and it shows. You’re a scared little boy.” -Janice Grape
“I never want to regret. ‘Regret’ is the ugliest word.” -Becky
Momma: “I’m going to say something I know I’m not supposed to say. I see you and I know that I’m a god. Or a goddess. Godlike! And this house is my kingdom. Yes, Gilbert. This chair is my throne. And you, Gilbert, are my knight in shimmering armor.”
Gilbert: “Shining, I think, Momma, is what you mean.”
Momma: “No, I know what I mean. You don’t shine, Gilbert. You shimmer. You hear? You shimmer!”
You can tell the idyllic nature of a family by the upkeep of its picnic table. Ours is its own indictment. We are splintering and peeling. We rot.
About the author
Peter Hedges is an American novelist, screenwriter, and film director. His novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was adapted into a critically acclaimed movie of the same title, which launched his film career.
In 2002 he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for About a Boy. In the same year, he wrote and directed Pieces of April, starring Katie Holmes, which he dedicated to his mother.