Heft by Liz Moore (W.W. Norton & Company; 352 pages; $24.95).
Arthur Opp last left his house on September 11, 2001, to see smoke blanketing the Manhattan skyline in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Arthur has not ventured out his door since in Liz Moore’s poignant yet hopeful novel Heft. Ms. Moore chose the perfect title for a tale with larger-than-life characters and enormous emotional heft.
Ms. Moore uses two distinctive voices to act as the narrator-protagonists of Heft. By switching back and forth between Arthur and Kel Keller, she builds tension and urges me to keep reading. And I do. In fact, I often could not stop myself.
Arthur is a former professor who no longer leaves his house. He weighs between five and six hundred pounds and acknowledges he is “colossally fat.” Everything he needs he orders online. Arthur explains, “My home sometimes feels like a shipping center; every day, sometimes twice a day, somebody brings something to me. The FedEx man, the UPS man. So you see I’m not entirely a shut-in because I must sign for these things.” Arthur, therefore, is not totally shut out or shut off from the world.
His primary relationship is with a former student, Charlene Turner, with whom he exchanges letters. The two have been doing this for years, although Charlene’s responses have been sporadic lately. For a time, the two were very close, but that was before Charlene’s marriage. Still, Charlene means the world to Arthur. In a letter to her, he writes, “Whether or not you have known it you have been my anchor in the world. You & your letters & your very existence have provided me with more comfort than I can explain.”
When Charlene requests that Arthur help her son, he has to tell her that he has changed and that he is no longer teaching. All these years, Arthur has kept the truth from Charlene. Yet Charlene has been keeping some secrets from Arthur, as well.
Since Ms. Moore never pities Arthur and he never pities himself, I do not either. His life and situation are not ideal, it is true. Ms. Moore uses his weight as an outward manifestation of his pain, unhappiness, and disappointments. We all have them. Arthur is not alone in his failures. We all have excess baggage. Some of us just hide them better than others do.
In contrast to Arthur, Kel Keller, Ms. Moore’s other narrator-protagonist, carries his pain on the inside. Kel is Charlene’s son. He is a high-school student who excels in sports, particularly baseball. Kel’s worries are weightier than those of most of his fellow students. He has had to watch as his mother drinks herself to death. Kel has had to be a kind of parent to Charlene, who loves her T-shirt that reads “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere.” Kel confesses, “When she is very bad, usually I will tell her things to calm her down. I will tell her Mom, Mom. We have to be quiet because the neighbors will call. We have to be very quiet. Come up here with me on the couch. Come watch your show.” Sometimes when Charlene is “very bad,” Kel feeds her “like a baby.”
One night, Kel smells the alcohol on her before he even sees her. He finds her passed out on the bathroom floor with the telephone in her hand. Kel thinks she is dead, “My God she’s dead is what I think. She’s dead this time.” He crouches down beside her and starts to cry. “WAKE up,” he tells her. Then, she opens her eyes. For Charlene and Kel, this is a pattern. Yet when Kel is at school or on the field, he acts as if everything is all right in his world. Only on the field and in the occasional fight can Kel blow off steam.
While Kel looks forward to impressing a Major League scout, Arthur slowly starts to make his way out into the world once again. Charlene makes a choice, though, that changes everything. It is a tragedy that finally brings Arthur and Kel together.
Ms. Moore connects these two people, who at first seem worlds apart, in astounding, clever ways. I especially admire the many flaws each character has that enhance the story. Ms. Moore lends an authenticity and a likeability to them, and I am engaged and won over.
Well-written novels are harder and harder to come by these days, which is why I recognize and admire good prose when I see it. Ms. Moore has a real gift for language. For example, Arthur believes he was “destined for solitude, very certain that one day it would find me, so when it did I was not surprised & even welcomed it.” And Kel describes his performance for the scout: “I swing. I miss. I wait. A strike. A ground ball. A strike. It’s not terrible—I take a piece out of a lot of them, and I hit one more home run—but I’m not here. I fail…I want to feel sorry for myself, but I almost feel relieved.”
I find myself empathizing, but never sympathizing, with Arthur and Kel. I develop a true connection with them. I cheer them on; I laugh with them; I cry with them; I grieve with them. Such a thing does not happen everyday while reading novels. It is a rare and precious thing, indeed. For me, Heft has become beloved.