- Heft by Liz Moore
- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 23, 2012)
- ISBN-13: 978-0393081503
Who and what is the book about (back-of-the-book blurb): Former academic Arthur Opp weighs 550 pounds and hasn’t left his rambling Brooklyn home in a decade. Twenty miles away, in Yonkers, seventeen-year-old Kel Keller navigates life as the poor kid in a rich school and pins his hopes on what seems like a promising baseball career — if he can untangle himself from his family drama. The link between this unlikely pair is Kel’s mother, Charlene, a former student of Arthur’s. After nearly two decades of silence, it is Charlene’s unexpected phone call to Arthur — a plea for help — that jostles them into action. Through Arthur and Kel’s own quirky and lovable voices, Liz Moore tells the winning story of two improbable heroes whose sudden connection transforms both their lives; this is a novel about love and family found in the most unexpected places.
Where and when does it take place: The novel is set in the present day in Brooklyn, much of it in a tired and cluttered brownstone. It’s told in the first person, in the voices of Arthur Opp, a reclusive man in his 50s, and Kel Keller, a high school student.
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: I adored Heft – it’s a quietly moving novel that digs deep to show the reader the truth behind the facades of these characters.
Neither Opp nor Keller (nor a third “misfit” character readers meet in the first 50 pages) have love and support of family and friends – they became loners as a result of their circumstances, they stayed that way by conscious choice. It’s simply easier, sometimes.
Arthur Opp is obese and reclusive. He called to my mind the story of New York’s Collyer brothers. I also thought of Roxie’s husband (Amos) in the show Chicago, “Mr. Cellophane.” That’s probably a more fair comparison – unlike the Collyer brothers, Opp’s mind is sharp. He’s reclusive because he’s embarrassed about his weight, insecure around others, and believes himself not strong/motivated enough to change.
Kel Keller is a young man with great potential – he’s smart and a gifted baseball player. A rocky childhood in which he often played caretaker to his mother (a former student of Opp, named Charlene), has left him – like Opp – with neither a human safety net nor the confidence to create one.
With Charlene as the catalyst, Opp and Keller begin to test the waters of trusting others; the results are as unpredictable as human nature.
Liz Moore writes of these loners with compassion, not pity. The reader awakens to (or underscores) the fact that the “Mr. Cellophane”s of the world deserve a second look.
Why did I read it: I read an advance copy of Heft last fall, after picking it up at a regional trade show. I knew, after talking to the publisher’s rep, that Heft would give me the types quirky characters and plot that I enjoy, and would open my mind without preaching to me.
A few favorite passages: Because the novel takes place in the present, we’re privy to the raw emotions of the narrators. Here, Arthur Opp has suffered a setback. He describes his physical and mental states; the last phrase is particularly revealing [p. 222]:
So I have been feeling very low. It gets very dark very early now & some bad days I sit on my couch from sunup to sundown without moving, and on even worse days I lie in my bed. Except to eat.
All in all I am right back where I started in October … I am one of the world’s lonely.
More raw emotion here; this shows that Opp must open to himself before he can open to others. He’s more than “a fat old corpse.” He’s a “man with a story to tell” [p 237]:
… I let down my guard for a moment and opened my heart and let in a great deal of grief that has tagged along beside me for most of my life, and I considered the fact that men who come to excavate my house upon receiving complaints from the neighbors will find a fat old corpse who has no relations and nothing but a pile of papers to tell them this was a human being and this was a man with a story to tell.
The novel has its moments of heartbreak, yet is overwhelmingly hopeful (rather than rosy); that building of hope gives strength to “the world’s lonely.”
What else can I add: The advance copy I read used a capital E in the blocks of letters that form the title (I believe those blocks are squares of iced chocolate cake). I like this lowercase E better; it seems friendlier somehow (your thoughts?).
You may know that I work for our local bookstore, a member of the of the American Booksellers Association. Each month the ABA’s IndieBound creates the IndieNext list – “great reads from booksellers you trust.” Essentially, booksellers read upcoming titles months before they’re released publicly, and nominate titles to be included on the IndieNext list. Now, click here to read the IndieNext list for February 2012. Scroll through the pictures of book covers, and click on Heft to read my more succinct recommendation!