Liz Moore’s Heft is about weights both literal and figurative. It’s about people struggling to survive unfortunate circumstances and bad personal choices. What does one do when the weight of not fitting in, the weight of poverty, or the weight of loneliness sits too heavily? Heft explores how people try to hide pain from others, out of fear of rejection, and how sometimes—just sometimes—that fear isn’t necessary.
The Lies We Tell to Protect Ourselves
Heft is told from two first-person perspectives. There’s Arthur Opp, a former university teacher who, after years of emotional overeating, is morbidly obese and living in a depressing spiral of loneliness, clutter, and agoraphobia. Then there’s “Kel” Keller. Kel is a stressed out, poverty-stricken teenager who has drawn one of life’s shorter straws but hopes to make it big as a baseball player. Both Arthur and Kel are victims of circumstances beyond their control, sometimes as much as they are victims of their own bad choices. For a while, neither of them wants to face this reality. Life, of course, forces them to do so.
Arthur and Kel are connected by the tiny thread that is Charlene, Kel’s alcoholic mother and Arthur’s former student, long-time pen pal, and only love. Like Arthur, Charlene never quite “fits in” to life, and the two have always understood and loved each other through their awkward isolation. As the years pass, however, their relationship deteriorates until they are mere pen pals, safely lying to each other from a distance, even as their lives fall apart. Arthur lies about his employment and weight and spins tales about a busy social life. Charlene lies about her marriage and health and never mentions she has a son.
When the weight of illness becomes too much for Charlene, her lies are the first to unravel. As the truth comes out, Arthur is newly determined to take control of his life, even as Kel is just trying to hold on to the pieces of his.
Following Arthur and Kel as they discover Charlene’s secrets and learn how to cope with the truth—their own and hers—makes for a very good read. Nothing is easy in Heft. Each character is fighting his or her own fight, and you’re never quite sure if they’re going to come out on top. When they don’t, it’s heartbreaking.
The side characters of Heft are worthy of praise as well. Yolanda, the young woman who cleans Arthur’s house and becomes his one real-life friend, provides a nice side plot to the overall story that reveals a lot about Arthur’s personality. And Kel’s friend, the popular, pretty, and affluent Lindsay, is one of the best portrayals of a kindhearted teen girl I’ve seen in a while. (Popular, pretty girls are often portrayed as monsters in books.)
My sole complaint comes down to a matter of technique. Authors who write novels with two first-person perspectives are always taking a great risk. Unfortunately, both Arthur and Kel write ungrammatical, choppy fragments that sound awfully similar, and during the first few pages of Kel’s point of view, I was actually unaware that Moore had switched to a new character at all. The most obvious differences between the two characters’ narratives are in how Arthur, unlike Kel, rarely writes “and,” instead favoring ampersands (&), and how Kel has a tendency to curse, while Arthur does not. (Goodreads reviewer, Jill, has a great theory as to why this is.)
This technical flaw is a pity, as Moore does manage to juggle Arthur and Kel’s personalities—they are clearly two different characters with different ideas, hopes, fears, and so on—but I would have liked to have seen more than cosmetic differences their writing styles. It’s not something that will bother everyone, of course, and none of this is to say you shouldn’t read this book. You should.
Heft closes on a surprisingly positive note, begging for readers to believe in a brighter tomorrow for Arthur, Kel, and all others who believe they face uphill battles alone.
Quotes from Heft
The whole thing smells like strawberries or the sick sweet plastic of a doll.
Normally I don’t skip ahead in my life but this is what Pells Landing does to a person: makes him dream of the future, of a huge rambling house and dogs named Angelo and Maxie and of having a baby boy and naming him after yourself. Of having a real job. Of richness, unbearable richness.
I have always loved aggrieved & unbeautiful women. I have always loved beautiful women too, but it is the unbeautiful ones that haunt me & find me & abide, whose images I see before me when I go to sleep.
“Here Is New York” is an essay E.B. White—yes, of Charlotte’s Web fame—wrote in 1948 for Holiday, a long-since defunct travel magazine. The essay reads as you would expect up until its last few pages. White is crisp and concise, and, as far as essays go, “Here Is New York” is enjoyable.
It’s interesting how few surprises there are throughout the essay, whether White is discussing his personal experiences of living in New York or about the tourist’s, the outsider’s, limited understanding of the city. At the time of White’s writing, New York City was slightly less extravagant and built up (there are a million more people in the city now), but some parts of the culture remain the same.
Perhaps New York really is as unchanging as White sometimes says he thinks it is or perhaps his opinion of the Big Apple—that it is a sprawling, diverse, detached, noisy, busy, and lonesome place, all at once—has become mainstream over the decades. This complex understanding of a multifaceted, contradictory New York is what I’ve grown up with in music, books, and movies. I think most of us, whether we have visited the city or not, know New York is somewhat of a double-edged sword, as most big cities are. Some dreams are realized there, while others are destroyed.
It’s toward the end of the essay that White takes a decidedly gloomy turn as he more critically analyzes various elements of New York (e.g., its racism) and imagines the city’s future, which he sees as being overshadowed by a subtle fear of its own demise. With such a change in tone, “Here Is New York” becomes an unusual and slightly eerie tale by its closing.
White is wary of overpopulation and disturbed by the neon lights and advertising displays that are sprouting up all over the city. (If he could see it now!) Media changes before his eyes as newspapers disappear or merge with others. He senses a “greater tension, increased irritability” that is, these days, quintessentially tied to New York and the average New Yorker. “The city has never been so uncomfortable,” he writes. To White, this comes down to the underlying fear of destruction, the fear that New York has grown to be so large, so important, that there are some who will want to destroy it and may even succeed in doing so. There’s a reason many have said White’s words seem prophetic.
I’m not sure what you can learn about New York from White’s essay that you won’t already know. But the writing is elegant, and the powerful closing makes up for any initial slowness. I may not “heart” New York as so many do, but E.B. White simultaneously makes me thankful for the passage of time and wistful for a younger, slightly stripped-down version of the city.
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Quotes from Here Is New York
I think that although many persons are here from some excess of spirit (which caused them to break away from their small town), some, too, are here from a deficiency of spirit, who find in New York a protection, or an easy substitution.
It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible. Every time the residents brush their teeth, millions of gallons of water must be drawn from the Catskills and the hills of Westchester. When a young man in Manhattan writes a letter to his girl in Brooklyn, the love message gets blown to her through a pneumatic tube—pfft—just like that.
All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.