I wouldn't normally have chosen to read a novel about a morbidly obese middle-aged shut-in ex-academic and a High School student and wannabe baseball star with anger management issues but I'd heard that Liz Moore had a strong, distinctive, voice, so I tried the audiobook.
It was an excellent decision, not just because Liz Moore writes beautifully but because "Heft" works well as an audiobook. The contrasting voices of Kirby Heyborne and Keith Szarabajka draw an even stronger distinction between the world as seen by the monstrously fat Arthur Opp and the athletic, on-the-brink-of-manhood Kel Keller.
In "Heft", Liz Moore takes up the challenge of writing a character-driven novel that features two unsympathetic characters who are leading ordinary lives that verge on the dull. Her achievement is that, by the end of the book she had managed to tangle them in my imagination enough to make me hope on their behalf.
The novel is structured a two parallel stories of frailty, failure and loss that are up-lifted by the accuracy of their observation and the suppression of the authorial voice which forces the reader to make their own judgements on the actions and motives of Opp and Keller.
Some of those actions are hard to watch and don't paint Keller or Opp in a positive light.
Keller's guilty anger at having to care for his sick and apparently drunk, mother and his encounter, in room strewn with beer cans and smelling of neglect, with the man he believes may be his father, create a bleak picture. One of the most powerful moments, for me, was Keller having sex with a girl from his old neighbourhood just because she's there and then remaining cruelly passive when he knows the hurt he has caused her. This is the kind adolescent many of us can remember being but would be ashamed to admit to. It speaks to the honesty that holds this book together.
Arthur Opp is shown a s man unable to connect to connect to the people around him and who has been corrupted by a morbid desire for food, that ultimately becomes his only source of pleasure. That Opp's life has shrunk as his body has expanded symbolised by his inability to climb the stairs to reach the upper floor of his home.
"Heft" handles big themes: how weakness and shame corrode; how parents can damage their children; how fantasy becomes a substitute for action,; how small practical acts of kindness can kindle hope and the possibilities that open up when we set out to build "families" composed of people we care about.
Liz Moore knows how to describe the small victories and moments of kindness that make life worth living. Opp's first walk outside of his house in many years, convey a real sense of risk and triumph. The quiet hospitality Keller is offered by his almost-girlfriend and her family shows the impact of kindness. Both men are motivated to try to be more, to be better, by woman in their lives who can see beyond the failings and fear and the self-hatred to the men they could become with courage and love and time.
"Heft" is not a didactic book. It is not selling self-help solutions and does not offer tidy endings. If it has a message, it is: "Life is a mess. Deal with it. But deal with it with as much kindness and empathy as you can manage."