Heft, by Liz Moore, Hutchinson, RRP£9.99/Norton, $24.95, 352 pages
Something is afoot in the shrunken world of gigantic Arthur Opp. This vastly obese, unemployed professor who has not left his Brooklyn home in years has received a phone call; one, he realises, that could crack the shell of his solitude.
The call is from Charlene, an undistinguished former student with whom he has been corresponding for years but whose communications had lately petered out. Arthur has never told her that his tales of friends and colleagues are bogus (he was fired by the college long ago), or that he last ventured as far as his stoop on 9/11, or that he is “colossally fat”.
As this nuanced and poignant novel opens, Arthur is confessing his omissions – he seems instantly too gentle a soul to have them labelled lies – in a letter to Charlene. Her single, clumsy call has delivered a surge of hope. And if the nature of his solitariness is not to be terminal, he must, finally, risk revealing that he doesn’t see friends in Manhattan, much less hobnob in England with a “celebrated” brother. In fact, he is too fat even to make it up to his house’s top storey.
Over in Yonkers, though, Charlene too has been keeping her own counsel. She reveals that she has a teenage son, Kel, and though she has engineered a place for him at a private school, she needs her old tutor to keep the athletically gifted boy on academic course. Charlene’s own intellectual explorations at Professor Opp’s night class had been embarrassing (Medea was “selfish”) and yet there was a hunger for what academic rigour could bring.
Arthur had recognised her clunky inability to fit in and her genuine bafflement at the hard world about her; theirs was the kinship of the lonely. That kinship has sustained him for years but when the narrative moves beyond Arthur’s doormat it is picked up not by Charlene but by the teenage Kel, whose existence has even propelled Arthur into hiring a cleaner to tame the chaos of his home.
Kel, too, is an outsider – yanked out of Yonkers by day for the glossy school that employs his mother as a secretary – but a more adept one, thanks to an easy-come likableness and a promising baseball career. He is learning to negotiate the absence of a father and, increasingly, of a mother. Charlene is all over him, in terms of her ambitions, and yet she is inexorably abandoning him to her failures. Still a boy, Kel thinks that if he can make a pile of money as an athlete he can force her into happiness. Moore’s rendering of a child in emotional hock to a parent is superb.
Indeed, each of the three acutely written principals of Moore’s second novel hooks the reader in a heartbeat. Heft is an understated yet intensely emotional work and, without revealing too much about how it develops, is far more sophisticated than its somewhat chick-litty cover suggests.