Profoundly Compassionate

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If you harbor desires for truly deserved happy endings and sharply drawn prose, then you will relish every page of Liz Moore’s new novel Heft.

There’s a saying that calms down even the most neurotic of us when we’re feeling like we’re losing our wits: “The truly crazy person never thinks he’s crazy.” This is a stabilizing statement, in which one gets to believe that, simply by recognizing that there’s a problem, there’s a way out of the darkness. The same can be true for misanthropy—the truly misanthropic person feels profoundly well-adjusted. And so we feel affection for any outsider that experiences a sense of shame, of displacement, and a hope for something redeeming to change their lives dramatically. The lonely professor Arthur Opp, one of two protagonists in Liz Moore’s novel, Heft, feels that tug of normalcy—even as he lumbers about his brownstone, hovering somewhere between 500-600 pounds, he imagines writing a confessional to expose his true state of living. “My house has grown so familiar to me that I don’t see it . . . I roam from room to room, a ghost, a large redfaced ghost.” He has devolved so far that he spooks himself, even as he considers his house a “cocoon”. Misanthropy isn’t something you grow out of. It’s something that simmers over many years, something that becomes as natural to you as a second skin. And it takes an extreme event—an impending visit from the child of a long-lost crush—to shake Arthur into imagining a different way of life.

Borrowing a page from Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (in which an awkward but brilliant old lady meets a troubled yet promising child),Moore weaves Arthur’s narrative into that of a lonely teenage boy named Kel. Kel is the troubled yet athletically gifted son of Charlene Keller, one of Arthur’s former students and a pen-pal whom he has long held as a romantic ideal (though he remains unaware of her personal demons). Kel suffers from no illusions about his mother—he sees her as a full-blown alcoholic, and one who may jeopardize his promising future as a top-recruit baseball player from his elite private high school in Pells’ Landing. But when Kel comes home to their house in Yonkers to find a note taped to her bedroom door—“Dear Kel, Do not come in. Call police. Love, Mom”—his life and its carefully managed tower of secrets begin to crumble apart.

Charlene’s charms, and any previous stability that may have come with them, are never fully illuminated to the reader, either through Kel’s recollections of her or through Arthur’s numerous letters. One has to wonder why Moore would make such an inscrutable character the catalyst for so much turmoil—we don’t know why Arthur loves her, beyond a bland sense of sympathy. And while the reader immediately feels the weight of Kel’s secret home catastrophe, which he desperately tries to mask, he seems to have a legitimate support system of friends and potential girlfriends to keep him afloat. Even his worst moment—a less-than-flawless tryout for the major leagues—is buoyed by a sense of desperate optimism: he almost tackles the scout with his pleas. “You have to give me another chance. You have to let me show you—in the spring. I’m so much better in the spring.” Only the dilemma of Arthur’s housekeeper—the sweet, feisty, and pregnant Yolanda—is legitimately bottomless, and even then, Arthur seems to placate it too quickly with a peanut butter sandwich and a gallon of milk.

It may seem ridiculous to fault a novel for being too balanced, well-structured, or measured out in its moments of tragedy and triumph. Yet Moore’s confident tone manages to undermine the tragedies that her characters are experiencing. Rather than feeling intimately drawn to Arthur and Kel as they struggle with enormous challenges, their evolution is so clearly mid-second act that we can already anticipate the rock-bottom and redemptive arc just around the corner. Even those characters meant to throw Arthur and Kel off-course—especially Yolanda and her zest for life, a manic pixie dream girl with an impending due date—feel more like staged and carefully inserted comic relief. And on the point of truly hitting rock bottom—well, they never seem to do so. Perhaps for Moore’s fear that if she lets them fall too far, they’ll never be able to crawl back up again. But I can’t blame her—if ever an author cared more deeply about her characters than Liz Moore, I haven’t found her yet. She is a profoundly compassionate writer, and in these two unlikely heroes, she gives us people worth rooting for.

Ultimately, the question of Heft’s…well, heft . . . depends on how deep you want your tragedy to go. If you’re craving a portrait of addiction at its lowest, most frightening state, then you can find more depraved portraits of what chemical or culinary dependency look like. But if you want to hold off, keep the horrors at a distance, and instead harbor desires for truly deserved happy endings, then you will relish every page of Moore’s neatly and sharply drawn prose.

Jessica Freeman-Slade is a writer who reviews and blogs on book culture at The [TK] Review, and has written reviews for The Millions, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Specter Magazine, among others. She works as an editor at Random House and lives in Morningside Heights. More from this author →