Arthur Opp is, by his own admission, “colossally fat,’’ weighing between 500 and 600 pounds. He hasn’t been out of his “cocoon of a house’’ in Brooklyn, N.Y., for roughly a decade, feeling winded after he takes more than six or seven steps. A former college professor, he hasn’t worked for 18 years, and he has lost touch with his family, a disconnect that further fuels his solitude.
Arthur is the intriguing and personable protagonist and narrator of Liz Moore’s new novel, “Heft,’’ a quiet, absorbing tale of the redemptive quality of connection. Despite having let himself go after losing his job because of false accusations of a relationship with a student, Arthur settled over the years into a relatively comfortable routine, ordering everything he needs online and waiting patiently for the delivery of food, books, household supplies. “My home sometimes feels like a shipping center; every day, sometimes twice a day, somebody brings something to me. The FedEx man, the UPS man. So you see I am not entirely a shut-in because I must sign for these things.’’
But despite the brief encounters and casual conversations with various delivery people, Arthur is, at his core, deeply lonely. For almost two decades, one tenuous emotional lifeline has been Charlene Keller, a former student who was unknowingly at the center of the rumors that ended his career. Twenty years his junior, she is the only woman Arthur has ever loved. Though she lives just miles away in Yonkers, she communicates with Arthur only through occasional letters, allowing her reclusive former teacher to hide the radical changes in his personal and professional life. Their correspondence brings Arthur a sense of meaning and continuity. He writes in a confessional letter he never has the courage to send, “ . . . [Y]ou have been my anchor in the world. You & your letters & your very existence have provided me more comfort that I can explain.’’
Then one day, out of the blue, Charlene calls Arthur to ask for a favor. As it turns out, she has a 17-year-old son. Kel Keller is a rising sports star with limited prospects for college, yet college is Charlene’s most fervent dream for him. Believing Arthur to be still connected in the academic world, she asks him to help the unfocused, baseball obsessed Kel with his college applications.
Charlene’s innocent request sets in motion the touching and compelling story of hope, forgiveness, and second chances in “Heft.’’ For Arthur, the prospect of seeing Charlene in person fills him with both excited anticipation and dread. While it offers the welcome possibility of reconnection, it also means revealing his decline, which he has carefully masked in his letters. It also means dealing with the condition of his house, which has fallen into a sad state of disarray and disrepair. Enter Yolanda, the pregnant, sweetly direct young housemaid who pulls Arthur out of his comfort zone and becomes his first real and honest relationship since the death of his only longstanding friend nearly 15 years earlier.
For Kel, a meeting with Arthur may hold entirely different possibilities. As he grapples with school and social pressures, his mother struggles with her own isolating issues, including a drinking problem and a life-threatening disease.
Moore’s writing is clear, persuasive, and totally engaging, bringing her characters to life in all their sweet, quirky glory. Arthur’s wry voice narrates the book’s first section, while the next is a first-person account by Kel, offering a vivid coming-of-age tale. In the book’s second half, chapters alternate between the two voices as Arthur and Kel come closer and closer to their inevitable meeting. If Moore, who is also a musician, errs, it’s perhaps on the side of according too much self-awareness to these very different men in two radically different stages of life, and perhaps too much wisdom to the adorable Yolanda. But ultimately, “Heft’’ is about transformation and about accepting that the agent of change can come from the most unlikely source.Karen Campbell, a freelance writer based in Brookline, can be reached at email@example.com.