The opening lines of Liz Moore’s book, “Heft,” immediately immerse readers in the world of Arthur Opp, a brilliant and isolated man.
The first thing you must know about me is that I am colossally fat. When I knew you I was what one might call plump but I am no longer plump. I eat what I want & furthermore I eat whenever I want. For years I have made very little effort to reduce the amount that I eat for I have seen no cause to. Despite this I am neither immobile nor bedridden but I do feel winded when I walk more than six or seven steps, & I do feel very shy and sort of encased in something as if I were a cello or an expensive violin.
Arthur tells his as-yet-unknown correspondent that he has lied in referring to colleagues, because “I have not worked as a professor for eighteen years.”
Last & most important: I no longer go out of my house. Fortunately it is a very nice house & largely I am proud of it. I did not purchase it; it was bestowed upon me. It is 25 feet wide. Very wide for this block, & once it was very lovely inside and out, decorated very nicely, O this when I was a small boy. But now I fear I have allowed it to fall into a sort of haunted disrepair.
It was the house that was the starting point for Moore to write “Heft,” which is the Buffalo News Book Club selection of the month for January. The house is important as both a real refuge and a symbol.
“I was aware of townhouses in Brooklyn like the one Arthur Opp lives in,” says Moore in a telephone interview from her home in Philadelphia. She teaches creative writing and composition full-time at Holy Family University, in addition to her own writing. “I began to wonder about someone who was holed up in one without leaving. Well, what would make that happen? I came up with obesity and lack of relationships.”
But Moore says Arthur had been alive in her mind well before she started “Heft.”
“He was a character in short story that I had written,” she says. “He had a different last name, but he was exactly that character. The problem was that that character was unsustainable in a longer work, such as a novel, because nothing really happens in his life – he’s so successfully isolated himself. But I never forgot that character, and I knew that I would one day revisit that character.
“In order to do that in novel form, I knew that I would have to introduce a host of other characters who would complicate his life in various ways, which is where the rest of the cast came in.”
The “rest of the cast” includes the woman to whom Arthur’s letter is addressed, a quiet, socially awkward former student of his named Charlene Turner, who has stayed in touch with Arthur, mostly through letters, since she completed his college night school class.
Here is Charlene Turner: Walking into my classroom two decades ago, her cheeks as pink as a tulip, her face as round as a penny. Short and small, rabbitish, the youngest in the room by a decade. I too am young. The class is a seminar & we sit at a long oval table & as teacher I am at the head of it. Her lips do not gracefully close over her teeth. The frames of her glasses are too wide & they give her a look of being mildly cross-eyed. Her bangs are worked into an astonishing arc at the top of her head. One can tell she has put thought into her outfit. Her shoulder pads threaten to eclipse her. She has turned up the cuffs of her blazer. She wears red and green and yellow. Accordingly she looks like a stoplight.
After the class ends, the two begin to exchange letters, talk on the phone, and eventually spend time together innocently. Both their situations change, and they miss some essential truths about each other along the way. Arthur first finds out that Charlene has a teenage son when she sends him a photo of the athletic-looking boy, with “my son Kel” written on the back.
“I would consider Kel the other main character, and I thought he might be interesting,” says Moore. “Kel was interesting to me in the context of Arthur, in that he is both very different from Arthur and very similar to Arthur. That made him a good foil, and I was able to see that they felt familial in a way.”
When Charlene asks Arthur if he would help Kel prepare his college applications, and offers to bring the boy to Arthur’s home, Arthur must admit his situation to Charlene. He hires a cleaning woman, Yolanda, who will become the first person who has stepped foot into his home in seven years.
The delightful Yolanda, a literal and figurative breath of fresh air in Arthur’s life, is 19, hardworking and so tiny that as she sits on a couch waiting for her ride home, “her feet stuck straight out in front of her and did not touch the floor. Her little pink sneakers pointed at the ceiling.” She is also unflappable, once she gets past spotting a mouse in Arthur’s cluttered kitchen.
As Arthur begins to prepare himself and his home to see Charlene again and meet her mysterious son, Kel becomes the focus. A gifted baseball player, the 17-year-old from working-class Yonkers is struggling to fit in at a rich suburban high school.
I am a senior now and have acquired invaluable knowledge of how to do things over the years. But on my first day of freshman year I had no idea. I showed up wearing red glossy basketball shorts past my knees, a plain white T-shirt that hung off my shoulders, and Nikes. As soon as we arrived I knew I’d gotten it wrong. ... “What’s wrong, Kelly?” my mother said, and I said Nothing. God, but everything was wrong. Who I was meant something different here than it did at home. ... That night I went home and begged my mother for new clothes. I begged her not to make me go back to school without good clothes. She was actually happy. She never liked the stuff I wore, the baggy stuff. It was a nice night with her. We went to the mall and I used the money I had saved from mowing lawns.
“A lot of the plot came out just learning the characters as much as I could and then asking myself how they might be connected, or what a likely scenario was,” says Moore. “There were a lot of scenarios that I tried to kind of enforce upon them, and they didn’t work, so the book took a long time to write” – three years for a draft, then two more years editing, working with an agent, then working with an editor at W.W. Norton.
What she has crafted is a poignant and touching story of possibilities and hope. As the plot progresses, relationship mysteries are solved, more satisfyingly in the way of messy reality than neat fiction. The characters grow and learn the importance of connections and opening their hearts to love, despite the vulnerability that brings.
Moore says it’s difficult for her to pick a favorite character.
“Arthur has always been the driving force behind this book; he’s who I started with and who I end with,” she says. “I won’t call him my favorite, but I’ll call him the center of the book. Certainly the book wouldn’t have happened without Arthur.”
Moore says she does not know anybody like Arthur, despite her evocative descriptions of his use of food to soothe himself. Waiting for Yolanda to arrive for the first time, Arthur “began having a dream of Chinese food: the greased and glowing kind, unnaturally orange chicken with sesame seeds nestled in its crevices; white rice in buttery clumps that come apart wonderfully in the mouth; potstickers, ridged and hard at the seam and soft at the belly; crab rangoons, a crunch followed by lush bland creaminess; chocolate cake – nothing Chinese about it, but the best dessert for a meal of this kind, the sweet bitterness an antidote to & a complement to all that salt.”
Moore says, “I have spoken to a lot of women who, even if it’s not a central part of their biography, have had various issues when it comes to food, dieting and weight. Even though Arthur is a man, I think he came in part out of the experience of being a woman today in the United States. A lot of women I know have had some sadness or compulsions when it comes to food.”
The book, which has drawn rave reviews since it was published a year ago, has moved many readers to email Moore through her website.
“A lot of them are people who feel lonely or isolated and have responded in some way to the book because of that,” she says. “I try my best to write back to all of the readers who write to me, although it can take a while. I feel responsible for replying, and also it’s a privilege to reply to them.”
Moore is also a singer-songwriter whose music has been described as “alt-country,” she says. However, “I find that I am physically able to handle only two of my three interests – writing, teaching and music – at one time. So writing and teaching are taking precedence, although I miss music.”
She is working on a third book. “It’s the story of a theoretical physicist and his daughter, and my inspiration for it in part is that my own father is a physicist, though not a theoretical physicist, and I am very much not a scientist. I always sort of wished when I was a kid that I could magically be good at science, so the daughter in this is very gifted in science. That’s been fun to play with, maybe revisiting my own history.”
However, Moore adds, “I should include the caveat that I know from writing ‘Heft’ that all of that might change by the time the book is published. I am about a year into my work on this book, and if I had shown you ‘Heft’ a year into it, you wouldn’t have recognized it.”
More from Moore
Liz Moore’s publisher has provided 10 autographed copies of “Heft” to be given away to Buffalo News readers. To be eligible to receive one, send a note to Book Club, The Buffalo News, One News Plaza, Buffalo, NY 14240, or an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, explaining why you would like to win one.
Read a Book Club chat with “Heft” author Liz Moore here.
December Book Club: (classics month) Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
November Book Club: “The Tiger” by John Vaillant.
October Book Club: Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken.”