When I posted about my appreciation for Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, my friend Care suggested that I try Heft, which she liked much better than The Unseen World, a book that I ultimately found a little disappointing. I became a little skeptical of when I saw that one of the main characters is a 550-pound recluse. So many things could go wrong with that! But I ended up liking it, and I thought that Moore wrote about the character’s weight in a way that took what was behind the weight seriously without making the weight, in and of itself, into a crisis.
Arthur Opp, one of the book’s two first-person narrators, is a former English professor who lives alone, making contact with pretty much nobody, and never leaving his Brooklyn house. Almost his only contact with the world is the occasional letter from Charlene, a former student, and those have dried up lately. But when Charlene suddenly calls imploring Arthur to help her son get ready for college, he gets motivated to take some steps to improving his situation — the situation being not his weight, but the mess he’s allowed his home to become over the years of holing himself up. He hires a cleaner to come and ends up liking having her around.
Meanwhile, our other narrator, Charlene’s son Kel, is in his senior year of high school at an elite private school that he attends because his mother was once its secretary, and now that she’s no longer able to hold a job, he’s allowed to remain because of his athletic prowess. His mother dreams of him going to college, but he hopes to be recruited right into the pros in baseball. His mother’s drinking and health are a constant worry, and he wants to take care of her while pursuing his dreams.
Both Arthur and Kel are tremendously likable and flawed people. And much of the book’s tension is in wondering whether and how they will ever find each other and help each other. I liked how Moore handled this aspect of the story, although I’ll admit I also wanted more of these two together, but that’s only because I could see their potential as supports for each other. It seemed like they’d honor each other’s independence while giving each other someone to care about and receive care from.
As for Arthur’s weight, it’s not a non-issue, but, as I said, it is not his primary problem. He’s always been plump, but he has become extremely fat because he eats much too much and does not move much. His problem is not fatness but making eating his primary coping mechanism and choosing to lock himself away from the world. What he needs is to connect with people and get out into the world. The book doesn’t come across as saying he needs to lose weight (although he might in fact do so if his life changes). There are some descriptions of his body and eating habits that some readers may find frustrating, but I read them as sort of matter-of-fact descriptions of his life, and, again, they never felt like Moore’s main concern. Overall, I appreciated the way she wrote about Arthur and about Charlene’s addictions, as seen through Kel’s eyes. There was a sense of care throughout the narrative that made me care about the characters.