It's not everyday you read a book that starts off like this, " The first thing you must know about me is that I am colossally fat." Right off the bat the character of Arthur Opp in Heft by Liz Moore has your attention. He's confessing his shortcomings to his pen pal Charlene Keller. He wants her on his side. He's been lying for years about his weight not just to Charlene but to himself. Arthur has become a recluse, choosing to let the world go on without him.
A once promising career as a college professor is over. A somewhat innocent teacher-student relationship with Charlene tainted his career as a professor. Rather than face the music, Arthur abandoned his profession. He would rather hole up in his house eating, ordering stuff online and watching television. Letters between him and Charlene were the only bright spot in Arthur's life. As long as he has those letter he knows somebody cared. The letters allowed him to create a fantasy life, rather than facing the truth. But the truth is about to smack Arthur in the face when Charlene suggests him as a mentor for her son Kel. The fantasy life as the cultured and well-travelled college professor are over if Kel and Charlene get to see how Arthur really lives. He has to actually look in the mirror and acknowledge his problems. He is desperate for companionship, but at what costs?
Maybe Arthur is finally ready to face the music? It isn't always best to be alone. Arthur confesses his shortcomings to Charlene in a letter. He even hires a spunky maid, Yolanda, to clean up his house. Yolanda not only helps clean up his house, she helps clean up his life. Opening up to Yolanda was a brave act on Arthur's part. He let Yolanda see him at his most vulnerable. He's ashamed of how badly his life has turned out, but hiring Yolanda was also a cry for help. They become friends. He actually looks forward to her visits. What would his life be like without Yolanda? Perhaps he would still be a recluse.
What about Charlene? Her letters were full of joy, but it turns out she was also living a lie. By the time Kel was old enough to fend for himself, Charlene was an alcoholic. Her husband left, her parents are gone, and all she has left is Kel. But rather than embrace what she had, Charlene destroyed her life. Kel becomes the parent. He makes sure the electricity and heat are paid. It's hard to focus on being a kid when you have to grow up so fast. Kel grew up in Yonkers but goes to school in a wealthy neighborhood. The kids at his school don't have his problems. They don't worry about where their gas or food money is coming from. College isn't in doubt for his friends. It's a different story for Kel. His grades aren't great but he excels at baseball. He dreams of playing professional baseball.
The story alternates between Arthur and Kel's point of view. They are both scared in their own way. Arthur is afraid of rejection from the outside world. Kel seems afraid of the future or he doesn't want to think about the future. A crisis with his mother forces Kel to face the future. You feel sympathetic towards both characters. Kel is very confused and sometimes he lashes out, like most teenagers. You're pulling for both of them to do better. It has to get better for them. I wonder if a sequel is planned because ending left me wanting for more.
Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.) in exchange for an honest review.