Arthur Opp was once merely a big man, but he has become morbidly obese and has not left his house in Brooklyn in a decade. He doesn’t need to go out; his family provides him with support, and he can get everything he needs online. His greatest joy since he stopped teaching literature at a university extension school in Manhattan is his correspondence with Charlene Turner.
Charlene had taken his class. She was very young at the time, very much of Yonkers, and not at all a good student. Arthur saw a kindred soul in her discomfiture, and they struck up a friendship at the end of the semester. Although they soon stopped doing things together, Charlene continued to write to Arthur over the years.
Arthur’s measured existence is again interrupted by Charlene nearly 20 years later when she calls him, asking if he’ll tutor her son, Kel Keller. Kel is a senior in high school and wants to play professional baseball (he’s good enough) rather than go to college, which pains Charlene very much. Arthur says of course he will help, and then panic sets in. He’s been lying to Charlene in his letters, never letting on that he is homebound. Then again, Charlene had not mentioned Kel in her letters, either.
Thus begins the action of this affecting novel, in which two fatherless boys find each other through the same woman. Arthur and Kel are genuine and believable characters. Arthur is quirky, intelligent, and both honest with himself and funny about his situation; Kel is more thoughtful and sensitive than those around him take him to be. As they chart their parallel paths, Charlene draws them in each other’s direction.
Charlene is the driving force of the narrative even though she is not given her own voice. We see her only through the prism of the two men to whom she is the most important person in the world. As the story moves on, the prism shifts, and Charlene changes. It’s an effective lesson about how well we know other people.
My one complaint about the novel is one of style. In Arthur’s chapters, the ampersand is used instead of the word “and,” which I found to be an unnecessary distraction. Aside from that quibble, however, Heft is a lovely read, replete with very human characters, a compelling plot, and a generous dose of optimism.