Arthur Opp was once a plump college professor, but now he is a lonely recluse who weighs over 500 pounds. He has secreted himself away in his family's once fine Brooklyn home. The house, like Arthur, has seen better days. Arthur no longer leaves his house. He buys necessities and luxuries via his phone or online. Every day, a delivery person leaves something for him; delivery people are literally the only people he ever speaks to face to face. He keeps up a little charade with customer service folks, hinting that he has a busy life that leaves him no time to go out and shop for his needs. Arthur's mother is deceased, and he is estranged from his father and half-brother. His best friend has also died, leaving him friendless, except for one person.
"HEFT is both a lyrically written tale and an engrossing page-turner.... Although not a light read, this tender tale is ultimately hopeful and unforgettable."
Nearly 20 years ago, Arthur had a tentative, not-quite-romantic connection with a beguiling young woman who had been one of his students. Although he hasn't seen Charlene Turner in those two decades, they have developed a pen pal relationship. Although Charlene has not responded to Arthur's letter in a year, she suddenly calls him. Hearing the phone ring shocks Arthur, and he is so delighted when he hears Charlene's voice that he has to clap his hand over his mouth in order to squelch a cry of joy. Arthur has always imagined that they would meet one day and resume their relationship. Now, on the phone, he finds himself continuing the lies he relays to her in his correspondence, elaborating on trips he has never taken, visits with people he has no relationship with, and hobbies he's never had, making it sound like he lives a full life instead of his empty existence.
When Arthur lets it slip that he no longer teaches, Charlene says, "Oh, no," so he obligingly tells her that he tutors instead, although that is yet another falsehood. Charlene becomes enthused at this news and says she's sending him a letter, and that he must watch for it. Before he can ask what the letter will contain, she has hung up, leaving him to contemplate the way she sounded --- rather strange, remote, filled with regret, and slow. In fact, he can't help wondering if Charlene was drunk, even though it is only two in the afternoon.
Arthur pulls out his cherished packet containing every letter Charlene has written to him, allowing himself the rare luxury of reading every word. Then he writes her a long letter, telling her the truth about his life, an impassioned unveiling of all the secrets that have weighed upon him for these many years. He lays bare the facts about his obesity, his lies about having friends, and the fact that he hasn't been out of his house since September 11, 2001, when he forced himself to walk a few blocks to prove to himself that the world was still there beyond his front stoop. Then, berating himself as a coward, he can't bring himself to mail this intimate letter.
Charlene's phone call unleashes a strong yearning in Arthur. He remembers their friendship in great detail. Days later, when the envelope arrives from her, he is mystified by the contents. There is no letter. Instead there is a small photograph of a teenage boy holding a baseball bat. On the back, Charlene has written "My Son Kel." How can this be? If Charlene has a son, she certainly hasn't told Arthur about him. And what does it mean, that she should send him this boy's picture?
HEFT is both a lyrically written tale and an engrossing page-turner. In Arthur Opp, author Liz Moore gives us a complete, three-dimensional person rather than the media's stereotypical obese recluse; Arthur is quite heartbreakingly real, as is young Kel Keller, who we also grow to know. Their stories, simply told without soap opera-ish flourishes, tug at a reader's emotions. Although not a light read, this tender tale is ultimately hopeful and unforgettable.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on February 2, 2012