Paperback review: Heft, By Liz Moore

He's big and round, in a good way

In fiction, fat tends to be a flaw. Overweight characters are traditionally depicted as buffoons, such as Sancho Panza, or victims, like Piggy in Lord of the Flies. Arthur Opp, the obese protagonist of Liz Moore's novel Heft, is neither of those things. He is rotund ("I feel sort of encased in something, as if I were a cello or an expensive gun"), but also "round" in E M Forster's sense of the word, a complex protagonist who develops convincingly and surprises us along the way.

A retired academic, Arthur leads a reclusive existence in an elegant Brooklyn brownstone house, spending his days cooking vast, indulgent meals that he enjoys alone. His loneliness is alleviated by an occasional correspondence with Charlene, a former student with whom he had a brief affair, and when her letters stop arriving he worries for her safety. Meanwhile Charlene's son, Kel, a promising athlete, prepares for a trial with a major league baseball team, until a tragic turn of events leads him to a self-destructive bout of drinking and violence.

Moore alternates between Arthur and Kel as their stories gradually converge. Though I found Kel's tale – the poor kid in a rich school, redeemed by his sporting prowess – a little clichéd, Arthur is a fine creation, his coy, tentative narration slowly yielding clues to his relationship with his father, a famous architect whose favoured minimalist style reflects an emotional coldness. The result is moving but never maudlin, and the conclusion is refreshingly open-ended.