By: Sunil Yapa
Length: 320 pages
Publisher: Lee Boudreaux Books (January 12, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
Sunil Yapa, the author of this debut novel, studied under both Peter Carey and Colum McCann, and it’s hard not to see the effects of a first rate MFA education. The Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist employs all the conventions of contemporary literature — multiple points of view, exquisite descriptions, extensive use of setting to show character, little in the way of plot but much in the way of digression — but it explodes the aura of cynical, somewhat lifeless reserve that so often accompanies student fiction. It is, instead, a work of tremendous, almost breathless, immediacy, or, as McCann puts, “it’s a literary Molotov cocktail.”
The book takes place in Seattle on a single day in 1999 when the World Trade Organization came to town to hold its Ministerial Conference. Massive street protests ensued, with protesters targeting the intersections near the conference center where the delegates planned to meet. As a result of the protests, the conference was postponed until the next day, more than a 150 people were arrested without probable cause, police overtime and vandalism of nearby buildings cost the city millions of dollars, and the term “anti-globalization” became part of the public dialogue. However, despite the impact of the protests and the complexity of the political and economic issues, The Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist begins and ends with Victor, a young street person who gets caught up in the demonstrations while trying to sell some weed.
Yapa is concerned with emotions, passionate ones, rather than ideology, and with Victor, he gives us a portrait of a young man who leaps at the chance to belong to a movement. Victor longs to be one with the poor and dispossessed of the earth. As a child, he had helped his mother volunteer in a soup line, and as an adult he remembers, “the way the men were grateful for the hot food yet accepted it only as one might pass a plate down a family table. God bless the beautiful necessities of food and flesh. . . .When that is taken from you, there can be no giving it back.”
Although Victor comes from a middle class background — in fact, he is the bitterly estranged son of the police chief — his great desire to identify with the poor is no affectation. It is love, painful, intense, and almost entirely fruitless. It is also something his father had warned him against. “Son, have you ever asked yourself why Buddhist monasteries are built in remote mountains with walls thirty feet high? Love and compassion for the entire world, six billion selfish souls, Victor. Are you man enough?”
In a lesser author’s hands, the father son clash, which is central to the novel, would quickly become a trite struggle between two cliches; ignorant but idealistic youth against wiser but sadder middle age. Instead Victor and his father are both men who have an inchoate image of the world they want, a need to reconcile with each other, and little else but anger or fear. They struggle blindly in figurative and sometimes literal darkness. When Victor’s father learns that Victor has returned to Seattle, he has a patrolman take him to the homeless camp beneath a bridge where Victor lives. He is frightened and appalled by what he sees.
The blue tarps hung with clothesline, the crappy tents huddled in the grit with the trucks a constant pounding overhead like a galloping migraine. The cars green-bodied flies that whirred and buzzed above their heads. The concrete hollows lit by firelight and the blue hissing of the cookstoves. The low murmur of voices which disappeared beneath the sound of the nearby waves smashing against the seawall. He was frightened, and of course he said nothing, did not show this, how he was suddenly frightened of the dark, this dark, frightened by what might be out there and frighted by the depth of the world and all he did not know. His son lived down here?
Victor, in self-imposed “lock down” with his new friends, is so frightened that he can’t even bring himself to steady his nerves with chanting. The other protesters struggle with their own fear and with their memories of past failures, and the police, who react with startling brutality, are haunted by a different set of nightmares. This is how one officer remembers his own father, who had been kept in a hole when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
His voice stretched thin as if traveling a wire which originated from the dampness of that dark hole and terminated somewhere in his trembling brain stem. Gooks, his voice so tortured and weird. Weird — that was the word because in moments like this it was as if his father were not his father, but would always remain that man alone in a hole looking for a bug to eat.
The intensity of this book can make the reader feel like he’s down in a hole of some sort with these characters, and Yapa wisely gives us Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, the disciplined and persevering delegate from Sri Lanka. Wickramsinghe, who is on a mission to keeping his country from “starving on the doorsteps” of the first world nation, has worked relentlessly to get Sri Lanka into the WTO that the protesters are trying to disband. He is less than pleased when he finds a mob of young Americans blocking him from the meeting.
This is what made it so American — not that they felt compassion for mistreated workers three continents away, workers they had never seen or known, whose world they could not begin to understand, not that they felt guilty about their privilege, no, not that either, but that they felt the need to do something about it. That they felt they had the power to do something about it. That was what made it so American.
He felt a sudden, queasy sadness. What if they knew what a real revolutionary was?
Well, they don’t know. Not even Dr. Wickramsinghe, with all his experience and intelligence really understands his place in the world. Still, everybody in this book wants something, wants passionately to do the right thing, to be a helper in a troubled world, to stop feeling afraid. They keep trying; the book ends with a powerful vision of love. It’s a deeply moving work.