Like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing is a novel written by a man up-against-time to one beloved person.
In this case, that man is not a pastor in his seventies but a twenty-something war veteran named Levi Hartwig, home after a tour to Iraq that had tragic consequences for both himself and the intended recipient of his novel, his childhood-best-friend-turned-battle-buddy Nick.
Levi and Nick are opposites of a sort, but they go way back, and to these small-town Wisconsin boys that means everything. Nick’s the “good one,” or so Levi’s always thought. Levi’s nearly in awe of Nick’s patience, his spiritual inclination, his work ethic. He himself is sarcastic, a little drifting, darker of thought; he’s always aspired to Nick’s brand of goodness though he knows he’ll never get there. As for Nick, he benefits from Levi’s pragmatism, his reality checks, and the occasional punch in the face.
Levi joined the service in part because he could not imagine life without Nick in it. It’s quite a length to go to: the kid’s spent his young life hanging around, making wisecracks, smoking a bowl, and yet he is willing to join the Army, go to Basic Training, and ship out to Iraq to stay with his friend.
And, oh yeah — he’s always been in love with Nick’s girl.
Their last deployment to Iraq was disastrous. A flippant prank by Levi may have set into motion a string of events that ends with Nick badly burned and maimed in an IED blast. Nick thinks he owes his life to Levi, who pulls him from the wreckage; Levi knows, or thinks he knows, better. Both men are carrying a burden of guilt and indebtedness that could be eased if only they could really explain themselves to one another. Nick’s preoccupied with running the family business and trying to keep his marriage afloat, but Levi, unemployed and desperate, makes one breakneck, last-ditch effort to salvage his relationship with his friend and, through that, no less than his own life.
Hence, the novel that he’s writing Nick.
There is a poignancy and an urgency to the epistolary novel form that is hard to replicate in any other. It’s slightly voyeuristic, like reading something you find in someone else’s desk drawer. And yet, as Robinson does in Gilead, Hefti is able to take a small, intimate idea–a man’s desire to explain himself, to indelibly connect–and use it to explore large spiritual and philosophical themes.
One thing Hefti does remarkably well is channel these themes through Levi’s young, working-class, twenty-something consciousness. I felt like I could see Levi clear as day: nervous, needy, thoughtful, witty, lazy, navel-gazing. He is, in a reductionist view, a slightly self-obsessed millennial not equipped to have the weight of the world thrown on his shoulders, but f*ck, it’s sitting there now, and what is he supposed to do? If only he can reach Nick the way he wants to, he seems to think, can there be any hope that he’ll be healed.
You’ll never let me go, will you? Giving me the space and freedom I want isn’t your idea of love, is it? You’d rather cut me deep on earth to spare me pain in hell, whereas I think hell is right here.
Nick would be perfectly willing to talk things through with Levi–he was made for that sort of thing, in fact–but Levi’s got another secret that’s keeping him from talking, and it involves the way he was discharged from the service. So when he does come home to Wisconsin and finds himself living in Nick’s basement, the burden of his stormy, turbulent psyche extends to Nick’s young wife Eris. She’s the very same attractive, damaged, intelligent woman who has been the object of Levi’s lifelong burning desire, but–always less decisive, less successful than Nick– he could never bring himself to express his real feelings for her.
Can Levi recover from his recent past without completely alienating himself from one or both of his only true friends? If he gets this novel he’s pouring out to Nick fast enough, can he escape with his life?
He wished someone would have tried harder to talk him out of all this.
All those young men…carried the world, and it was heavy, and they didn’t know what to do with it. Was this the rest? Was this the war? Things had already spun out of control and they weren’t always as black and white or right and wrong as Nick liked to think.
All this is what it means to regret.
Regret is the organizing theme of A Hard and Heavy Thing. Part of this regret is the wide-eyed awfulness of young people confronted with mortality. How wonderful to be young and free in America, right?, to not have to think of death; how horrible to be young and have to think of it every day:
He didn’t think about….how before he saw the bullet-hole in Bryan’s neck just south of Sperwan Ghar, he saw the shock in his eyes–the wide and vacant stare that accompanied the complete and immediate occlusion of his airway, which was born from shock and not pain. The shock was born from Bryan’s realization that things like this really did happen to you and not the other guy, and this is exactly what it feels like.
Nick, burned and disfigured and fumbling through a failing marriage, is the other guy. Levi, sleepless and sick with regret, is the other guy.
A tiny percentage of our young Americans are the other guy, and that’s our own hard and heavy thing.
Hefti, Matthew. A Hard and Heavy Thing. Tyrus Books, 2015.
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