Wednesday, February 10, 2016


We carry the world. They did. All those young men did. They 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 as right or wrong as Nick liked to think.

I know nothing about war. Sure, I've read plenty of fiction and non-fiction pieces about war. Still, I know nothing about war. Those who have been through it often don't have the ability or the inclination to write about what it is to be at or return from war. To our benefit, Matthew Hefti has both.

I can't tell you whether Hefti's A Hard and Heavy Thing is realistic. But I'd place a hefty (heh, see what I did there?) wager on it. Without being theatrically graphic or glorifying, Hefti has a true gift for placing the reader in a scene without over-writing or getting mired in the details. It is no easy task to write a compelling long-action scene, war-based or otherwise, and he does it masterfully.

That being said, A Hard and Heavy Thing is not simply a book about war. It's about friendship, loyalty, failure, guilt, faith, regret, love (and a million other things), and how the weight of the world (and the weight of the world of war) bears on them. Boiled down, the plot revolves around young men going to and returning from war. For me, the book, written in epistolary form, is a love letter from one man to another in three distinct yet interrelated parts:

Act I. Home. "Dear Nick, Let's Be Honest; We Were Broken Before the War Even Started." Setting: Small-town Wisconsin. Nick and Levi, childhood friends yet opposites; Nick the spiritual "good one," Levi the doubting sarcastic. And Eris, the girl who completes the wobbly triangle.

Dissatisfied and hemmed in, restless and claustrophobic, turning more and more to drugs, it is no surprise that, like many young men, Nick and Levi enlist after the towers fall on 9/11, taking their broken selves to war. To, as Levi writes, "become part of the problem."

And so, they signed away their lives in a fit of youth. Long before they bled for each other, before they bled because of each other, they bled with each other for an America that, to them, on that day, was worth every drop...They joined in a fit of idealism and naivete. They joined in a fit of patriotism and zeal. They joined in a bout of underage drinking and hands covered in blood, in a fit of juvenescent exuberance with no intentions of ever looking back.

Act II. War. "This is Going to Hurt." And hurt it does, in so many ways. Nick and Levi are serving together, their unit out on patrol, Levi given a leadership role for the first time. The smallest of pranks, as small as a pebble that ends up weighing a million pounds, sets the stage for tragedy. As I mentioned above, this is a section beautifully done.

After Levi saw his best friend's Humvee disappear into a cloud of fire, dust, and gravel, both time and sound stopped, which left Tom Hooper flying through the air, suspended against a backdrop of smoke and flames, weightless and serene. His unbloused DCU-patterned pants were rumpled by the wind, his limbs were spread against the sky, one foot bootless but still covered by a green sock. Levi stared in wonder at his friend, who was not flying, but was simply the subject of a photograph, oblivious to his surroundings, or to gravity.

Act III. Home (?) again. "The Strongest Voices Often Go Unheard." It is difficult to describe my reaction to the third act, the nitty gritty of it all. It seems odd (and feels wrong) to say, but in many ways this section was the most difficult reading. Crazy, right? How can the violence of war be "easier" to read than the return home? And yet, it was.

This is owed to the intimacy and depth of Hefti's writing. I felt physically uncomfortable reading it. Drawn into it yet helpless to bridge the distance between Levi and Nick, frustrated as they circle each other like tightly wound clocks, continually failing to bridge the distance of the different burdens they carry. I cringed at many of the interactions taking place: between Levi and Nick, Nick and Eris, Levi and Eris, Levi and his family. I just wanted to make it all stop. I didn't like the feeling at all. I loved that Hefti's words made me feel that way.

A Hard and Heavy Thing started as a slow burn for me. I wasn't sure I would buy into the characters. Some of the time jumps were a bit jarring. The first act drew me in a bit, but I wasn't hooked to the barb until the second act when I bought all in. Then the third blew my doors off and still has me ruminating on all of the different elements carried through from the first act to the final, the spiritual and philosophical themes, the difficulty of it all. All growing out of one damn pebble. It's a really stellar work that I encourage you to read.

STREET SENSE:  The epistolary format of A Hard and Heavy Thing set it apart for me in the world of novels dealing with war. It felt utterly real and intimate, very voyeuristic, and Levi's head is a difficult place to spend time. That squirming discomfort makes the reader, at least this reader, contemplate issues she/he perhaps hasn't before when it comes to soldiers returning home. That alone should be recommendation enough.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: So many, I squoze a few in above even though this review felt way too long. But here is yet another that I loved:

Most people don't realize how things can get serious so quickly. One second you're face down on your carpet listening to bad guitar-playing, and the next second there's a dying girl in your bathtub. One second you're playing with your best friend and his GI Joes under the pool table, and the next second Oma is pulling you off the barroom floor trying to explain that the crash was really bad and you have to leave right now, right this second, and then all you can do is stand next to your newly orphaned best friend as two caskets get lowered into the ground. Or, you're cruising along in your super-cool-guy Humvee thinking about chicks or cheese curds, and your best friend's truck disappears into a Hollywood ball of smoke and flame. The next thing you know, you're covered in blood and you're tossing around the severed limbs of your friends.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This cover is slyly genius. If you haven't really looked, do so, particularly the interplay of the font colors. That alone wins it an A in my book, but even absent that brilliant flair, the colors and fonts would have caught my eye. Well done.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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