Thursday, January 14, 2016

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

On November 30, 1999, officials from 125 countries convened in Seattle for the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference, several days of meetings intended as the launch of new multilateral trade negotiations. Intent on thwarting their efforts were more than 35,000 protesters—“masked anarchists” according to initial news reports—who marched through the downtown area, condemning the free trade rules as harmful to both the environment and animal welfare.  Unrest quickly ensued. And the severely outnumbered police force, at the behest of its chief, responded with callous and aggressive tactics in an attempt to force the protesters to accede. Seattle police officers fired rubber bullets and concussion bombs at the protesters, clouded the streets with tear gas, and made arrests in the hundreds.

This is the tableau for Sunil Yapa’s masterful debut novel, “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist.” The stark yellow cover features a mélange of blurbs from literary heavyweights, and their bolded proclamations, as lofty as many of them are, only give a hint at the fierce power of Yapa’s tale. He is indeed a “raw and rare talent.” The novel is surely “acutely hopeful” and “forcefully alive” and “wrenching, beautiful” and “visceral, horrifying, and often heroic.” You get the picture. Yet, again, Yapa’s prose is so poetic, so deeply wrought, so rooted in honesty, to attempt to sort through its many sterling qualities with just a few words of praise is, I’m afraid, a losing proposition.

The winning title alone makes Yapa’s debut worth a look. Closer inspection, happily, reveals an artist with a full complement of brushes at hand—brushes with differing purposes and specific textures. Setting is rendered with tender strokes. The failing of many writers is including too many details that blur a reader’s visual acuity of the story. When Yapa writes, “For five hours now the tear gas had been falling. The streets swarmed with smoke…” he includes just enough detail to place you, dear reader, there on the streets of Seattle during this harrowing event.

What of character?

Here Yapa provides several close range camera angles. There is Victor, an intentionally homeless teenager who happens upon the protest in hopes of selling as much weed as possible. There is his estranged father, Bishop, who as police chief is charged with easing the growing strife. There are two diehard protesters, King and John Henry, struggling to uphold their nonviolent perspective. There are two very different police officers, Ju and Park, with their boots firmly planted on the street, in the thick of the mess. And there is Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, a financial minister from Sri Lanka, and a man determined enough to walk through a rain of rubber bullets and clouds of deadly chemicals in order to change his country’s economic fate. These characters are fully realized, with tangled histories and kaleidoscopic perspectives. They are at turns impulsive. And violent. And compassionate. And thoughtful. A gumbo of physiognomies that offers them no outlet other than a leaping vault from the page.

The tension between the police and the protesters is certainly the through line for this magnificent novel, but Yapa layers in enough personal conflicts and shifting character arcs to further season his delicious story. His ambitious novel also explores issues of race, love, and, perhaps most importantly, enduring hope in our desperately wicked world. When I pause to consider Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street this late-90s tale of Seattle in turmoil seems particularly relevant with the timbre of today. Upon further thought, perhaps this wonderful novel can be summed up with just a few words. I believe Colum McCann has it right when he deems this “a literary Molotov cocktail.”