A Review of A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti
Sometimes, as a kid, I asked my dad for advice. Should I pick path A or B?
He usually said this cryptic line: “Life is full of choices.”
I used to think, What the hell does that mean? Thanks a lot, old man.
Now I realize it was a gift. He forced me to focus on the question, not the answer. A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti is like that. His book raises tough questions from the point of view of the three main characters: Levi, Nick, and Eris. Once you understand how the narration jumps back and forth in time, all you care about is the three characters. You feel the difficulty these young people have reintegrating into “normal life” after their turn at the Forever Wars.
Two parts of the book struck me. The book hinges on a combat scenario that involves Levi and Nick. Levi reaches a certain mental state after that fight:
He slept little and ate less, but he soldiered on. In the meantime, he allowed himself no respite from the work of keeping his squad alive. No longer did he think of himself. No longer did he allow his ego or romanticism or grand ideas to keep him from performing in the way he knew he should. He stopped thinking about the merits of the war. If war was bad, it didn’t change his mission to keep his brothers alive. If war was good, it was only because it taught you how to survive; it taught you how to endure; it taught you how to wait; it taught you how to abide.
Later in the book, Nick, drunk and frustrated with his friend yells this at Levi:
You can’t change anything, Levi. I can’t change anything. The past is done. It’s over.
I read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes last year. Like its namesake mountain, it’s a towering novel that takes place in Vietnam. The two passages with Levi and Nick are about how the character deals with the horror of their circumstances and the merciless way that the arrow of time only goes in one direction. Hefti’s characters reminded me of one paragraph that Marlantes wrote in Matterhorn when the protagonist Mellas deals with the same topics:
He hid behind a blasted stump and he tried to think about meaning. He knew that there could be no meaning to someone who was dead. Meaning came out of living. Meaning could come only from his choices and actions. Meaning was made, not discovered. He saw that he alone could make Hawke’s death meaningful by choosing what Hawke had chosen, the company. The things he’d wanted before—power, prestige—now seemed empty, and their pursuit endless. What he did and thought in the present would give him the answer, so he would not look for answers in the past or future. Painful events would always be painful. The dead are dead forever.
Characters in both novels arrive at the solution to focus on the choices they make in the present. Characters in both novels acknowledge the fact that the past is cemented and permanent. Cannot be undone. Hefti does a good job addressing fate and luck in the book, too, which is part of that unforgiving arrow of time. You can’t go back and change fate.
Marlantes wrote a single punch to my gut. Hefti’s book was a series of jabs and hooks, but cumulatively powerful at the end of the fight. A Hard and Heavy Thing includes a Readers’ Group Guide at the back of the book. It’s a series of questions. There are no answers in the guide. You have to figure it out for yourself.