Book review: Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

Debut novel is well-researched, emotional and sometimes sentimental with a hint of Walt Whitman

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 January, 2016, 11:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 January, 2016, 11:19am

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

by Sunil Yapa

Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown

Marion Winik

This debut novel follows seven characters through the violent 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle. There is a 19-year-old biracial dope dealer named Victor who lives under a bridge, having run away from home three years previously. There is his father, a white man named Bishop, the city’s chief of police. There are two members of Bishop’s force: a “walking landmine” of a guy named Park and his female partner, born in Guatemala, called Ju. There is the delegate from Sri Lanka, Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, and there are two veteran protesters, Katherine and John Henry.

How much you will like this book can be gauged in part by your reaction to Yapa’s pumped-up, Whitmanesque language, which will either electrify you as intended or present a shade of purple you can live without. Take this passage from the second chapter: “John Henry, who had lost his church, look with him at his people … Look at how they come from the darkness of their homes, backs stiff, stretching and tying bandannas tight, checking one another’s faces for an idea of what violence this day might bring. Look with him at these wet American faces, ordinary and beautiful, and tell me you don’t feel more than a little bit afraid … . They wanted to tear down the borders, to make a leap into a kind of love that would be like living inside a new human skin, wanted to dream themselves into a life they did not know … . shuddered and thought, God help us. We are mad with hope. Here we come.”

You will also have to tolerate a lot of narrative jerking around as short chapters switch among the perspectives of the seven characters, dealing out complicated back stories, intercutting flashbacks to traumas and conflicts in each one’s past. Ju, for example, was involved in the Rodney King riots; Katherine ran into serious trouble on the Mexican border; Bishop and Victor got into a row following the boy’s mother’s death, resulting in Bishop burning all her books and Victor taking off around the world.

What’s best about this book, particularly in the current moment of tension between citizens and police, is its well-researched depiction of the attitudes and tactics of both sides. The bandannas mentioned above, for example, are soaked in vinegar to mitigate the effects of tear gas. It doesn’t help much. “Victor’s eyes exploded. His whole face attacked by a wall of heat … His eyes like hot coals in the cave of his sockets. He wanted to tear them out. He couldn’t see … . his throat was a wall of flame, no sound but the animal body crying out its pain.”

After watching the cops torture a non-compliant woman by applying pepper spray under her eyelids, up her nose and on her lips with Q-tips, Victor is shot with a rubber bullet and kicked and beaten almost to death. Non-violence is a losing game, but the protesters have tactics, too – they chain themselves into human blockades by threading their arms into PVC pipe, they lock themselves to police precinct doors, they chant. “Look at the cops, Victor. They hate the chanting. Look at them squirming. You think they fidget like that in their squad cars? It’s how we hold our fear in our mouths and transform it into gold,” explains John Henry. And the demonstrators do manage, at least temporarily, to shut down the meeting.

One real-life manoeuvre of the protesters that doesn’t appear in the novel was a more lighthearted one, nearly a prank: they altered thousands of copies of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrapping them with a fake front page announcing Boeing’s plans to move its operation to Indonesia and Clinton’s pledge to help the poorest nations. A touch of humour would have been a welcome antidote to the clobbering emotion and occasional sentimentality announced even by Yapa’s title.

Tribune News Service