Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist
by Sunil Yapa, Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown and Company, 320 pages
The tear-gas-draped protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle provide a rich backdrop for fiction. The disparate factions — nonviolent economic protestors, labor and environmental interests, anarchists, cops, city officials, and delegates — allow for an array of personalities and subplots. Ethical questions of all sorts are built in. Richard Townsend’s 2007 film Battle in Seattle, in which Woody Harrelson plays a cop who beats an activist in a church only to have his pregnant wife, caught up in the turmoil on her way home from work, clubbed by a fellow policeman, played on the cruel twists of justice that come of chaos. Sunil Yapa’s debut novel — its title lifted from a woodcut poster slogan then popular with the anti-globalization set — employs a number of voices to paint an almost surreal picture of turmoil and coincidence.
The book looks to equate social justice with personal redemption. Victor, the story’s prodigal son, is homeless in his hometown, living in a tent under a freeway overpass. The nineteen-year-old has bummed around the world in the three years since his mother’s death. Desensitized by a harsh father, he’s been radicalized by what he’s seen in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru, India, and Shanghai. Though he’s heard word of the coming demonstrations, his intent is elsewhere, focused on raising the money to again escape Seattle. He’s surprised one morning by the thousands of gathering protestors, and with a backpack full of weed to sell, all he sees are customers.
Victor’s estranged father just happens to be Seattle’s police chief. Chief Bishop i s detached from the demands coming from the mayor and other higherups, and deaf to the pleas of his fellow officers. He’s thinking about Victor’s mother, his late wife, Suzanne, and how he’d like to strangle his son for sending infrequent postcards during his years missing. Other perspectives come from John Henry, an activist and
former preacher, who sees the protestors as the “new American religion ... the longing of the heart to embrace a stranger and be unashamed.” His ally is King, a twenty-seven-year-old woman with dreadlocks who is well experienced in the tactics of nonviolence. She intervenes when a mounted policeman with a badly scarred face gets ahold of Victor and his bag. The officer, Timothy Park, has a short fuse. He wants the sweet-talking King to step away from his horse. In this most coincidental moment, Chief Bishop steps up to take the reins. As he takes Park’s mount and sends him to the back lines, Bishop barely notices t he young guy with two braids and a red bandanna who leaves his backpack with King and escapes into t he crowd. King later drafts Victor to join a circle of protestors chained to one another in the middle of a cr it ic al intersection. This act of courage and its violent consequences assure t hat he will see his father again.
Other perspectives come from Ju, a police of f i cer and veteran of t he Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, who finds Park “kind of cute,” if not for the scar. An interlude from this narrative rotation comes in the form of Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, a delegate from Sri Lanka desperate to make his way through the hubbub to the hotel where he is scheduled to present his country’s entreaties to join the WTO to President Clinton. The way is blocked by human chains, angry cops, and tear gas.
Each character is looking for some kind of salvation. King carries a past with yet-to-be-paid consequences. John Henry, his optimism tempered by experience and a history of getting his ribs broken at demonstrations, feels the hope coming off the crowd. Park wants to project authority. Bishop recalls when his son first ran away from home, sporting a dislocated shoulder and tell-tale bruising. Dr. Wickramsinghe is convinced that Clinton, once he hears of Sri Lanka’s predicament, will accede to his wishes. All seem equal parts heart and muscle.
Your Heart Is a Muscle is also about political conviction and the experience and psychology that motivates it. Yapa is adept at describing the battle scenes as protestors seek to shut down intersections and police try to clear them. His charting of escalation contains both predictable and unpredictable elements, and his descriptions of chaos occur both in and outside one’s head. You may never need wonder what tear gas or pepper spray does to the eyes or the mind after reading Yapa’s long, painful hallucinogenic passages. Much of what happens borders on fantasy, and even the gas clouds swirl as if by their own design. Is it possible that Victor has kept his Air Jordans, a gift from his father before Victor ran away at sixteen, spotless even as he traveled the world? Or is it magic?
Yapa sometimes overwrites as he thinks for his characters. Clichés can be followed by glorious insight. “No, revolution was not glamorous. Revolution was a sacrifice. A desperation. The last insane leap to some future where you might have the room to breathe.” Yapa’s message, set against a tumultuous background, is that life requires insane leaps — to repair what you have damaged, to progress from where you happen to find yourself — even in a riot.