Your Heart Is a Mus­cle the Size of a Fist

by Su­nil Yapa, Lee Boudreaux Books/Lit­tle, Brown and Com­pany, 320 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Bill Kohlhaase

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.

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