A blood-and-guts red background and heavy hand lettering adorn the cover of A Hard and Heavy Thing, Matthew J. Hefti’s first novel. The cover text is askew, tilting downward, and the word WAR is picked out in white, as if in surrender. That one word, war, smacks you in the eye and smarts like the pebble that catalyzes a terrible day outside the wire on Main Supply Route Tampa near Ad Dujayl, Iraq. The dramatic cover art augurs a novel that explores tragedy and the actions of a tragic hero. Despite being awarded the Silver Star for Gallantry, the protagonist, Levi James Hartwig, is consumed with guilt about his actions on that day.
After nearly a decade in combat zones, Levi returns to his hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Years after the ambush that left three soldiers dead and his best friend Nick disfigured, Levi is lost. Unable to reconnect with civilian life, and probably suffering from PTSD, he spurns all offers of help and rejects everyone who cares about him. Before he ends it all, Levi decides that he’s ready to write down “everything” for Nick. Once Levi finishes writing, he plans to “embrace the end on his own terms.” The Adumbration, though, tells us, “It’s Not a Suicide Note, It’s a Love Song.”
True to its title, this book is heavy going. There are wartime atrocities, and there are all kinds of losses, and you can feel the weight of Levi’s despair, but there is also redemption and hope. You get an acute sense of how soldiers experience the horrors of war and of the ripple effect on family, friends, and lovers. Hefti’s success is all the more remarkable because the characters in his novel are distinctly unlikable.
Like both of his main characters, Levi and Nick, Matthew Hefti grew up in Wisconsin and joined the Armed Forces after the 9/11 attacks. Although Levi is an Army NCO and Matthew was an Air Force NCO, they share Biblical first names and surnames of German origin. A character named Matthew Hefti makes a brief appearance in the novel as a young Air Force engineer, and there are other parallels between the author and the main character. A decorated veteran, Hefti spent twelve years as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, completing four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He earned a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing while enlisted. Levi, too, aims to be a writer: “All Levi ever wanted was to be a writer.” Levi’s pain, angst, and writerly explorations are palpably real, based as they are on Hefti’s own experiences behind the keyboard and outside the wire.
Sprinkled with bracketed asides to Nick, Levi’s brotherly love for his friend is beautifully expressed throughout the story. This sort of metafiction device could easily be distracting or annoying, but Hefti uses it to reveal an emotional bond that is rarely expressed between men in civilian life, what the Greeks call agape. The sense of intimacy in these asides highlights Levi’s pain and suffering, making his story even more heart-wrenching.
Divided into an adumbration, three books, an intermission, and a coda, the novel evokes a Greek tragedy, complete with a hero and a chorus. The protagonist, or hero, in a Greek tragedy must experience a calamity and a downfall, usually due to his own hubris. As Levi’s father puts it, “…you’re smart and you’re charismatic… But you’re also selfish, arrogant and prideful.” Levi represents the hero and the two priests, Nick’s Uncle Thomas and the Reverend Bartles, who admonish and counsel the characters, represent the chorus.
The impression of a Greek tragedy is heightened by the novel’s explorations of epic and universal themes: honor, morality, love, friendship, cowardice, courage, redemption, and the layers of symbolism represented by the title. The title might symbolize the stone that Levi drops between his friend’s shoulder blades, causing Nick to lose focus during that disastrous mission. Or, the title could represent the petrified stone of a returning soldier’s heart, or the guilt that Levi carries about his role in Nick’s injury, or about his job as a soldier — all hard and heavy things. There is even a character named Eris, who is true to her namesake, the Greek goddess of strife, discord, and rivalry. Eris is instrumental in the Judgment of Paris, an incident that led to the abduction of Helen of Troy and the Trojan War. In the novel, Eris is the beautiful but troubled love interest of Levi and Nick.
In Greek tragedy, a calamity could result in the hero’s death, or it could be followed by a catharsis that leads to redemption. The book itself is the personification of redemption; writing it is what saves Levi. After typing his final word, Levi exits his apartment, lost in his own thoughts and ready to meet his end. It’s July 4th and his hometown is buzzing with crowds of revelers. As if the Fates had decreed it, Levi encounters Nick and is swept into an event reminiscent of the exit processional of a Greek play. Æschylus, the father of tragedy, would have been pleased.