A Finalist for the PEN/ Faulkner Award
n Amazon Best Book of the Year
A Washington Post Notable Book
A Barnes & Noble Discover Pick
One of Bustle's "Most Important Books of 2016"
Named Most Anticipated Book of the Year in Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, TIME, Huffington Post, The Chicago Tribune, BuzzFeed, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Orlando Sentinel, Ploughshares, Bustle, TheMillions, BookRiot, The Oregonian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, River City Reading, Indigo
Grief-stricken after his mother's death and three years of wandering the world, Victor is longing for a family and a sense of purpose. He believes he's found both when he returns home to Seattle only to be swept up in a massive protest. With young, biracial Victor o one side of the barricades and his estranged father--the white chief of police--on the opposite, the day descends into chaos, capturing in its confusion the activists, police, bystanders, and citizens from all around the world who'd arrived that day brimming with hope. By the day's end, they have all committed acts they never thought possible.
As heartbreaking as it is pulse-pounding, Yapa's virtuosic debut asks profound questions about the power of empathy in our hyper-connected modern world, and the limits of compassion, all while exploring how far we must go for family, for justice, and for love.
Release date: October 18, 2016
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 320
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Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist
The match struck and sputtered. Victor tried again. He put match head to phosphate strip with the gentle pressure of one long finger and the thing sparked and caught and for the briefest of moments he held a yellow flame. Victor—curled into himself like a question mark, a joint hanging from his mouth; Victor with his hair natural in two thick braids, a red bandanna folded and knotted to hold them back; Victor—with his dark eyes and his thin shoulders and his cafecito con leche skin, wearing a pair of classic Air Jordans, the leather so white it glowed—imagine him how you will because he hardly knew how to see himself. He was nineteen years old and should have felt as sweet as a bluebird in the dew, but in the awful damp of the early morning, after another night of sleeping on cold concrete—or not sleeping—he moved like an old man, grumbling like the world was out to get him, had in fact perhaps already gotten him, struck him down without mercy or care or intent as if it hadn’t even seen him standing there, he had just been in the way.
He knelt and made a cup of his two brown hands. Look at him bowing his head to this fragile light, joint pinched between his lips, wearing a puffy down jacket, olive green and so ragged he might have found it abandoned on the beach. Listen to the quiet rhythm of his breath. This is his morning ritual, the closest this boy comes to prayer. Skinny Victor, who believed in his heart of hearts that most everything was bullshit, for three years he had tramped the world and still he had no idea just how it worked, how people managed daily life on this blue-green planet of slums and smog, the easy knife, the lazy blade.
The traffic on the freeway thundered over his head, the sound of the big trucks hitting the joints of the highway a muted clacking like a pair of spoons. Beyond the cave of the underpass, beyond the water and the warehouses, out in the city where the streets climbed from the docks to the downtown core, the sound of the chanting crowd was a distant buzzing—fifty thousand desperate flies knocking against fifty thousand closed windows. Victor had heard talk of it for weeks. At the shelter. Bumming smokes from the tourists on the pier. At the coffee shop nursing a tea and swiping scraps from the empty plates. And now, here they were, thousands in the streets and the way their voices rose and fell, sliding down the hill, ringing off the renovated lofts, the brick apartments, the cars parked nose to tail along the oil-black street—it was like an alarm bell sounding in his chest. It was the million-voiced ocean roar of Calcutta or Caracas booming from their angry mouths, echoing in the canyons of smoked glass and steel.
An alarm ringing in his chest saying, Go, go, go.
He had been camped in a cheap tent beneath the underpass for three months now and he had put his mind to the matter, rolled it around in that big old brain, and he knew this much—he needed to get the fuck out.
Victor, he was onto some higher math.
The calculus of kind bud, the physics of dispersal, the geometry of escape.
He had more sticky, stinky, purple-haired marijuana on his person than ever before in his short life, and the glory of it, the mind-fucking enormity of the possibilities, had him whirling.
Because weed equaled cash and cash equaled a ticket on the airline of his choice to the destination of his choice. He was going to ignore how he scored the weed because escape velocity was the dope necessary to break free from the gravity of home’s heavy hold. Lord, let us fly. Yeah, get the feet moving at a pleasant cruising speed of five hundred miles per hour to some dark and lovely corner of the globe. Let pilot and copilot read the dials and mark the birds; Victor only wanted to recline his seat and watch the border recede below him like a line of marching ants following a trail of sugar to its source.
He lowered his head to the flame, mindful of his braids. But in the windiest spot he could have chosen, his hands proved an insufficient home. His little cardboard match, his little paper flame, she bent horizontal and made her exit, disappeared before she had done what work he required.
He gave up. Dropped joint and matchbook in the breast pocket of his down jacket and retired to his tent, where he ducked inside and gathered his sleeping bag in his arms and stuffed it into its sack. He rolled his mat and tied it with a length of cord. He sat on the roll of foam and slid off his shoes and removed an old toothbrush from the pocket of his jacket and began polishing the white leather, the brush kept strictly for this purpose. The shoes he hadn’t seen in years. A gift from his father, long ago. So long ago it seemed like another life. He had kept them boxed for years—preserved in the clean antiseptic air of an anger so large and old and familiar he had no name for it. His father.
In the morning when he woke and at night before turning in and during the odd windblown moments of the day when the boredom or regret or homesickness were so heavy he felt them like a knot in the pit of his stomach—he swept and tidied. He put things in their place. Joint in his pocket, braids behind his ears. Memory and longing a black gunpowder he tamped down the wide-bore barrel of his neck. Even here, living beneath an underpass with the rumbling traffic overhead and bits of metal, he didn’t know what, slivers of brake pad, oil-flecked grit, drifting down and settling in his hair, grinding between his teeth and covering his tent in a fine film of filth—even here, yes, he cleaned and swept.
Because that was what you did to keep the loneliness at bay, to keep at arm’s length the sense that you may have made a vital mistake somewhere, or perhaps it was your parents, or maybe it was just the world in general that had fucked everything up. Thoughts like these could not enter the swept half-moon he carved thrice daily in front of his tent. Thoughts like these had a certain regard for cleanliness, for industrious energy and purpose. Doing something, he had discovered, anything, however small, that contributed to your meaningfulness of self and surroundings—well, that was the trick. That was the trick to not feel like shit.
Victor heard his stomach growling and back behind him, where his camp sat in the gravel spread beneath the highway, the thick-throated rumble of the daily commute. Farther off, in the distance over the hill, that roar of voices faded and grew, came rolling through the slotted streets to rest in the salty air of the pier. It had a rhythm to it. Sounded like ocean swells crashing on a beach, volleys of cannon fire destroying some corporate citadel and, hearing that, man, he bent and laced his shoes, grinning like the devil.
His heart of hearts—it was a thing he sometimes imagined, when high, as a moon circling a lifeless planet; a satellite waiting transmission from the once bright surface where billions had lived and died, the history of their ruin written in twisted steel; ash drifting against the homes like a wet, blinding snow.
If he was being honest, or if he had been perhaps a little less tired, he could have said his heart was laced with anger, holey as Swiss cheese. His heart of hearts poisoned by a bitter, wounded hatred, a sickness of the soul. But he was too tired for that. Too tired to believe in any of that—the heart or the soul. Too tired to hate or care or rage, because how could you hate if you didn’t care, and he had cared too long already. He was burned out on it. He didn’t have a name for it—this feeling out beyond the orbit of the tiresome rage—and he didn’t have the time. His feet were growing restless. He’d already been here too long. Time to go; to go; to go.
He zipped his tent tight and dropped a little lock on the zip and then he was hoofing it up the hill in his white Jordans, his olive green jacket with the ruff-lined hood keeping him warm. Sludgy Seattle light painting the buildings around him gray-gold, reflecting bright off the broken windows of the warehouses to the east, the gray project towers to the north with laundry flapping on the balconies like flags of a tenement nation. But what was this? This street was dead. The shops shuttered, plywood boards nailed over their windows. He shook his head and bent and humped the pack up the hill.
By the time he turned the corner and hit the crowd he was sweating, and the sheer human multitude, the force of the compressed humanity, nearly knocked him over. There were people hollering from every corner, marching people of all shapes and sizes, all body types and hairdos, an assortment of clothing choices and fashion accessories to express their personalities, and goddamn, fuck the protests? No, no, no. His brown eyes blazed bright. God bless the protesters. How many were here? He didn’t know, but yeah, they were the revolutionary souls who were going to buy his weed. They were his ticket out. He did a little clap with the chant, nodding his head to catch the rhythm of the thing, and watched them spinning delirious in the street. Hippies in their Gore-Tex, punks in their sweaty denim, and holy crap, it seemed to Victor as he joined the surging crowd that they were popping out from every hole and door, waves of protesters sloshing in the streets, bright-eyed thousands appearing as if summoned. Pierced kids in army jackets squatting on a bench to pass a clove cigarette. Dreadlocked djinns dangling from the lampposts, cameras around their necks. And the entire motley crowd chanting, chanting and now singing, old and young, their voices raised to the cloudy sky as if song were the very root of being.
He didn’t know whether to stand or sit, to go streaking through the city with his hands on his head or to collapse in the street in openmouthed wonder. Because here they came, stomping into the dawn from their suburban warrens, from their gorgeous mansions that glittered fat on the Sound. Civil rights lawyers wearing combat boots. Radical teachers in sheepskin-lined jackets. He saw them come rising into the morning air, a chant on their lips:
WHAT DO WE WANT???
WHEN DO WE WANT IT???
What did that mean? Justice?
He looked at a blond girl in overalls, an African-type shawl looped atop her head. He looked at her angry blue eyes, her perfect white teeth, her gym-sculpted arm, naked to the cold, and he didn’t know what justice meant to her, to him, to anybody in this country. He saw them come rising from North Face tents gone swampy with sex; from the paint-splattered warehouse where they gathered to gossip and train; from the cellar of the church where they had sat in foldout chairs discussing what they knew of what they called the Third World and there was a look on their faces—all their sweet, round, high-fructose faces—that was hoping everything was more or less okay with the world, even though they knew it wasn’t, and Victor, looking at that look, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Because here came the defenders of democracy, riding the ferry in from the islands. Climbing down from the haze of an interstate bus. Crossing the bridge in their Subarus, their aging Toyotas, their cheap American rolling junk, and Victor, bestowed with the unenviable gift of geography and sight, saw their merino wool scarves twisted at the neck, their T-shirts and flannels and fleeces, their backpacks and jeans, and he thought of the factories he had seen along the border in Mexico, the lines of women waiting for work to begin, the razor-wire fences behind which the things of the world were made, the smoke curling into the sky like a pencil drawing of a drowned woman’s hair.
How do you protest this?
Three topless girls went by crying “Death to the police state,” their breasts bouncing in the cold air, duct tape across their nipples. Victor almost expected to see families lining the sidewalks, mothers and fathers set up in beach chairs and blankets, children hoisted onto shoulders, crying “Daddy, Daddy, here come the beasts.” It was a painted carnival for the end of days, and on an impulse, just the weird out-of-body feeling of it, Victor turned to the guy next to him, a hefty guy in a blue jacket, and said, “Hey, man. You need any weed?”
“Do I need any what?”
On closer inspection, the guy seemed to be a union man, the bulk and size of him, the rusty air of his moonscape face, one of the guys who worked down at the docks or something. His face folded like an old jacket.
“Any weed. You need any weed?”
The guy looked to see was Victor kidding. He was walking and holding hands with his union buddies, or whatever, a great long line of them, bowling league buddies holding hands, which Victor thought was kind of weird.
“Trust me,” Victor said more loudly. “It’s great shit.”
The guy looking at him like he might be contagious.
“Kid,” the big man said.
“Get the fuck out of here.”
Victor slid his bandanna from his forehead, shook his damp braids, and felt the stuffy weight of their bodies shuffling by, their signs, their hope, their smell, not entirely unpleasant, of incense and baked-in sweat, and he was remembering and living and thinking and dying more or less all at the same time. It was 1999 in America, he had traveled the world for three years, looking for what he didn’t know, and now here he found himself: absolutely allergic to belief, nineteen years old, and totally alone.
John Henry stood in the crowd inhaling them through every pore, perfectly at rest, perfectly at peace. My people. They smelled of onion and cigarette and sex, the human animal musk of sixty beautiful human bodies beneath their beautiful blue tarps and he raised his arms to the sky and breathed them deep. Around him they marched and they danced; they chanted and they sang. He felt their voices buzzing in his chest. People linking arms with strangers they had never met, hand in hand with people whose homes they had never seen, and he closed his eyes and felt the power of what they were doing coiling around him, some force inexorably gathering around them here at the edge of the millennium, one month from the end of the American century.
Look at him there, this forty-four-year-old man in a handwoven cowboy hat and chunky black Medicare glasses, his red beard long and wiry like some mountain monk’s. This was a man with the days stitched into his skin. This was a man you could imagine in a dream of the Himalaya, high above the clouds where the granite falls away like glass and you turn a corner and there he is, spinning a prayer wheel. Not from the Himalaya, but from Detroit, Michigan. Holy man of the Rust Belt. Sacrament of iron and steel; blessed be these assembly lines; blessed be these tired hands. Look at his pierced ears and his crooked teeth. Look at his eyes shining behind those busted-up glasses, the frames more duct tape than plastic, but the repairs neatly done. Check him there among the densely packed bodies, feeling the heat and the human smell of them, a humid funk to spark the morning air, and know that if there was one place in the great, glorious dying world he wanted to be, this was it.
John Henry had at one time been a churchman, a storefront preacher, and, inevitably it now seemed, he had lost the church, but not the need, and here he was in the middle of it all, heart a broken clockspring in his chest, leading a chant.
AIN’T NO POWER LIKE
THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE
AND THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE
Their voices together a roaring wave careening down the alleys, cascading off the cordon of metro buses parked around the convention center and up through air vents of the Sheraton, voices reaching for the delegates hiding in their rooms on the upper floors. John Henry could see some of them gathered in the lobby of the Sheraton, two floors above the street, shadowed forms pressed to the floor-to-ceiling windows, hands on either side of their faces like kids at the aquarium watching the sharks make their dumb circles in the tank.
He saw the South Korean delegation with matching flags on their matching shoulder bags paused on the low wide steps of the Sheraton, standing there with newspapers over their heads for the rain and polite, puzzled smiles as if someone had just told them a joke that didn’t quite translate.
Here came a European-looking delegate in tasseled loafers. His hair was curly and white. His suit was gray and he was making notes in a leather-bound notebook, nodding and smiling as though he recognized something in the cityscape, like there was a shop that sold his favorite sweet, an indulgence he kept secret from his wife. An aide running after him with an opened umbrella.
AIN’T NO POWER LIKE
THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE
AND THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE
“Say what?!” cried John Henry.
The American dream was dead. All those promises now just cold ashes between his people’s chanting teeth, sitting heavy on their tongues.
Instead they said, “Sustainable agriculture.”
They said, “Global solidarity.”
They said, “How beautiful is a seed, a tender green stalk of life.”
They wore hooded sweatshirts peopled with homemade patches. They wore bandannas slashed outlaw-style across the mouth, a triangle from nose to chin, knotted at the neck. They ate bread and cabbage looted from dumpsters because it was a form of political protest and he loved each one of them enough to die for them, if it came to that, which it would not.
He stroked his beard and heard them say, “People are more important than profits.”
“People,” they said, “are more important than profits.”
“People. Are more important than profits.”
Their words had the quality of midnight prayer, deep from the depths of another sleepless night, as if the right words might call forth a future where they need march no more.
They said, “We’re going to shut those corporate motherfuckers down.”
John Henry heard their voices and knew this was no ordinary protest, this congregation in the streets. No, this was the new American religion. This desire which leapt continents. The longing of the heart to embrace a stranger and be unashamed.
They said, “A global nonviolent revolution.”
They said, “How beautiful and brave when a people rise for what is right.”
Six a.m. and he watched them swarming the streets of his city in a gauzy mausoleum light, a people’s army climbing from basement mattresses and garage apartments, the skyline of the city black-crowned and spooky at their back.
In their hooded sweatshirts and shin-high boots they looked like end-of-the-world penitents stretching into the dawn. Hip to the world’s saddest sins.
They said, “The future belongs to us.”
And maybe it did, but they looked so young, so young and fragile, and when the time came would they have courage—would they have the discipline to make it so?
Look with him at his people. This man who once preached from a pulpit, John Henry, who was wound up and weary with too much love, too much joy, too much rage. How many shelter cots that barely registered the man’s weight so light he was, the soft pillow of how many stone steps had cradled his head? John Henry, who had lost his church, look with him at his people. Look at his god made manifest in every form and shape of the broken world. Look with him at how they exit the church in an orderly fashion and tip their chins to the sky. Look at how they come from the darkness of their homes, backs stiff, stretching and tying the 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 yet know.
He heard them in the streets saying, “Another world is possible,” and beneath his ribs broken and healed and twice broken and healed and thrice broken and healed, he shuddered and thought, God help us. We are mad with hope. Here we come.
Officer Timothy Park knocked his riot stick against the stiff polycarbonate of his armored leg, producing a hefty sort of clack and whack, which, right this second, he found immensely satisfying as he sucked . . .
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