“Heather, The Totality” (Little, Brown and Co.), by Matthew Weiner
At 134 pages, Matthew Weiner’s “Heather, The Totality” is best consumed in one bite like those exquisite pastries that line the cases of the French bakery/cafes on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The kind of people who patronize those tony joints, especially for Sunday brunch and often with their private-schooled kids in tow, take center stage in Weiner’s suspenseful debut novel.
Best known as the creator of “Mad Men” and a writer on “The Sopranos,” Weiner writes with maximum economy. The book practically reads like a screenplay, down to its eccentric capitalization. Characters are sketched in quickly, with just the right amount of detail to delineate a type.
Mark and Karen Breakstone would appear to be among society’s winners. He has a job in finance, earning enough so she can be a Manhattan-style, stay-at-home mom. Although they don’t have a child until relatively late in life, when they do, Heather, the namesake of the book, becomes their totality.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Hudson River, Bobby Klasky is growing up with a heroin-addicted mother whose lowlife boyfriends like to wake him up in the middle of the night to use him as “a punching bag or a parlor trick.” By the time he’s old enough to join a construction crew renovating the Breakstones’ apartment building, he’s done time for assault and committed far worse crimes.
By then, Heather has matured into a beautiful, idealistic and rebellious teenager; Bobby has become obsessed with her; and mild-mannered Mark senses danger. Needless to say, the two men are headed for a showdown, and the ending, which is shocking, violent and morally ambiguous, comes swiftly.
Describing the inspiration for the book, Weiner wrote, “I walked past this beautiful schoolgirl going into a building under construction, and I saw a man working there stare at her with threatening intensity. I don’t have any daughters, but what I wrote down was, ‘What if her father saw that?'”
“Heather, The Totality” is his answer. Beyond its chilling portrait of America’s social and economic divide, the novel raises a number of thorny questions: whether a “good” man could be a killer. Whether a “bad” man might be transfigured. How everyone, rich and poor alike, is complicit in their fate and trapped in their delusions. And how no one ever gets off scot-free.