After more than 40 years in an institution, an autistic man acts on his yearning to see his childhood home in this eloquent, sensitive rendering of a marginalized life.
Gottlieb (The Face Thief, 2012, etc.) returns in his fourth novel to the territory of his award-winning first, The Boy Who Went Away (1997), which also concerned a family of four and focused in part on a mother’s efforts to avoid sending her autistic son away. This novel has a very similar family but with the two brothers grown, the parents dead, and the world viewed through the exiled sibling’s eyes. The first-person narrator is autistic Todd Aaron, who sees life as immediate phenomena in a way that produces fresh, even poetic images—like “typewriters that are filled with millipede arms”—though occasionally they feel forced. Todd’s voice also is informed by his reading of the Encyclopedia Britannica and his access to a computer. Mr. B and Mr. C, as they are known, supply a plausible boost in knowledge and some humor to the observations of what is already a high-functioning mind. At the Payton LivingCenter, Todd has his brother’s phone calls and infrequent visits, a kindly staff aide, an obnoxious roommate, a pleasurable interest in a recent female arrival, and an instant fear of a new orderly who reminds him of his abusive father. That fear impels Todd to make escape plans. The novel is so economical with its action—such “homes” rely after all on routine and mood-flattening meds—that revealing the essential few adventures would be spoiling a great deal. Gottlieb wisely doesn’t resolve everything, but he packs years into a tightly composed climactic scene. Less satisfying is the somewhat demonized brother, a bully in his youth, a cheat in maturity, and barely trying, maybe only from guilt, not to bail on his sibling altogether.
Gottlieb merits praise for both the endearing eloquence of Todd’s voice and a deeply sympathetic parable that speaks to a time when rising autism rates and long-lived elders force many to weigh tough options.