A terminally ill widower and his son set off on a final journey to see the country.
After a jarring but welcome stylistic break in his last novel (How to Set a Fire and Why, 2016), Ball returns to his spare philosophical style, employed here to portray a man with Down syndrome in tribute to the author’s late brother. The narrator is this man’s father, a widowed doctor who has recently learned that he has a heart condition that will be fatal. In lieu of simply succumbing to his illness, the doctor accepts a job as a census taker for a mysterious government entity that has him interviewing and subsequently tattooing its country’s citizens, spread across regions designated from A to Z. It’s a peculiar mission with equally outlandish instructions like “A census taker must above all attempt, even long for, blankness,” and “Never expect help from anyone. There is no help for you.” Along the way, the two men encounter strangers of all sorts, some fearful, some odd, and some with deep compassion for the census taker and his charge. About halfway to Z, the census taker abdicates his responsibility and creates his own mission: “I, who have in some ways always misbehaved, even as a surgeon, would misbehave going forward, I decided. I would go into each house and home, each town and village, and try to discover what was worthy of note.” Written in stark, unembellished prose, the story is permeated by an undeniable sense of loss. We learn about the doctor’s late wife, an avant-garde performing artist, and we learn about the man himself, even as he prepares to leave this life. But the boy is largely absent. As Ball notes in an opening statement, it’s a “hollow” story with a lost boy at the center of it, the tale wrapped around him like a protective cloak.
An ethereal meditation on love, the duty of a caretaker, and mortality.