Clinical psychologist Goldberg’s first novel explores the twin concepts of outsider status and insanity, with a mathematical twist.
Peter Branstill is obsessed with cleanliness, order and peep shows. A chronically unambitious accountant in New York City, Peter does his best to combat his chaotic world with meticulous mathematical calculations, keeping track of everything from his clothing combinations to the amount of dirt on a park bench where he sits for lunch. With no friends, an abusive aunt as his only living family, and distorted memories of both childhood bullies and his mentally unstable mother, Peter is a perfect candidate for therapy, but he doesn’t know how to engage during sessions in order to progress. Instead, he “self-medicates” by making continuous calculations, recording his findings in a series of notebooks, and visiting peep shows after work, carefully concealing his social ineptitude. Eventually, he falls into a strange friendship with John, a mental patient who engages him in the park with requests for a smoke, and Peter’s whole world begins to expand by small degrees. Though Peter remains confused by life and incapable of many normal, everyday interactions, he seeks to connect with John in his own way, making special sacrifices in order to maintain their tenuous friendship. The two at first seem to make an odd couple, but in actuality they’re not so different. Though John rails against the world’s unfairness and eagerness to label him as insane, Peter has floated along with his own labels for decades, convinced he is the loser and failure that some truly insane individuals have made him out to be. The story itself is strange, yet characters are as well-developed as they can be through Peter’s skewed lens, and actions make sense when read from this impaired perspective. The author clearly brings years of insights from working with mentally impaired individuals, channeling an irrational yet thoughtful point of view in order to convey marginal experiences with skill and authenticity. While the text can occasionally be tedious, thanks to Peter's obsession with minute details, these calculations are largely presented as a source of humor for the reader to ponder.
By turns comic and tragic, readers must form their own opinions about what truly constitutes sanity in an insane world.