A college dropout with chronic anxiety finds meaning—and unlikely romance—working at an institution for developmentally challenged young adults.
Originally published in 1986, Borsten's first novel is the story of South Floridian Benny Horowitz, who quits college two weeks before graduation and finds employment at the ARC House, where he is charged with supervising eight difficult residents. Though he feels unsuited for the job, he is gradually drawn into their mysterious world. He is especially drawn to Nadia, an attractive 26-year-old who may have the mind of a 12-year-old and an IQ of 68 but sees the world through a rarified artist's sensibility that transforms the way Benny views life. His involvement with Nadia inevitably leads to his departure from the ARC House, but he maintains his deep connection with her in the face of adversity. Borsten, who works with developmentally disabled adults in Oregon, captures the world of these citizens with admirable insight and understanding, if not always the most compelling narratives. Long stretches of the book detail scenes without making them matter. And the sections on Benny's grandfather, a Polish immigrant who ran a successful dry-goods business while enjoying a happy arranged marriage, and Benny's father, Mort, whose life hasn't been the same since getting fired from his college job in a hospital for labor organizing, don't really connect with the main story. The high points of the book (the title plays on a term for death) are Benny's unusual sexual awakening with Nadia, which is handled sensitively but also sensually, and Nadia's streaming first-person monologues. To his credit, the author embraces the developmentally challenged as special without sentimentally depicting their lives as richer or purer than that of "normal" individuals.
A heartfelt if frequently uneventful novel.