Playwright/activist Nussbaum makes her fiction debut with a scathing look at life inside an institution for disabled juveniles.
Located next to the old Chicago stockyards, the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center is hardly as nurturing as its name suggests. Formerly state-run, ILLC is now operated by a private company whose main interest is in maximizing profits; while Whitney-Palm cuts costs and corners, ILLC’s doctors get kickbacks for ordering millions of dollars in unnecessary tests for their patients. One of the “houseparents” is sexually abusing a terrified incest survivor; one of the guards is a brutal bully who eventually breaks a boy’s jaw. Even the well-meaning employees are so exhausted and overstretched due to staff cuts that one wheelchair-bound kid dies of third-degree burns from a scalding shower when left unsupervised. Nussbaum unfolds her story in a polyphonic narrative whose colorful individual voices somewhat mitigate the parade of grim particulars. Tough yet vulnerable Yessenia is a particularly engaging narrator among the residents, and gentle, caring guard Ricky has a touching romance with Joanne, a disabled activist who does clerical work at ILLC and serves as the novel’s political conscience. Nussbaum doesn’t deal in shades of gray: Whitney-Palm donates big bucks to Republicans and Democrats alike to make sure its misdeeds go unpunished, and odious VP Tim denies workers raises while enjoying his sailboat and house in Florida. Since the author herself works with disabled teens, these all-black villains may well be based on fact, but they make for slightly schematic fiction. Nonetheless, Nussbaum’s vivid portraits of a wide variety of ILLC residents, some of whom are mentally ill as well as physically challenged, reveal the three-dimensional humanity of people the rest of society is all too willing to neglect and ignore.
Well-meaning, well-written and well-plotted, with qualified justice for some of the bad guys and hope for a few of the oppressed: A most appropriate winner of the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.