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By Eli Gottlieb
Liveright 256 pages $24.95
Fiction readers and Broadway theatergoers have long been enthralled by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the story of a 15-year-old boy on the autism spectrum trying to solve a mystery. Eli Gottlieb’s beautiful new novel Best Boy asks the question: What happens to an autistic boy like that when he grows up?
The two novels have much in common – including the fact that both are first-person accounts. Best Boy’s narrator, however, is not the winsome young Christopher John Francis Boone. It is Todd Aaron, a 50-something man who has resided at the Payton LivingCenter so long that he is known as the “village elder.”
The LivingCenter is a “therapeutic community” set up as little cottages, and the villagers are divided up into “the Developmentals,” like the narrator, and “BIs” or the brain-injured. Todd was institutionalized after kicking his mother to the ground in what he calls a “case of terrible volts” at the ShopRite Supermarket in Taunton, New Jersey, when he was 11 – on April 13, 1968, a date he remembers well. He had brief stints at six other facilities before landing at Payton.
Todd’s interests are simple. He spends time in his cottage, listening to Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond, and he “likes to eat more than anything else in life.” Todd reads the Dictionary – “Mr. D” – and goes on the computer – “Mr. C.” Far from isolated, he works on the lawn crew, and in the cafeteria. He has a highly annoying roommate, a flirtatious one-eyed young woman who tries to convince Todd to get off his meds.
Todd’s saintly mother, now dead, continues to hover over him – it was she who dubbed him “Best Boy,” a phrase to which he clings. Todd relies on a wise and long-tenured staff member, Raykene, known as his “Main.” When a new staffer he calls “Mike the Apron” appears, Todd senses something troubling and explosive, and longs for visits from his stressed-out brother.
The tension in the ensemble drama, which has Todd at its center, concerns Todd’s yearning to leave Payton, to get away from the troubles there, and return to what he remembers as home. He dreams of going to his brother’s house and living there, or in the woods down the hill behind the house where he was born. Todd often sees himself from an external perspective. As he puts it: “Best Boy is on a mission heading home.”
What gives this novel its charm, and its power, is the voice of Todd Aaron. Ever so artfully, Gottlieb has created an entirely convincing character, with a steady and authentic and entirely convincing voice. Gottlieb deftly provides readers with clues to understand what it might feel like to be inside of the head a person who is autistic, or wherever it is on the spectrum that Todd lies.
It is a fascinating, if often uncomfortable, place to be, in Gottlieb’s richly composed descriptions. Todd’s consciousness is vital to the success of the book, and this is where Gottlieb shines. When Todd feels anxiety “making a roaring sound in my head,” he remembers to imagine breathing through a tube, beginning in his heels and popping out of his head. He has shorthand for it: “Pop the cork.” In Todd’s mind, the pressure he feels is “like a fizzy drink I drank too much of fast.”
Like Curious Incident, Best Boy is about many things – but ultimately, it is a meditation on difference. Wise and compassionate and lyrical, it takes readers into a sort of mind they may never have encountered – much less understood – before, and it brings that alternative human reality vividly, and unforgettably to life.
Elizabeth Taylor is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago. A past president of the National Book Critics Circle, she currently serves on its Board of Directors, and has chaired four Pulitzer Prize juries.
Elizabeth is the co-author (with Adam Cohen) of American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley, His Battle for Chicago and the Nation.
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @etayloretayor.