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THE ‘EPIDEMIC OF AUTISM’ IN A NOVEL

Best Boy

By Eli Gottlieb

Liveright

256 pages, $24.95

 

By Stephanie Shapiro

“You are never alone in life. The happy song is always playing deep down if you listen hard enough. It’s always playing always, dreamboat,” Todd’s mother tells him as she leaves him at a residential center for the “challenged.”

“ ‘I don’t wanna go!’ I yelled,” he recalls two decades later. A staff member approaches the terrified 13-year-old. “He showed his teeth and crooked his finger at me to get out of the car and instantly I felt the volts getting ready to burst and sizzle in my head and I began to scream.”

No matter what Todd’s mother does to make his life bearable, something has always gone wrong, like the day he kicked her down to the sidewalk when he was 11 years old, leaving tread marks on her face.

His father is straight out of a Charles Dickens’ book; his brother Nate follows in Dad’s footsteps. And beyond. Nate and his friends, whose names Todd remembers, don’t stop at beating him up. “When Nate got tired of torturing me in other ways he used a dog,” Todd recalls.

They devise sexual humiliation and physical torments involving hair spray, then look surprised when he finally starts to cry. Sending him to “a home” seems to be the only way to keep him safe.

He remains relatively safe, until a new staff member tries to take over his little world. Todd’s first sight of Mike Hinton tells him something is wrong: “Underneath his mustache he was wearing my father’s same yellow teeth and eyes and I started whimpering, unable to stop the bad remembering.” To Todd, Hinton is a coyote, tearing open its prey’s insides to devour them.

Nate ignores Todd’s fear of Hinton. Hinton spies on the campus residents with a camera drone he has bought by mail order. He leaves menacing notes around for anyone he suspects of stepping out of line. Todd is so naive that he does not connect Hinton’s sneaky ways with the death of a resident, a 28-year-old “girl.”

Through the years Todd clings to his mother’s words. At the novel’s end, he finally makes it back to the family home and finds a note in a crawl space among some abandoned belongings left specifically for him. It says: “The love between people and especially between mothers and their children doesn’t end, ever … Shut your eyes and you can feel it rising … no matter what you’ll always have your mother.” She has confirmed, in writing, the love he has cherished for so long, in the direst of times. The arduous quest has been worth the trouble.

Todd tries to do what parents and staff members want. They call him a “village elder” of the campus, “a Best Boy who was always perfectly behaved and always tried hard to do the very right thing.” Along with other residents, he is taken daily in a van to work in a nearby high school cafeteria kitchen. In his mid-50s, he is still regarded as a boy, over-age, edging toward plump, but a boy.

The “Best Boy” has always complied with the demands made on him, within his mental limits. He takes six drugs a day despite being well aware of their side effects. He consults “Mr. B,” his name for the Encyclopedia Brittanica his mother has given him, and “Mr. C,” the computer he uses for more recent information.

When a fellow resident shows him how to pretend to swallow a pill even as a staff member watches, he becomes less sluggish and is able to think a bit more clearly than before. The trick is in the book and will not be described here.

As the discarded drug’s side effects wear off, Todd gets an idea: “My Idea is that I leave and go to visit my brother and maybe live in his house or in a tent in the woods down the hill behind the actual house where I was born.”

Actually putting the idea into action requires courage. He remembers “the home where I had my very first memory of people leaning in over my crib and smiling in a way that showed their long, curving teeth and cold animal eyes.” His mother’s assurance that the “happy song” is always playing deep inside gives him the gumption to pack some lunch and take off from the campus. He walks and walks, avoiding the search helicopters, on the quest to fill his need for physical contact with the old home.

“I wanted to travel through the air like a kite and land back in the crawl space beneath the kitchen stairs … where the little windows crushed the light until it became so weak that you turned invisible” and therefore safe, in Todd’s mind.

Trains are safe, for Todd, as are bathrooms and the corners of a room. With the book seen entirely from his point of view, Gottlieb shows how the world looks to a person with specific disabilities in perceiving and in evaluating what he perceives. In his mid-50s, Todd sees nothing wrong with picking up a lipstick in a store and eating it.

Using “Mr. B” and “Mr. C” lets Gottlieb insert some history of autism and its “treatments” over the centuries. He sees the spectrum as so wide that just about anyone could be diagnosed somewhere on it. For Todd, “there was always a new doctor with new ideas.”

In a previous novel, “The Boy Who Went Away,” winner of the Rome Prize and McKitterick Prize of the British Society of Authors, Gottlieb tells the story of the brother of a boy diagnosed as autistic. The brother does not want to be “the boy who went away” to some treatment center. As if anyone wants such a life.

For Todd, “I needed to tell my parents that maybe I forgave them for pushing me out of the house like I was something that smelled bad and had begun to rot. Or maybe not.”

Gottlieb fills three pages with a history of autism, “the largest childhood epidemic in history,” demonstrating how definitions and descriptions constantly seem to shuffle and slide in and out of categories. “If you’re a picky eater or like being solitary you could be on the spectrum,” he has Todd think. He lists Isaac Newton, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Lewis Carroll and Andy Warhol as possible candidates for the diagnosis.

He says, “Functional Disconnection Syndrome” has been suggested recently as a new name for the condition. The facts slip into the story almost seamlessly.

The writing, always in Todd’s mind, maintains high levels of excellence. On a map, a country road looks “thin enough to sew with.” Hundreds of similarly fresh turns of phrase fill out the story.

At the end, Mike Hinton goes away, Todd’s photos of himself and his mother are posted on his cottage wall, and new, more compassionate staff are hired. But Gottlieb leaves an opening for Hinton to return in some possible future work, leaving the creepiness factor only slightly faded. Nate’s wife leaves after she catches him robbing Todd of money their mother set aside for Todd’s well-being.

Even with so many loose ends tied up, Todd has to resume taking the drug he had stopped and the reader can see torpor gaining the upper hand over his self-awareness. For every gain, there is a loss.

Gottlieb’s achievement is to create a whole person in Todd, to make the reader wish for ways to help him (and the real Todds in our lives). If “Best Boy” ever becomes a movie, it will have to be heavy on special effects. For example, in his mind, as grass begins to flood and rise around him, he really fears drowning. For now, this is a book to keep and to read more than once for its knowledge and compassion.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.