We live in an age of autism awareness. Whether the rise in the number of cases of children on the autism spectrum is evidence of what has been called the largest pandemic of childhood illness in history, or is merely the result of better diagnostic procedures; whether environmental or dietary factors might contribute to the disease; whether it should even be considered a disease rather than a different way of being human—all these remain hotly debated questions. Less disputable is that it is a rare individual who does not know some family, his own or another’s, that has been touched by the challenges brought by autism—“a neurodevelopmental disorder,” according to one typically controversial definition, that is “characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior.”
Eli Gottlieb’s first novel, The Boy Who Went Away (1997), was a justly praised story told from the viewpoint of a resentful prepubescent teenager, Denny, whose autistic older brother receives the lion’s share of his mother’s attention, love, and concern. It was perhaps the definitive fictional treatment of how autism affects a family’s dynamic, with particular emphasis on the so-called “normal” sibling who stands by, often feeling shortchanged. Not that we are inclined to pity Denny: Gottlieb reveals at length the boy’s malice, petulance, and vengefulness bordering on criminality. The Graubart parents and their two boys are caught in a horrific power struggle until the autistic boy is finally institutionalized—sent away (hence the book’s title)—leaving everyone with an ambivalent sense of defeat and relief.
Gottlieb followed up this successful debut with two novels, Now You See Him and The Face Thief, that fell roughly into the genre of psychological suspense thrillers. Now, eighteen years after the appearance of The Boy Who Went Away, he has returned to the subject matter of his first novel with another absorbing, well-written tale, Best Boy, this time in the voice of the autistic brother (here named Todd), who has been in an institution for decades and is now a fifty-four-year-old “village elder,” or model patient. He has taken to heart his beloved late mother’s injunctions to be “a Best Boy who was always perfectly behaved and always tried hard to do the very right thing.” Obeying the rules and being good unfortunately leave him rather at the mercy of those less virtuous.
The threatening forces include his obnoxious brain-damaged roommate,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.