This immersive, insightful novel from Gager surveys neurodiversity from both inside and outside, charting over the last years of the 20th century the development of a boy named Joe, who stands out from the pack at birth—the first week of his life, Joe never once cries, until a nurse is tasked with the harrowing duty of forcing him to, to be sure that he can. To please her, Joe bawls. Joe’s notably bright, an early reader obsessed with Superman, but the stimuli of the world overwhelms him, as do the rules governing basic social interactions. To make life easier, to please the people whose expectations he can’t quite understand, young Joe decides that his first word—“yes”—will mostly be his only word, as only his mother ever hears him saying anything else.
That might sound fanciful, like the start of a fabulist novel, but Gager’s thoughtful, episodic narrative is committed to life as it’s lived, in striking, persuasive, and occasionally exhaustive detail. While scenes of young Joe’s public embarrassments (a disaster at the grocery store) and surprise triumphs (his spell as a school mascot involves some inspired prop comedy) compel, the storytelling tends toward the explanatory rather than the dramatic, as Gager lays out in clear, vivid prose the family and relationship histories of Joe’s parents, the aspirations and tumultuous romantic life of that friendly nurse who once had to make Joe cry.
Gager reveals Joe’s drift of mind with acute sensitivity and a welcome lack of linguistic theatrics, dipping readers into his head (for inspired thoughts on Superman, say, or his spiraling worries that the popular couple at school who protects him from bullies might break up) while also depicting Joe’s mother’s urgent drive to help him develop independence. A sense of looming tragedy gives the coming-of-age narrative added cohesion, one that readers will feel coming but the characters don’t. The conclusion, though, is both hopeful and surprising.
Takeaway: Deftly handled novel of neurodiversity and coming of age.
Comparable Titles: Katherine May’s The Electricity of Every Living Thing, Hilary Rey’s Kids Like Us.
Production grades Cover: B Design and typography: A Illustrations: N/A Editing: A Marketing copy: A-