Todd Aaron has been institutionalized at Payton LivingCenter since the age of 11. Despite occasional thoughts about living back home, Todd is mostly content at Payton, where he’s something of an ambassador to new residents. But when a series of events shakes up Todd’s quiet life, returning home takes on a new urgency.
In his fourth novel, Best Boy, Eli Gottlieb channels the voice of a middle-aged autistic man with uncanny authenticity and power. We asked the author a few questions about his remarkable new book and its unforgettable narrator.
You have written that your first novel, told from the point of view of a teen with an autistic brother, was somewhat autobiographical. Are there autobiographical elements in Best Boy as well?
Yes, the book is loosely inspired by my childhood with my brother, who has been institutionalized for autism since he was 11 years old. It’s also informed by the many years I spent visiting him in his various therapeutic communities.
Todd’s narration is shaped by his autism and the limits of what he can express. This leads to some unique and even poetic imagery, as well as unexpected humor. How did you develop this voice?
I initially wrote the book in the second person. The second person, with its peculiar ambiguity—is the writer addressing himself or the reader—was useful as a mapping tool to chart the perceptual universe of the narrator.
I then rewrote it in the first person, while trying to retain not only the freshness of his perception but the strangeness within the individual sentences. That was the real labor—to make do without my literary reliance on simile, metaphor and the conventionally prettifying resources of “style.” There are very few commas in the book. The sentences are bluntly declarative. It was refreshing and also difficult to work against my own grain, but I hope it added to the verisimilitude of the finished product. As for the deeper wellsprings of that voice—they remain a mystery.
You include so many details that show how Todd experiences the world. My favorite is his mistrust of animals, which he sees as people “who had been crushed into strange bodies.” Did details like this come from your research? Did you find any first-person accounts of adults living with autism?
I read here and there on autism and the history of the malady, but no, I didn’t read any accounts to find the particularities of the narrator’s outlook. I simply drew on my memories. A fear of cats and dogs, by the way, is a characteristic of classical autism, and in the example you cite I attempted to come up with a reason why the most innocent, floppy-eared beagle should be a terrifying beast to my brother.
After the book was done, I did read a powerful memoir called Boy Alone, by Karl Taro Greenfeld. His younger brother was Noah, the autistic boy who became a huge celebrity in the 1970s when his dad wrote a book about him. Karl’s upbringing had uncanny similarities to my own.
Even though Todd’s mother is long dead by the time the book opens, you manage to provide a truly touching portrait of their relationship. How did his mother shape Todd?
Clearly, her relationship to him was one of intense, nearly interwoven closeness, as often happens between mothers and developmentally disabled children. Her love for him is a kind of inner landscape he longs to return to, or a sea whose tides he feels moving in his own chest.
The idea of his childhood home is a powerful draw for Todd, even though it holds as many bad memories as good ones. Can you tell us a little about what home represents in this book?
I think home in this book represents a warmth and wholeness, a time, in the words of Wordsworth, the great poet of childhood, “when meadow, grove and stream . . . did seem apparalled in celestial light.” Almost everybody misses their home-world on some level, even if, as in the case of Todd, it was a place and time where he had to endure a tremendous amount of difficulty.
Because of his lack of understanding of the full emotional range of what’s going on around him, and his inability to express a lot of what he does understand, Todd is almost childlike. And just as they are for children, these qualities are both insulating and dangerous. What do you think is the difference between a child narrator and an autistic narrator?
That’s a wonderful question. I think the two narrators, child and autistic, can merge in many ways—the vulnerability coupled with an openness to experience and the freshness of perception.
The autistic narrator has the added burden of an actual malady, which skews things inevitably—it can turn him deeply rageful, as when Todd gets his “volts,” which are nearly epileptoid in their fury—or when, despite his apparent innocence, he has to deal with the social shame of looking and behaving differently, a fact that filters in to his consciousness despite his seeming indifference to it. There’s a reason that older autistic men and women are often, characteristically, stooped.
How and where do you write?
Kafka wanted to be lowered in a bucket to the bottom of a well shaft. I’ll settle for anywhere quiet, away from the Internet and social stimulation. Much of Best Boy was written in a submarine-like garden apartment in Brooklyn, along with many solitary weeks spent at a friend’s isolated house on Shelter Island.
What are you working on next?
Something entirely new—a historical novel. It’s killing me.