by Ball, Jesse

Learning that he does not have long to live and will need to figure out how to provide for his developmentally disabled adult son, a widower signs up as a census taker for a mysterious government bureau and leaves town with his son on a cross-country journey.

*Starred Review* Ball (How to Set a Fire and Why, 2016) writes subtly speculative and haunting novels shaped by visions of societies run aground and bureaucracies run amok. In sync with Italo Calvino, Paul Auster, and Howard Norman, Ball takes a matter-of-fact approach to surreal situations, which he deepens with finely rendered and realistic thoughts and emotions. His latest mysterious, mesmerizing, and insightful fairy tale is an imaginative and tender tribute to his late brother, who had Down syndrome. The metaphysically minded narrator, a surgeon, was happily married to a clown famous for her audacious and unsettling performances. They cared for their Down syndrome son with radiant attunement and joy until her unexpected death. Now terminally ill himself, the doctor becomes a census taker so that he can spend his last days traveling the stark countryside with his beloved son. But this is no simple, information-gathering process; instead, it involves obtaining the "quintessence" of each individual and marking them with a tattoo. Each strange, touch-and-go encounter on their poignant and demanding journey reveals the contrariness of human nature, especially as people respond to the unusual boy. Ball's mind-bending, gorgeously well told, and profoundly moving fable celebrates a father's love for his son, whose quintessence is to inspire people to be their better selves. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.

A terminally ill widower and his son set off on a final journey to see the country.After a jarring but welcome stylistic break in his last novel (How to Set a Fire and Why, 2016), Ball returns to his spare philosophical style, employed here to portray a man with Down syndrome in tribute to the author's late brother. The narrator is this man's father, a widowed doctor who has recently learned that he has a heart condition that will be fatal. In lieu of simply succumbing to his illness, the doctor accepts a job as a census taker for a mysterious government entity that has him interviewing and subsequently tattooing its country's citizens, spread across regions designated from A to Z. It's a peculiar mission with equally outlandish instructions like "A census taker must above all attempt, even long for, blankness," and "Never expect help from anyone. There is no help for you." Along the way, the two men encounter strangers of all sorts, some fearful, some odd, and some with deep compassion for the census taker and his charge. About halfway to Z, the census taker abdicates his responsibility and creates his own mission: "I, who have in some ways always misbehaved, even as a surgeon, would misbehave going forward, I decided. I would go into each house and home, each town and village, and try to discover what was worthy of note." Written in stark, unembellished prose, the story is permeated by an undeniable sense of loss. We learn about the doctor's late wife, an avant-garde performing artist, and we learn about the man himself, even as he prepares to leave this life. But the boy is largely absent. As Ball notes in an opening statement, it's a "hollow" story with a lost boy at the center of it, the tale wrapped around him like a protective cloak. An ethereal meditation on love, the duty of a caretaker, and mortality. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

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