Eli Gottlieb’s new novel Best Boy is told from the perspective of a 50-something autistic man named Todd. The elder statesman of his residential facility, Todd was institutionalized from a young age due to his developmental challenges. He’s highly functioning, but has many of the hallmarks of autism: he can’t process certain sensory inputs, he finds great comfort in routine, he’s not empathetic or good at interpreting others’ social cues and his emotional understanding of the world is very limited. But Gottlieb’s door into Todd’s mind reveals a heartbreaking sadness that helps develop an emotional connection between him and the reader.
Best Boy opens with Todd’s routine at the Payton Living Center. That routine is almost immediately disrupted by the arrival of Mike, a new hire at the facility whom Todd immediately dislikes. Mike is menacing, reminding Todd of the abusive father who beat and berated him as a child. Yet Mike won’t leave Todd alone, choosing Todd to help cover for him while he goes off and has liaisons with patients. While Mike terrorizes Todd’s thoughts, a new arrival, the one-eyed Martine, intrigues him. Todd hopes that Martine might be the girlfriend he has always wanted, and is willing to follow her advice and stop taking his meds. Off the Risperdal, Todd gains some clarity, but as the edges of his anxiety become sharper, he grows more restless and unhappy.
Amid this discomfort, Todd’s younger brother – who also abused him as a child – arrives for a long overdue visit. Nate’s visit, combined with Todd’s anxiety about Mike and his newly-gained unmedicated clarity, set in motion the second half of Best Boy, where Todd earns a long-desired visit home and a reconnection with his beloved late mother, Momma.
I really enjoyed Best Boy. Despite the confines of Todd’s limited emotional articulation, Gottlieb expertly conveys Todd’s innocence and sadness. He also gives a moving glimpse into how autistic minds work, revealing a logic that is often dismissed or misunderstood. And while some characters, like Todd’s awful father, evil Mike and saintly facility aide Raykene tend toward the one-dimensional, others are given more nuance and complexity. Todd’s brother Nate hasn’t always treated him well (and was in fact abusive as a kid), but through Todd’s narration, Gottlieb make him more sympathetic as Best Boy goes on. And we hear from Todd’s beloved late mother Momma at the end, which I found to be the most poignant part of the book. She treasured and adored him, which sustains Todd throughout his whole life.
I highly recommend Best Boy. It’s a beautifully told story, and also a valuable and, I predict, memorable look at autism and what it’s like to live in the confines of that world.
Edited to add links to 2 articles: one is in the NYT by Eli Gottlieb about adult autism and his experience with an older brother with autism, and one is an interview in BookPage about the writing of Best Boy.