Rare is the author who materializes from behind his novel to announce its purpose. But then everything about Jesse Ball’s writing feels strange and exploratory. In the introduction to “Census,” his eighth novel, Ball says the story was inspired by his now-deceased brother: “I felt, and feel, that people with Down syndrome are not really understood. What is in my heart when I consider him and his life is something so tremendous, so full of light, that I thought I must write a book that helps people to see what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl. It is not like what you would expect.”
A cynical reader might read that introduction and cringe, “Oh no — tears will be jerked, our humanity laid bare.” But you have to respect such frank aspirations to literature’s highest and most affecting aim: to reveal others to us, in all their complexity.
And, in any case, as Ball says, “It is not like what you would expect.”
The story begins in the town of A, where an unnamed widower learns that he’s dying. Being a philosophical fellow, he accepts his fate, but things are complicated by his adult son, who is wholly reliant upon him. After confirming arrangements for a neighbor to care for his son when the time comes, the father decides that, in these final days, they’ll live out his late wife’s lifelong wish to “take to the road.” Spontaneously, he joins the Census Bureau — a slightly warped version of the one we know — and ventures out into the world with his son at his side.
The two of them drive to the towns of B, C, D and so on, hoping to make it to Z before the man dies. What they find in this timeless world of villages and farmhouses, as they interact with the country’s citizens and one another, is rejection, acceptance, pain and love. The novel’s twin themes, the limits of empathy and language, are explored from every angle in living room census interviews that more closely resemble religious confessions than a bureaucratic process.
The words “Down syndrome” never reappear after the introduction, and Ball is too smart — and, one assumes, too invested — to rely on cheap tricks of sentimentality. The son isn’t a tragic inconvenience nor a spouter of wisdom disguised as simplicity. Most of the time he’s just another person along for the ride, as bewildered by the populace as his father is.
Though “Census” reads, at times, like a protracted parable, it eschews tidy lessons. The result is an understated feat, a book that says more than enough simply by saying, “Look, this is how some people are.”
Drew Nellins Smith is the author of the novel “Arcade.”
By Jesse Ball
Ecco. 272 pp. $25.99