Todd, the fifty-something autistic man who narrates Eli Gottlieb's fourth novel, "Best Boy," is burdened by words. At the facility where he lives, he's encouraged to be a "productive citizen." His psychiatrist looks for "net positives." A nearly tragic past event is the "incident." His minders are on watch for "inappropriate social conduct."
To put it another way, Todd receives so much coddling in the form of condescending euphemisms that he's practically choking on it.
And as the novel opens, his frustration with that treatment is beginning to chafe. Check-in calls from his distant brother are faux chipper and perfunctory. A new facility worker radiates malevolence, bribing Todd with "special treats" to cover for his abusive visits with a female resident.
So with maps in hand, Todd plots an escape back home, even though his parents are long dead. "I needed to tell my parents that maybe I forgave them for pushing me out of the house," he says, "like I was something that smelled bad and had begun to rot."
There are a lot of sentences like that in "Best Boy," lines that sit on the border of straight talk and overeager heartstring tugging. Gottlieb mostly manages to avoid hokey sentiment — blessedly, Todd's escape doesn't become an uplifting hero's journey, and the consequences of the characters' actions are often realistically unpleasant.
Gottlieb stays determined to explore the complex in-between lives of adults with autism, who may not be prepared to enter society independently but are often assumed to be dumber than they are. But how to do that without constructing a clichéd man-child?
With some difficulty: Todd clings hard to the memories of his mother's lovingkindness (note the title), which can get treacly. But Gottlieb also gives Todd a wealth of hard-earned wisdom and sensitivity, built from years of abuse supplemented with benign neglect. That has gifted Todd with a sophisticated intuition.
"There was a certain way that people would speak where I didn't understand what they said but I could feel its meaning against the skin of my body," he says. When the words around him cloak more than they reveal, that capacity becomes all the more critical.
And that capacity is a plot point as much as character coloring. When Todd receives go-team praise as a "champ" or "village elder," he knows he's being encouraged to not make waves. But his caretakers' shallow cheerleading also keeps them from understanding Todd's inner life. That has consequences for them, too. At its best, "Best Boy" is a reminder that weasel-worded language makes everyone oblivious to reality, speaker and listener alike.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.