Few writers can resist the road trip — the chance encounters of strangers who’d never otherwise collide; the claustrophobic intimacy that’s forced among families and friends; the revelation that meets majestic landscapes, where epiphanies are born between hundreds of miles of nothingness.
Overrepresented as it may be in fiction, the road trip provides an ideal structure for acclaimed novelist Jesse Ball (A Cure for Suicide), a writer of an elegantly poetic bent. Census is the author’s tribute to his late brother, who lived with Down syndrome; it’s fashioned as a journey of indefinite length by a dying widower and his disabled son — a caretaker dynamic that reflects the role Ball assumed at a young age. The father is a census taker for a mysterious entity. He goes from town to town, home to home, chatting up and then tattooing each person of interest (for unnervingly vague reasons) before moving on, with his son by his side.
This is not the customary road novel the premise hints at. Ball demonstrates shades of Cormac McCarthy in his cuttingly brief dialogue, and of Paul Auster in his existential absurdism, but comparisons, in general, do Census an injustice. It’s a transcendent, consummately strange sketching of the human condition. Traveling his path, Ball takes you from A to Z (literally: the alphabet’s 26 letters are what each visited town is called); but even so, there are few time markers, no character names — only a window into one man’s goodbye tour. The enveloping sense of decay risks overwhelming Census, but in the end, it’s balanced out by the sheer wonder of inspecting what is not easily understood. Explore with Ball, fall into his quirky rhythms, and you’ll discover a burning plea for empathy. It will break your heart. B+