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Jesse Ball's moving tribute to his Down syndrome brother

Jesse Ball: a moving stocktake. Photo/Joe Lieske

New Yorker Jesse Ball set out to write a novel about his late brother. Census is the result.

The author begins his foreword with trademark punch and clarity.

“My brother Abram Ball died in 1998. He was twenty-four years old and had Down syndrome.”

Ball, a New Yorker, has always written with a weird authority – and in an astonishing array of voices – as if channelling some kind of deity.

This time he felt compelled, he explains, to write about what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome child. Finding it difficult to write directly about his brother, he decided instead to create a book that was “hollow” – placing such a child at its centre, with most of the writing arranged around him.

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So he takes the point of view of a father, a widower, who discovers he is dying and sets out on a final journey with his adult son.

The setting is interestingly off kilter. Society seems to have shrunk, and is arranged into a series of villages, each known simply by a letter of the alphabet. There’s a meandering road that connects A to B to C, etcetera, and a single railway line running end to end.

There is also a mysterious census, the administering of which is profoundly important: each citizen is tattooed after they take part.

The father accepts a job as a census taker. It’s an excellent excuse for the road trip. Father and son drive from village to village visiting each home in turn, cataloguing the life stories of all who live there. (The father has arranged that when his own journey is done, he will send his son home alone, to be cared for by a kind neighbour.)

Some stories are tragic, others, as is Ball’s way, bizarre: “I had myself spayed by a veterinarian when I was nine,” one woman says. “[My sister] was fourteen. We just covered ourselves in animal skins and slunk into the vet’s office.”

As the car crawls further into the alphabet the father spends more time revisiting his own life. He dwells on his dead wife, a gifted mimic and clown, and on her knack for communicating with their son. He mulls on the nature of memories, and on some of his favourites. He prepares.

I finished Census late at night, gulping back tea, huddled beside the fire. The tears! It felt like being eight years old and reading Charlotte’s Web for the first time. But worse, because now I have a son and I will die and that will hurt him, and he will die and that is a terrible thing to contemplate for too long, even when the person showing it to you is tender and careful and motivated by great love.

Then I hit Ball’s last sentence and it was perfect, it made me actually say, out loud, oh my God.

Wherever he gets it from, there is grace in what he has done here.

CENSUS, by Jesse Ball (Text, $37)

This article was first published in the August 11, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.