When a unnamed widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son.
In eight novels produced in just over a decade, [Ball] has combined Kafka’s paranoia with Whitman’s earnest American grain to found a fictional kingdom of genial doom and melancholia ... Census, Ball’s new work, [is] his most personal and best to date ... I can think of no higher praise for this novel than to echo what this woman tells the father for traveling with his son, for letting the world experience his gift: 'I think you cannot know the good you do.'”
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 ... 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.'”
Two very different literary impulses collide in Jesse Ball’s new novel: old-fashioned memoir and modernist fable. One might think they were incompatible, given their allegiances to the separate truths of experience and imagination, but it’s a testament to the skill of this talented writer that they end up enhancing each other in all kinds of unexpected, often remarkable ways ... I’m not sure the voice ever won me over entirely, but I found myself able to accept it, or ignore it, as I got absorbed in the story’s larger inventions ... Like any good road novel, Census is at one level a gallery of quickly sketched encounters, and among the book’s pleasures are the characters who open their doors to this itinerant father and son ... You don’t have to have any particular interest in Down’s syndrome to connect with this aspect of the book: it isn’t a polemic about special needs, but a detailed and moving portrayal of a kind of radical innocence, one that brings both the cruelty and the kindness in the world around it into sharp focus. For me, it was the most powerful of the many surprises in this unusual, impressive novel.