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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pages, $24

What does an autistic man have to do with a coma patient in a care facility? "Rubbernecker" begins when eighteen-year-old Patrick Fort, a university student with Asperger’s Syndrome, briefly and unknowingly passes by Samuel Galen just after Galen’s car plunges off a cliff, rendering him alive but comatose.

Patrick (not Pat, not Paddy) marches to his own drummer; there’s little else he can do. He doesn’t like to be touched, finds serenity in cleaning and scrubbing, and is fascinated by dead things because of his father. Patrick’s father had been in the street reaching for his young son when he was hit by a car and died. His mother is an alcoholic who cleaned up her act to care for Patrick after that.

At university Patrick is intent on becoming an anatomist in line with his childhood fascination with all manner of dead things. (Patrick’s mother memorably found a dead critter under Patrick’s pillow.) Patrick’s part of “Rubbernecker” follows him mostly in his anatomist’s class, dissecting a body. We are also privy to his awkward relationships (if that word is appropriate) with his classmates and roommates. He puzzles over what emotions people are expressing as they interact with him. Belinda Bauer’s depiction of this is funny, sad, and touching.

Samuel Galen’s part of the story is the more frightening by far. He is a coma patient who is aware of what’s going on around him but has no way to communicate. He anguishes over the fact that neither his wife nor his young daughter have been to visit him. Who is the old woman whose voice he hears murmuring endearments to him? And did he hallucinate opening his eyes and witnessing the murder of another patient?

There are several times when Bauer wickedly and expertly deals out a surprise. (This review is a bit circumspect because I don’t want to spoil some great aha! moments.) I’ve read a lot of mystery books, and I’ve come across my share of seen-that-before points while reading them. I was caught off guard by Bauer’s originality, creativity, and sensitivity. Although there have been memorable books with both autistic people (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) and aware-but-helpless coma patients (“Locked In”), Bauer manages a unique take with her characters.

Bauer deftly presents her tricky story while also paying homage to the extraordinary setting of Wales. For the great setting, intriguing characters, marvelous plot, great heart, and the best last line I’ve read in a long time, here is an MBTB star for “Rubbernecker.”

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