A RETIRED SURGEON and widower, the unnamed narrator of Census has recently learned he is dying. He decides to take a road trip with his son, who has Down syndrome, and to pass the time he acquires a job as a census taker. This being a fictional world created by self-described fabulist-absurdist Jesse Ball (The Way Through Doors, A Cure for Suicide), the narrator must tattoo the body of each person he questions with the count and year, a practice every citizen along the novel’s highway accepts. Tattoo work comes easy to the steady hand of a practiced surgeon, and many lonely people welcome the conversation and thrive on the human touch that tattooing requires. At the same time, in the course of this official work “anyone may injure, attack, kill, harm a census taker and there is no legal recourse,” a reality that sets a portentous tone for Ball’s quixotic, touching story.
The purpose of our modern census is to generate demographics, housing statistics, and labor figures. This data determines congressional voting districts, which in turn determine the distribution of federal education funding. In Ball’s novel, the purpose of the census is ambiguous. There is no hint of government intrusion or federal mandate. The census is merely a plot device to prompt the dying narrator to embark on one last journey with his son and to talk with strangers. Road trips provide rich opportunities for eating at local cafes, talking to new people, savoring the nuances of language and accent, and seeing the countryside at ground level. They allow a driver to embrace humanity and to discover new aspects of the American mythos. As Steinbeck wrote in his classic 1962 travelogue Travels with Charley: In Search of America, “A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.”
In a vehicle the police once used as a paddy wagon, the narrator sets out to make 26 stops, the name of each town beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. This is not a travel chronicle where the oak trees, rolling hills, and rivers are venerated in the manner of a 19th-century novel of California naturalism. The milieu of Census is not a character. While there is a lack of geographic detail, the strangers the narrator meets — a puzzle maker, a waitress, an actress, a gambler — add texture and depth to his journey, their varying voices reminiscent of the panoply of characters in a collection of Eric Bogosian monologues.
In engaging such a cross section of people, who become animated in his presence, the narrator strives to uncover the idiosyncratic and meaningful in each. “I must, in speaking to a person, know what is special about that individual,” he thinks. He is on a quest to discover himself in the faces of others, in the events of their lives, and in the quirks of their conversation. People, Ball seems to be prompting the reader, are mirrors for the good and bad within us, and there are rewards in paying attention.
Throughout, the narrator shares this compassionate dialogue with his developmentally challenged son. Despite the boy’s inability to converse in regular ways, the narrator believes his son understands his explanations of the events, people, and larger world they encounter on their travels: “I told my son about the loneliness that sometimes afflicts people who are alone. Meanwhile, I explained, some other people are just as alone, but never become lonely. How can that be?” By voicing his thoughts to his son, the narrator is also explaining the world to himself. Most readers will recognize that feeling of floating an idea for the first time to a friend or stranger and only in that moment discovering whether it’s practical or idiotic, mean or altruistic.
This is a novel about how compassion and love move far beyond familial duty. Some of the childless people the narrator and his son meet struggle to summon compassion and question their duty to humanity. They acknowledge the primary challenge of caring for oneself but remain skeptical that altruism is even possible in a difficult world. That struggle to love others, especially strangers, when self-love remains elusive becomes a thematic through line of Ball’s narrative. Realizing how desperately our souls strive to tip the scales of life toward joy in the absence of logic, the narrator concludes, “Reason and sensical behavior are not always necessary if there exists some small flood of kindness.”
The novel’s most vivid moments are when the narrator meets someone who knew his wife, a famous professional clown in the mold of iconic mime Marcel Marceau who died while writing a book titled A Fool is a Mirror. Ball creates a brilliantly absurd caricature of the woman and her life, and the narrator thrives on memories of her. They fuel his desire to press on even though he is dying. The creator of a show titled Presence, she could deliver more information through body movement than most people can through conversation. “She is one of those performers who gives a sense that there is no performance,” the narrator says, “it is just life and we happen to see it.” He describes her as “a telepath, no, a physiotelepath — telepathic not with mind but body.” As such, she serves as a reflection of the kind of spiritual communication and connection the narrator hopes to develop in himself.
Ball has published more than 15 books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. He is also a performer with the art collective Poyais Group and a writing professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. On his faculty page, he lists his interests as “Dreams, Games, Ambiguity,” which suggests a way to read this novel. Just the same, though he may dabble in the absurd and surreal, the novel has an equal, affecting strain of realism.
The narrator of Census is neither hero nor antihero. He is everyman, and Ball does an excellent job of revealing his experience of life’s aches and joys. Throughout the story, the reader knows that the dying man’s journey must end, and Ball provides a finish suitably heartbreaking and redeeming (plus an unexpected and wonderful appendix). When Bill Moyers suggested to The Hero’s Journey author Joseph Campbell that people are not on a journey to save the world but to save themselves, Campbell famously responded, “But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.” Census is an odd, poignant, vitalizing novel well worth the journey.