There’s an existential mystery at the heart of Ben H. Winters’s The Quiet Boy, a novel that revolves around a family named the Keeners, whose adolescent son Wesley has undergone surgery for a head injury only to emerge as an empty husk of a human pacing without rest like a body that has been emptied of its soul. The mystery has nothing to do with Wesley as he once was; rather, it has to do with the container, or homunculus, he appears to have become. “There is another world beneath this one, Mr. Shenk,” a self-styled mystic named Samir insists to Jay Shenk, the West Los Angeles malpractice attorney Wesley’s parents have hired to represent them in a lawsuit. This world, Samir continues, is “a version of our world, but without…pain, Mr. Shenk. Without pain, or grief, or guilt. Without all of these burdens we carry around.”
What Samir overlooks, of course—or refuses to acknowledge—is that it is precisely these burdens that are the most essential stuff of life.
Just ask the Keeners. Wesley’s condition (he is mobile and upright, but also entirely absent: blank-eyed, noncommunicative, and, in an otherworldly twist, no longer needing to be groomed or fed) has provoked a rift between the family and how they engage with the world. Their son has become a celebrity, or at least a source of notoriety; his parents must keep moving him to various remote locations around Southern California to protect him from the curious—or worse. Winters, however, has something different in mind than a novel about a family grieving, although the Keeners and their anguish remain part of its core. Rather, The Quiet Boy might best be described as a cosmic thriller, a fast-paced work of fiction that shifts between two interwoven narratives and features cliff-hangers, a murder, and an array of unexpected twists and turns.
Winters has been working such a territory for at least a decade; his 2012 mystery The Last Policeman takes place in the shadow of an impending asteroid impact event—it won a 2013 Edgar Award—while his 2016 novel, Underground Airlines, imagines a United States in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he could be inaugurated as president, which means the Civil War did not occur. These are brain-bending conundrums, exuberantly high concept, Möbius strip–like in their ability to take catastrophe, or history, and refract it into something new. The Keeners are a case in point, a working-class Los Angeles family (the father, Rich, is a carpenter on movie sets) cast into a world that seems stacked against them. “I know how it works, all right?” Wesley’s mother, Beth, yells at a hospital bureaucrat. “Different people are treated differently, and I am not going to let you fucking do that to me. You understand?” In a certain sense, this makes them easy pickings for Shenk, who knows how to manipulate their emotions. Yet it’s equally the case that the attorney also genuinely comes to care for them.
This is one of the most important aspects of The Quiet Boy, which is a page-turner with a heart and soul. At its center are the characters, who are raw, real, contradictory: sympathetic and difficult at once. There’s Rich, a ball of anger who would kill (perhaps literally) to protect his family, and Beth, who, even 10 years after Wesley is afflicted, continues to insist that her son lingers somewhere within his empty body. Then, of course, there’s Shenk—not the world’s most reputable lawyer, perhaps, but committed to Ruben, his 15-year-old adopted son. Some of the novel’s most affecting moments involve the two of them and the bond they share, made more intense after the death of Shenk’s wife, Marilyn, when Ruben was four.
And yet, Winters also understands, this connection can only go so far, especially in the face of what his characters are confronting: a world in which the entire fabric of reality may be at stake. It’s an idea that emerges slowly in the novel, in the nexus between its braided plotlines, one of which begins in 2008 and the second in 2019. The same characters motivate each narrative, but the time that has passed in the interim has taken many things from all of them, not least of which is hope.
“Of course none of it would matter,” Winters writes of Ruben. “…All this ticky-tacky childhood business? His schoolboy crush on Annelise, his fitful participation in the social life of Morningstar School, his expulsion from the Classical Poetry Confab and his cowardly dodge of the consequences…all were soon to be subsumed. All would serve in retrospect only as a signpost of how simple his life had once been, and how complicated and inexplicable and violent the world could turn out to be.”
If this sounds portentous, that’s the point precisely: that in the moments when we think we understand what we’re doing, we may in fact be the most lost.
The Quiet Boy is a big book, and it is densely plotted, and I don’t want to give away too much. At times, it moves too fast, relying on deus ex machinas and other devices to effect a narrative shorthand, but it is so weird and so weirdly engaging in so many places that none of that seems to matter very much. At its center is the question of love, and what happens when love is damaged, as is the case with Ruben and Shenk, as well as with Wesley and his family. Is Wesley some kind of cipher, some sort of vessel containing or deflecting the emptiness of an existential universe? Or is he just a boy who got unlucky and had his life derailed?
The answer, Winters insists, is what we make it, in a cosmos where, on the human level anyway, nothing can be known for sure.
“Either Wesley had been stricken for nothing,” Winters reflects, “by the brutal arbitrariness of life, or he had been stricken for a reason, and the fate of mankind depended on him remaining in this state forever. Beth knew the answer. Her answer. She held it against her heart. It had to be, and so it was.”•