The dilemma in many stories where one of the protagonists is mentally handicapped is where we stop considering them as one of “us.” When Roger Ebert reflected on the movie, Rain Man, in a review in the Chicago Sun-Times (16 December 1988), he questioned the difference between knowing a person with autism and knowing a cat. It was more or less like saying, do you treat a person who is unable to communicate like an animal, or do you take into consideration certain capabilities that are supposedly inherent in all human beings?
Tim Laskowski, in his debut novel, Every Good Boy Does Fine, confronts this question and tries to deliver an answer by helping make known the thoughts of one man who has a hard time being understood. Robert Nyquist is a character with blunt thoughts, a fair amount of frustration and conflicting feelings regarding what it means to retain his own identity while physically inept. Through to the end of the book, Laskowski feeds us with thoughts regarding the sanctity of mind and where the responsibility eventually lies when it comes to understanding the handicapped.
When we first meet Nyquist in the novel, we learn that he was once a music student, who became brain damaged after falling on a climbing trip. We follow his occasionally disjointed thoughts through a period where he attempts to learn basic functions that will lead to some semblance of independence, and release him from the group home where he lives. However, after not being able to carry his thoughts through and seeing his desires crushed under brick walls of rejection and the disgust of others, Robert vents.
Laskowski’s writing is subtle but his impact strong. He succeeds in describing the difficulty Robert has with simple tasks like making a sandwich and feeding himself, while simultaneously unveiling the complexity of thoughts and emotion involved when Robert communicates with others. The most challenging part of the novel for the reader, and possibly the writer, lieswhere Robert attempts to have sexual intercourse with his ailing lover, Lorna, who is dying of multiple sclerosis. Until this point, we have been allowed to empathise with Robert’s thoughts, and then suddenly we are witness to his uncontrollable impulses.
One of the most significant messages carried by Every Good Boy Does Fine is that reality is not obliged to make anyone’s dreams come true. Nyquist, who at first desires to complete the “Transition Program” and move into an apartment, becomes unsure of independence and skeptical concerning his ability to blend in with the “normal” world. His idea of normality involves being able to play the piano and having his case manager fall in love with him. Robert dreams of total recovery, which is impossible. A consequence of dreaming is dissatisfaction. No matter how much Robert progresses, his desire for more causes him to fall short of success. He sabotages his entry into the Transition Program by thinking that it is better to be normal with the disabled, then forever trying to be accepted. He becomes afraid of having to take care of himself and wants to go back to being cared for. He wants Jodi, and avoids Lorna, whose sickness causes her to slip further away from him. The inability for Robert to accept his reality prevents him from moving closer to fulfilling his desires.
After nine years of writing part-time, Laskowski has produced a well-crafted novel which delivers realistic portrayals and revealing insights into the world of the physically disabled. The author, a case manager himself, has taken on the daunting task of exploring the mind of the un-understandable and showing that the struggle to understand and accept is universal. To accomplish this, Laskowski drew upon his experiences with Dan Lavelle, who suffered from brain injury after being injured in a car wreck, to create a character that comes across as a powerful example of the human condition. The characters, especially those of Robert, his son and caregivers, add depth in a simple, coherent manner to issues and emotions that are often complicated. The dialogue and the actions are not created to draw singularly on reactions of sympathy or revolt. The result is the reader being the challenge of confronting a wide range of feelings concerning the plight and behaviour of themselves in regard to the physically handicapped.