The clerks who’d tended Alan’s many stores—the used clothing store in the Beaches, the used book-store in the Annex, the collectible tin-toy store in Yorkville, the antique shop on Queen Street—had both benefited from and had their patience tried by Alan’s discursive nature. Alan had pretended never to notice the surreptitious rolling of eyes and twirling fingers aimed templewise among his employees when he got himself warmed up to a good oration, but in truth very little ever escaped his attention. His customers loved his little talks, loved the way he could wax rhapsodic about the tortured prose in a Victorian potboiler, the nearly erotic curve of a beat-up old table leg, the voluminous cuffs of an embroidered silk smoking jacket. The clerks who listened to Alan’s lectures went on to open their own stores all about town, and by and large, they did very well.
He’d put the word out when he bought the house on Wales Avenue to all his protégés: Wooden bookcases! His cell-phone rang every day, bringing news of another wooden bookcase found at this flea market, that thrift store, this rummage sale or estate auction.
Alan (or any name beginning with the initial A) reminds me of myself in so many ways. Not only was my mother a washing-machine, my father a mountain and one of my brothers a zombie, but I also like to have bookshelves full of books. But I want to have read the books. Well, actually, my family isn’t exactly like that, but Alan’s family is. We are similar in other ways as well. Like Alan, I tend to want to offer solutions to problems people have. Even when they haven’t asked for one. Maybe that is one way the Asperger brain works. Our passions often express themselves in the same manner Alan’s renovation of his house followed. I could totally live in a house like that, but would not want to go through all the hassle he did. But I have other areas where I can be as focused as Alan was with his house. Registering everything he ever owned onto a database is something I have known Aspies to do. Another way in which the Aspie brain can work is by following our own set of social rules, rules not generally accepted by neurotypicals. Take Alan’s relationship with his neighbors on Wales Avenue in Toronto, Canada.:
Alan rang the next-door house’s doorbell at eight a.m. He had a bag of coffees from the Greek diner. Five coffees, one for each bicycle locked to the wooden railing on the sagging porch plus one for him.
He waited five minutes, then rang the bell again, holding it down, listening for the sound of footsteps over the muffled jangling of the buzzer. It took two minutes more, he estimated, but he didn’t mind. It was a beautiful summer day, soft and moist and green, and he could already smell the fish market over the mellow brown vapors of the strong coffee.
A young woman in long johns and a baggy tartan T-shirt opened the door. She was excitingly plump, round and a little jiggly, the kind of woman Alan had always gone for. Of course, she was all of twenty-two, and so was certainly not an appropriate romantic interest for him, but she was fun to look at as she ungummed her eyes and worked the sleep out of her voice.
“Yes?” she said through the locked screen door. Her voice brooked no nonsense, which Alan also liked. He’d hire her in a second, if he were still running a shop. He liked to hire sharp kids like her, get to know them, try to winkle out their motives and emotions through observation.
“Good morning!” Alan said. “I’m Alan, and I just moved in next door. I’ve brought coffee!” He hefted his sack in her direction.
“Good morning, Alan,” she said. “Thanks and all, but—”
“Oh, no need to thank me! Just being neighborly. I brought five—one for each of you and one for me.”
Not quite understanding what makes up neurotypicals, and having to stand on the outside looking in, brings with it the danger of being deemed less than human, much like Krishna does with Alan. It does not take much for such a thought to take hold. People who work within healthcare are in particular danger of falling into this trap. As are people within the school system and, I suppose, any kind of bureaucrat. It is something I have observed happen again and again to people who are dissimilar enough to any given average.
Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town mixes present and past into a tale of a dysfunctional family and a repressed present. Using any excuse to avoid dwelling on his family’s messed up relationships, Alan is a great example of escapism and dissociation. Only one thing can make him try to face his past and that is his neighbour Mimi. She reminds Alan, and us, of his old sweetheart Marci. Except for the wings. Bat-like wings that get cut off whenever they reach a certain size. Cut off, that is, until her relationship with Krishna changes.
Marci is part of the story about David and his brothers. Or maybe that is Alan and his brothers. David and Alan are intertwined so tightly that only one apparent recourse seems open to the brothers. Or could something perhaps change this doomed relationship?
David (or any name starting with D) is the brother wronged by the rest. We find out how as the story moves along, but the reason is a common one in sibling relationships. Suffice it to say that being wronged had left its marks on him and his anger is most definitely deserved. Alan was the first of eight brothers. While the Golems tried to help, Alan ended up being the one who had to take care of his younger brothers. B and C had been easy to take care of.
Billy, the fortune-teller, had been born with a quiet wisdom, an eerie solemnity that had made him easy for the young Alan to care for.
Carlos, the island, had crawled out of their mother’s womb and pulled himself to the cave mouth and up the face of their father, lying there for ten years, accreting until he was ready to push off on his own.
However, the needs of the other four brothers were much more difficult for a child to understand.
Daniel had been a hateful child from the day he was born. He was colicky, and his screams echoed through their father’s caverns. He screamed from the moment he emerged and Alan tipped him over and toweled him gently dry and he didn’t stop for an entire year.
It is difficult to love colicky and needy children. Daniel had been both. Plus his first reaction to most things was violence. Some years later, Edward, Fredrik and George came along with one month between them.
Ed was working on his suspenders, then unbuttoning his shirt and dropping his pants, so that he stood in grimy jockeys with his slick, tight, hairy belly before Alan. He tipped himself over, and then Alan was face-to-face with Freddy, who was wearing a T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts with blue and white stripes. Freddy was scowling comically, and Alan hid a grin behind his hand.
Freddy tipped to one side and there was George, short and delicately formed and pale as a frozen french fry. He grabbed Freddy’s hips like handles and scrambled out of him, springing into the air and coming down on the balls of his feet, holding his soccer-ball-sized gut over his Hulk Underoos.
What began as a relationship where their need for each other comforted them, slowly deteriorated into one of resentment and possibly hate. Doctorow does a great job of creating brothers that represent their role in their family’s dysfunction through their bodies and minds.
In spite of all of the commentary I have read, Someone comes to town is not particularly unusual for a reader of science fiction and fantasy. But it is well-written and well-edited and flows, even through the geeky parts. Retro-techno junkies are always fun. Recommended.
- US stores: Amazon.com, Borderlands Books, Powell’s, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, Borders, Booksense
- Canadian stores: Bakka Books, Amazon.ca
- UK stores: Amazon.co.uk
- Australian stores: Boomerang Books,
- As podcast
- Download from Doctorow’s site
- Audiobook read by Bronson Pichot