Book-In-Focus: Census by Jesse Ball

Book Discovery: Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon_The BookWalker

A powerful and moving new novel from an award-winning, acclaimed author: in the wake of a devastating revelation, a father and son journey north across a tapestry of towns.

This is the story

When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son.

Traveling into the country, through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, the man and his son encounter a wide range of human experience. While some townspeople welcome them into their homes, others who bear the physical brand of past censuses on their ribs are wary of their presence. When they press toward the edges of civilization, the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay. As they approach “Z,” the man must confront a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census? Is he complicit in its mission? And just how will he learn to say good-bye to his son?

Mysterious and evocative, Census is a novel about free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love, from one of our most captivating young writers.

Reviews and What Readers Say

“If there’s a refrain running through [Ball’s] large body of work, it’s that compassion, kindness and empathy trump rules and authority of any kind...this damning but achingly tender novel holds open a space for human redemption, never mind that we have built our systems against it."

Los Angeles Times

“ Strange and wonderful ... A melancholy and grief-filled book, Census also serves a healthy helping of compassion. I highly recommend it for fans of Paul Auster and Samantha Hunt.”


"Census is a vital testament to selfless love; a psalm to commonplace miracles; and a mysterious evolving metaphor. So kind, it aches." ―David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas

"As a father with a special needs son this hit close to home. Though you have a good idea what is coming at the end it still finds a way to sneak up on you. Ball does a great job not dwelling on the father's health or the son's special needs. He makes the over all story the focal point which is why emotionally when you get to the end you can really feel it hit home.”

Michael J. Spitale

“ This was an odd one for me. In a different (future?) time, a physician retires after receiving a cancer diagnosis to become a census taker. His plan is to bring along his Downs Syndrome son so he can experience the world outside their narrow town. This type of census is not the kind we are used to today. Along the way, we see how people encounter the pair. Somehow, I couldn't relate to the story, perhaps because it felt out of place and time for me? But the writing is good and addressing how people react to those with Downs Syndrome is a good issue to explore."

―J. Rife

" Deeply moving. One for the heart."

―Lex Tallis, The BookWalker

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Jesse Ball is the prizewinning author of numerous volumes of fiction and poetry. His work is a part of the tradition of Borges, Abe, Kafka, Walser, Kristof, Erpenbeck, Bernhard, Gogol and Schulz. He was born in 1978 in New York. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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