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Peter Squared
by Ken Goldberg

Category: Fiction / General
230 pages; ISBN: 0967370116

Rating: 8/10  (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Paul Lappen


Peter Branstill is in his early 40s and works as an accountant. He has several suits, all of the same color and style, that he alternates wearing to work. At work, he is the sort of person who does only the work expected of him, doesn’t socialize with his co-workers, and eats his lunch (the same thing every day) on the same park bench, being sure to sit on a different part of the bench each day. If, for instance, there is a spot of dirt on the bench, Peter uses his own Graduated Dirt Rating Scale (GDRS), which considers things like the size, color, location and texture of the spot. Peter then decides if it is minor dirt, to be ignored, or major contamination, to be avoided at all costs. Peter lives in his own world of mathematical precision, strange rituals and a dread of contamination.

One day, at the park bench, Peter meets John, a lifelong mental patient who is in a local day program. John is a chain smoker who claims to be able to smoke using only one lung at a time. At first, Peter does his best to ignore John, who doesn’t seem to know when to stop talking. As time goes on, Peter makes his daily visits from John part of his precise, ordered world.

John tells the story of being on a bus to Nebraska. On the bus, he meets a woman named Anna, who is willing to have sex with him on the bus. Anna is also on psychiatric medication and stuck in a loveless Hasidic Jewish marriage. Each summer, she intentionally goes off her medication and impulsively gets on a bus, not knowing, or caring, where it is going. Her husband has to go pick her up, wherever she is, and bring her back home, where she gets back on her medication, and returns to “normal” in time for Yom Kippur.

While living in Nebraska, John gets into the local day program and starts to fit in. As a consumer of pornography (so is Peter), John searches for the local “source.” He finds one video store, where everything is kept behind the front desk and must be requested by name. Despite this, the town considers forming a commission to stamp out pornography. John starts making pro-pornography noises and gets thrown out of town.

Written by a clinical psychologist, this is a fascinating, and quite eye-opening, look at mental illness from the “inside”. It also says a lot about the “helping professions.” It is very much worth reading.



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