Book Review: The Quiet Boy by Ben H. Winters

Title: The Quiet Boy
Author: Ben H. Winters
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Legal thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the “inventive…entertaining and thought-provoking” (Charles Yu) New York Times-bestselling author of Underground Airlines and Golden State, this sweeping legal thriller follows a sixteen-year-old who suffers from a neurological condition that has frozen him in time—and the team of lawyers, doctors, and detectives who are desperate to wake him up. 

In 2008, a cheerful ambulance-chasing lawyer named Jay Shenk persuades the grieving Keener family to sue a private LA hospital. Their son Wesley has been transformed by a routine surgery into a kind of golem, absent all normal functioning or personality, walking in endless empty circles around his hospital room.  In 2019, Shenk—still in practice but a shell of his former self—is hired to defend Wesley Keener’s father when he is charged with murder . . . the murder, as it turns out, of the expert witness from the 2008 hospital case. Shenk’s adopted son, a fragile teenager in 2008, is a wayward adult, though he may find his purpose when he investigates what really happened to the murdered witness.

Two thrilling trials braid together, medical malpractice and murder, jostling us back and forth in time.

The Quiet Boy is a book full of mysteries, not only about the death of a brilliant scientist, not only about the outcome of the medical malpractice suit, but about the relationship between children and their parents, between the past and the present, between truth and lies.  At the center of it all is Wesley Keener, endlessly walking, staring empty-eyed, in whose quiet, hollow body may lie the fate of humankind.

This legal/medical thriller kept me turning the pages, but now that I’m done, I feel like I have more questions than answers.

In The Quiet Boy, we follow two timelines: In 2008, a high school boy named Wesley comes out of brain surgery in an unheard-of state: He walks endlessly around his hospital room, eyes open but unseeing, appearing to be “hollowed out”, no one home, no ability to interact or change. In 2019, Wesley’s father has just been arrested for the murder of the expert witness in the family’s medical malpractice lawsuit.

Linking the timelines together is Jay Shenk, an ambulance-chasing lawyer who in 2008 is at his peak of success, well-connected, perfectly attuned to the needs of his client, and able to pull off victory after victory against the deep-pockets hospital corporations who’ll always choose settlement to make their problems go away. But in 2019, we see a very different Jay, one who’s weaker, less robust physically, and clearly a man whose best years personally and professionally are behind him. To add to the confusion, we know that in 2008, his son Ruben was the center of his life and Ruben, in turn, was devoted to his father — but in 2019, the two are estranged and barely communicate or see each other.

When Jay first hears about Wesley’s strange condition, he sees dollar signs. Leaving aside the fact that it’s unclear what happened or why Wesley is the way he is, Jay is certain that he can negotiate a quick payout for the distraught family. But Wesley’s situation is unprecedented, and Jay ignores the warning signs that his case may be slipping away from him.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the family demands that Jay defend Wesley’s father in his murder trial, despite the fact that Jay is not a criminal lawyer. Not that it matters — Richard is determined to plead guilty and wants to move to sentencing as quickly as possible.

As the two timelines weave back and forth, we learn a lot more about Wesley, Jay, Jay’s son Ruben, and the strange man who seems obsessed with Wesley’s case. There’s a mystery here: Is Wesley the victim of a never before seen medical condition, or is there something else going on, a sort of otherworldly entity waiting to break through?

I was weirdly fascinated by this book, but also incredibly frustrated. By the end, there aren’t any good answers about Wesley, although we do finally understand how the first trial went so very wrong and why Ruben and Jay’s relationship fell apart.

The book feels overly long, and while there’s a lot of ground to cover related to the trials, scenes of depositions and testimony and coaching the expert witness make the books feel bloated at times. I had issues with certain details, such as how Ruben was able to track the whereabouts of the witness — there seem to be some pieces missing, and certain conclusions seem jumped to rather than figured out.

A minor nitpick, but one that irritated me, is that Ruben is often referred to as the Rabbi, which is a nickname given to him by a coworker after he requests a day off for a Jewish holiday. It has no relevance to the story, but in various chapters, we hear about what “the Rabbi” is doing rather than having him be referred to by his name, and it feels a little pointless.

I did enjoy The Quiet Boy as a whole, but with so many open questions and a few plot holes, I wouldn’t list it as a top read for this year.


Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now at AmazonBook

Take A Peek Book Review: Golden State by Ben H. Winters

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought. My newest “take a peek” book:


(via Goodreads)

A shocking vision of our future that is one part Minority Report and one part Chinatown.

Lazlo Ratesic is 54, a 19-year veteran of the Speculative Service, from a family of law enforcement and in a strange alternate society that values law and truth above all else. This is how Laz must, by law, introduce himself, lest he fail to disclose his true purpose or nature, and by doing so, be guilty of a lie.

Laz is a resident of The Golden State, a nation resembling California, where like-minded Americans retreated after the erosion of truth and the spread of lies made public life, and governance, increasingly impossible. There, surrounded by the high walls of compulsory truth-telling, knowingly contradicting the truth–the Objectively So–is the greatest possible crime. Stopping those crimes, punishing them, is Laz’s job. In its service, he is one of the few individuals permitted to harbor untruths–to “speculate” on what might have happened in the commission of a crime.

But the Golden State is far less a paradise than its name might suggest. To monitor, verify, and enforce the Objectively So requires a veritable panopticon of surveillance, recording, and record-keeping. And when those in control of the truth twist it for nefarious means, the Speculators may be the only ones with the power to fight back.

My Thoughts:

Golden State is a weird mind-f*ck of a novel, and that’s what makes it so wonderful. In a society where adherence to the Objectively So is the primary goal, the crime of telling a lie can lead to lengthy imprisonment or even exile, a fate assumed to be equivalent to death. Law enforcement agents like Lazlo can feel when a lie has been told, and their ability to sense anomalies leads them in pursuit of those who attempt to subvert the State with their untruths. People greet each other on the street by stating absolute facts (“A cow has four stomachs.” “A person has one.”), and the ringing of clock bells leads to streams of statements about the time, hour after hour.

I loved the explanations for the rules and moral certainties of the Golden State, which we’re led to believe has been in existence for several generations already as of the start of this story:

You go back far enough in history, ancient history, and you find a time when people were never taught to grow out of it, when every adult lied all the time, when people lied for no reason or for the most selfish possible reasons, for political effect or personal gain. They lied and they didn’t just lie; they built around themselves whole carapaces of lies. They built realities and sheltered inside them. This is how it was, this is how it is known to have been, and all the details of that old dead world are known to us in our bones but hidden from view, true and permanent but not accessible, not part of our vernacular.

It was this world but it was another world and it’s gone. We are what’s left. The calamity of the past is not true, because it is unknown. There could only be hypotheses, and hypotheses are not the truth. So we leave it blank. Nothing happened. Something happened. It is gone.

Golden State is a book that I’ll need to revisit, probably a few times. The writing is spot-on, conveying the strange realities of its world from an insider’s perspective, immersing the reader in the weird double-speak of Speculators and Small Infelicities and Acknowledged Experts — it’s strange and alien, yet we inhabit it through the characters for whom it’s all just part of the normal lives they lead.

Reading Golden State is a treat. I wanted to stop to highlight passages practically everywhere — there’s so much clever wordplay and inversion of our understanding of what things mean. It’s a great read, highly recommended. Now I need to get back to the other books on my shelves by this author, because I’m pretty sure I’m going to love them.


The details:

Title: Golden State
Author: Ben H. Winters
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 319 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley