Susan Nussbaum Offers the Moving, Challenging, and Dramatic "Good Kings Bad Kings: A Novel"

Dec 18, 2013

On this installment of ST, we speak by phone with Susan Nussbaum, an accomplished playwright, first-time novelist, and longtime disabilities-rights advocate. Nussbaum tells us about her widely acclaimed and award-winning debut novel, "Good Kings Bad Kings," which is just out in paperback, and which a critic for The Los Angeles Review of Books has called "a knockout.... Nussbaum possesses an astonishing ear for idiosyncratic voices, and a talent for creating characters who appear in full bloom within a few sentences. This is an easy book to love and admire --- but more than that, it's a book that has the potential to change forever the conversation we are (or are not) having about what it means to be 'disabled'.... [This book gives us] the rare opportunity to be awakened by hearing the truth delivered with beauty alongside agony, despair interwoven with possibility." And further, as was noted in Booklist (in a starred review) when this novel first appeared in the fall of 2012: "This year's winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction is a mighty first novel by a Chicago playwright and disabilities-rights activist. Nussbaum's dramatist skills translate powerfully into fiction as she gives voice to an infatuating cast of characters assembled in the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, a nursing home for young people with physical and mental challenges. Yessina Lopez is an assertive and giving teen whose wheelchair does not inhibit her quest for autonomy and love. There is courtly romance between Teddy Dobbs, the only resident whose father visits, and sweet and severely abused cerebral palsy sufferer Mía Ovíedo. Smart and wittily sarcastic Joanne Madsen, who uses a wheelchair with aplomb ever since being hit by a city bus, is the center's new data-entry clerk, and she becomes sharply attuned to the tender hearts of the kids and the indifference, even malevolence, of the administrators. The center’s bus driver, Ricky Hernandez, also cares passionately for his young charges and worries about their treatment. Nussbaum charms, outrages, and enlightens readers as she cycles among these and other characters, boldly contrasting the transcendence of love with the harsh realities of a negligent for-profit nursing home. This is unquestionably an authentic, galvanizing, and righteous novel."