Joe the Salamander by Timothy Gager

Review by Doug Holder, Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene, June 13, 2022


     At first glance it may seem that a novel about an autistic boy and his struggles, might not be a ripe subject for fiction. After all, this population is characterized by repetitive behaviors, and non-verbal communication, hardly the stuff for rich dialogue and action-filled pages. But in Tim Gager’s latest novel, Joe the Salamander, the author brings an autistic boy named Joe alive, and follows him from a newly-slapped baby-- to his maturation as a man. This is a survival story in many respects because if Joe can’t adjust to a hostile environment, he would be doomed to be some ward of the state or even worse. Often the sins of our fathers are passed on, and as it happens, Joe’s dad Adrian Gamut is autistic as well, and doesn’t have enough distance from the disorder to help his son. The women in his life—Millie his mother, and Laurie, a caring nurse--are the stalwarts during Joe’s travails.

     Gager, who is a social worker, and who once worked out of a state office in Davis Square, Somerville, brings his knowledge of this disorder to the forefront. We experience the agonizing and grinding progress of Joe; we are able to get a fascinating look at his skewed thought process, and his profound confusion with emotion.

     Joe when he was a young kid, often donned a Superman costume. This is a great conceit Gager brings into play. The use of an all-powerful, flying superhero, transcending the fray—saving the day—breaking the nefarious bubble that surrounds our protagonist--is inspired.

     Not to give anything up, but in the end Gager ties things up beautifully.

     Gager, to my mind brings the skills of a clinician to fiction, but this is not a dry, clinical work. Having worked in the mental health field at McLean Hospital for 37 years, this book rings powerfully true for me. This book is an accomplished work of fiction--but it should be required reading for aspiring mental health professionals, as well.


NEW RELEASE, June 2022:

The new novel by Timothy Gager, Joe the Salamander

“Gager both invokes psychological insight and mocks its blindness. He imagines an autistic child’s coming of age, both through and out side the child’s eyes. From infancy, Joe “thinks” articulately, but rarely speaks, and his understanding of the world of Not Me is wry and sensitive, somewhat like Faulkner’s Benjy’s.

The reader accepts Joe’s early Superman obsession, which translates into a defensive fantasy of having “powers”; but the novel goes beyond tour de force to sheer inspiration as it follows Joe, his parents, a friendly nurse, and many other characters though his stages to maturity—and then delivers a tragic complication with 9/11. Joe’s parents have been vacationing in New York, and Joe sees them in a tv replay: “There his father was, hanging on the edge of a window. He was small on the screen in his blue suit, and holding onto him was his mother….None of them could fly, and no one could be saved”

—DeWitt Henry, author of Endings and Beginnings: Family Essays

“Joe the Salamander is an unforgettable book. It is a story of one man’s journey of survival in a world that is extremely difficult to navigate when you are “not like everyone else”. Strong female characters like Millie, Joe’s mother, and his mentor Laura accepted him unconditionally for all of his uniqueness. It is with their unconditional love, support and understanding that Joe went from being alone to having a life second to none. This is an uplifting and heartfelt story.”

—Carol Gillis, MS ABA, BCBA, LABA Senior Director of Autism Services at The Edinburg Center in Bedford MA

“I have worked on complicated television projects like ,The Assassination of Gianni Versace, where how we choose to tell the story can be as risky as the story we are trying to tell. It can either go well or…. But, in my opinion, Timothy Gager has knocked Joe the Salamander out of the park, pulling us into the mind of a non-verbal infant, and then pulling us through his life as witnesses to his confusion and pain. The entire book unfolds with cinematic grace, leaving me wanting more. I’d love to see this on a screen, or on my desk as a screenplay soon.”

>—Korey Pollard,Assistant Director/Producer, What Remains, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, House M.D., Deadwood, Clear and Present Danger, Monk