'Allowed To Be Odd'

Christopher John Francis Boone, the 15-year-old narrator of the new novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," knows lots of stuff, including the capitals of all the countries in the world and every prime number up to 7,057. What he doesn't know, as the story begins, is who killed Wellington, his neighbor's poodle, with a garden fork (the book is set in England). Christopher's determination to solve this morbid little mystery is what drives the action of Mark Haddon's masterly first novel. But what makes the book so involving and unforgettable isn't the deft plot, it's Christopher's voice--the flat, funny, deeply moving sound of a human being who simply doesn't know what love, or any other emotion, is.

"People think they're not computers because they have feelings and computers don't have feelings," says Christopher. "But feelings are just having a picture on the screen in your head of what is going to happen tomorrow or next year, or what might have happened instead of what did happen, and if it is a happy picture they smile and if it is a sad picture they cry."

As new research continues to expand our understanding of autism as a spectrum of disorders--in some cases it's accompanied by mental retardation, in others by a high IQ--society's image of autism is also shifting. Fifteen years ago Dustin Hoffman counted matchsticks and played blackjack as a barely functional autistic savant in "Rain Man." Now we have something completely new--a mesmerizing autistic storyteller.

Christopher is a math genius whose idiosyncrasies include "not liking being touched," "not eating food if different sorts of food are touching each other" and "not noticing that people are angry with me." Simple human communication is beyond him--"I tried to do chatting by saying 'My age is 15 years and 3 months and 3 days'." He clearly has Asperger's syndrome. But the term never appears in the book, and neither does the word "autistic." If Haddon had his way, autistic wouldn't be in the jacket copy either, though it is. "The label doesn't add anything to your knowledge of anyone," says the author, who would prefer it if the term "odd" were to become popular again. "In the old days you were allowed to be odd," he says. "Too many people now who would have been odd find themselves with a label and getting sucked into some kind of system."

Haddon, 40, who has worked as an aide to autistic kids, calls himself an "interested layperson" and says he didn't become an Asperger's expert to write the book. "If you think to yourself, 'I must get the Asperger's right,' that suggests that there is a right type of Asperger's," he says. "And people with Asperger's are as varied as Norwegians or trombone players." He's already heard from parents thanking him for his humanizing portrait of autism.

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" was published in June and is 11th on The New York Times best-seller list, with 130,000 copies in print. "I think there's a part in all of us that would really like to be Christopher for a few days," says Haddon, trying to explain his quirky novel's success. "Taking other people into account is such hard work." Reading his book, on the other hand, is a plain joy.