Sure, every other obituary of 86-year-old Brooklyn novelist Daniel Keyes is going to talk about Flowers for Algernon. And, yeah, that was his best book. But I’m going to talk about The Touch, simply because I remember this novel well, and because nobody else is going to mention it.
As a lonely middle school kid, I was so desperate for good books that I would bottom-feed the local library stacks, looking for off-hit books by writers who were (I could already tell at my young age) literary one-hit wonders. This is why during the waning years of the Summer of Love and the waxing years of the Me Decade I read Love, Roger by Charles Webb (author of The Graduate), David Meyer is a Mother by Gail Parent (author of Sheila Levine), This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby). And it’s why I read The Touch by Daniel Keyes, author of the powerful Flowers for Algernon. I suppose I was also attracted to The Touch by the mod cover design, which reveals Daniel Keyes trying to reach a hip adult literary audience. That never quite happened, but we’ll always have Flowers for Algernon.
The Touch was about what happens when radioactivity intrudes upon the life on an ordinary American family. An industrial engineer is briefly exposed to some dangerous dust during a laboratory maneuver. This soon changes everything in his life, as gossip about his accident causes even his best friends to fear his touch of death, so that he and his pregnant wife are suddenly ostracized. We see how an industrial accident ends up turning into an even worse human accident, a collapse of civility, a descent into blind prejudice.
This is a bleak book, but also thrilling in its creepy sense of a systematic mindless menace invading our lives. I distinctly remember being gripped by a couple of vivid scenes: the stunned engineer rushing into a shower to wash off the dangerous substance, and later the frustrated and ruined man taking out his anger on a lump of clay in a studio. (The book’s toxic hero, if I remember correctly, worked as an automobile model sculptor).
The Touch was a bleak book, and, well, Flowers for Algernon was a bleak book too. Especially that gut-punch ending, and the way the narrator and hero Charly’s mental condition was reflected in the language he used in these final pages.
It’s a funny thing: I always hated this book’s cover. I thought the book had a lousy title too. Flowers for the mouse? How about some damn flowers for Charly? He suffered a lot worse than the mouse.
Daniel Keyes, fortunately, appears to have lived a happy life, though he never repeated his single great success, which was also turned into a mediocre movie called Charly (an even worse title!) starring Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom. Before he was a novelist, Daniel Keyes worked in the comics business in New York City, where the germ of the idea that became Flowers for Algernon was first pitched as a possible comic book plot.
Daniel Keyes lived in Brooklyn, making it a good bet that many young writers must have run into him often at corner delis and on Prospect Park walkways without knowing that he was the author who wrote the novel they loved in junior high, like I did too.