At the “creaky old age” of 26, Daniel can’t drive a car or even walk. He can hardly talk and uses a condom catheter to relieve himself. He has difficulty eating and at times finds it impossible to breathe. He has a terminal disease that could take his life at any moment. But he’s not bitter or anything.
No, Daniel has friends, enjoys college football, works a job, and gets out as often as he can. He has a life. And a working brain. He feels lucky.
That Daniel uses a wheelchair and that his Type 2 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) might kill him at any moment is nothing to wallow in. It’s what he has, but not who he is. These are just facts. Like the “pleasant, vaguely British man’s voice” that emanates from his Stephen Hawking-like speaker whenever he types out something for it to say. Or that Marjani, his main caretaker, has to brush his hair before tucking him in every night.
Or that, as a social media manager at a regional airline, he faces a daily torrent of online abuse from disgruntled passengers furious over delays or other inconveniences, almost all strictly beyond his control. The online vitriol he endures is almost welcome compared with the sympathy most feel for him when they see him in a wheelchair.
Every morning, after the TV weather report, and at exactly 7:21 a.m., Daniel goes out on his porch. He is almost always unnoticed. In Athens, Georgia, the college town home to the University of Georgia, where he lives, the students passing by hardly ever look up from their iPhones as they rock out on their AirPods, bleary eyed, on their way to class.
But one morning something happens. At 7:22 a.m., a Chinese student he’s seen walking by for the last three weeks looks up, makes eye contact, and waves. Then, just as suddenly, a 1960s Camaro pulls up next to her. After a brief exchange, she gets in.
“There was no reason to think about it for the rest of the day, and I didn’t,” Daniel recalls in Will Leitch’s novel How Lucky. “You wouldn’t have either. It was nothing.”
Daniel does not think too much about what he witnessed, obviously. That is, until nights later, when he’s perusing Athens Reddit to scalp football tickets, he notices an alarming post. “ROOMMATE MISSING,” the headline blares.
Urgent: Student missing. My hallmate, Ai-Chin Lioa, left for class last week and hasn’t been back in our apartment since.
At first it’s just small-town chatter. Daniel’s best friend Travis can’t shut up about it—he followed his friend to Athens, though he seems also to dig the college vibe, hipster atmosphere, and liberal politics almost as much.
But pretty soon Ai-Chin’s disappearance blows up into a full freakout. Georgia football coach Kirby Smart rallies the town, and even the state. (Many Athens landmarks make appearances—and, as an ex-townie, that part alone makes the novel a fun read.)
When Daniel finally tries to tell the cops what he knows, he is, as usual, unheard. The detective sees him in a wheelchair, unable to talk. Daniel has a lot to say though.
So he’s left to sleuth on his own. Via the same Reddit channel that first notified him that the unremarkable morning encounter was in fact very remarkable, Daniel is connected to Ai-Chin’s abductor. He’s unsure whether the abductor is legitimate or just an impostor—because, after all, anyone can be anybody online.
What’s good about Leitch’s book is that it’s the story of a man who faces hardship—but doesn’t feel he has a hard life. It’s less about how Daniel sees the world and more about how we should see Daniel. He may have been dealt an undesirable hand and his life will be cut short. But it does not mean he can’t live.
“I have brought light into this world, and I have been given light from this world. And what light it is! I can say that I have lived. Can you say that you have lived?” Daniel asks the reader. “You must be able to say you have lived. I have loved, and I have been loved. That is all we should want. This is all you have to do right now. It is right in front of you. So just take it. I know I plan to.”
The mystery into Ai-Chin’s abduction and Daniel’s unbelievable encounter with the perpetrator be damned. It’s the love of life, in all its forms, that Leitch so vividly captures.
How Lucky: A Novel
by Will Leitch
Harper, 304 pp., $25.99
Daniel Halper is the author of Clinton, Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine and the coauthor of A Convenient Death: The Mysterious Demise of Jeffrey Epstein.
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