The Quiet Boy


By Ben H. Winters

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From the "inventive…entertaining and thought-provoking" (Charles Yu) New York Times-bestselling author of Underground Airlines and Golden State, this sweeping legal thriller follows a sixteen-year-old who suffers from a neurological condition that has frozen him in time—and the team of lawyers, doctors, and detectives who are desperate to wake him up. 

In 2008, a cheerful ambulance-chasing lawyer named Jay Shenk persuades the grieving Keener family to sue a private LA hospital. Their son Wesley has been transformed by a routine surgery into a kind of golem, absent all normal functioning or personality, walking in endless empty circles around his hospital room.  In 2019, Shenk—still in practice but a shell of his former self—is hired to defend Wesley Keener’s father when he is charged with murder . . . the murder, as it turns out, of the expert witness from the 2008 hospital case. Shenk’s adopted son, a fragile teenager in 2008, is a wayward adult, though he may find his purpose when he investigates what really happened to the murdered witness.
Two thrilling trials braid together, medical malpractice and murder, jostling us back and forth in time.
The Quiet Boy is a book full of mysteries, not only about the death of a brilliant scientist, not only about the outcome of the medical malpractice suit, but about the relationship between children and their parents, between the past and the present, between truth and lies.  At the center of it all is Wesley Keener, endlessly walking, staring empty-eyed, in whose quiet, hollow body may lie the fate of humankind.


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I’m gonna get myself in fighting trim

Scope out every angle of unfair advantage.

I’m gonna bribe the officials,

I’m gonna kill all the judges.

It’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage.

—The Mountain Goats, “Up the Wolves”

Part One

The Keener Boy

January 14, 2019

The phone was ringing at the Killer Greens, but what business was that of the Rabbi’s? His job was straight chopping. He didn’t cover front of house, never worked the cash register, had no involvement with the taking of orders. His business was what came across his cutting board and under his knife: transforming waxy, bulbous sweet potatoes into neat golden cubes; removing the bulky brain stems of broccoli and butchering the bushes down into bite-size hunks; dicing slender stalks of spring onion into the thin tokens that could be sprinkled into a soup or a salad.

Two or three times hourly the Rabbi might venture from behind his station to bus detritus from one of the steel tables, clearing bamboo bowls and brown biodegradable napkins. On occasion, need arising, he’d take out the wet mop and dance it across a spill of juice or smoothie. Once a shift he was on the hook to swab out the gender-neutral restroom.

But no, under the Rabbi’s mandate fell nothing forward facing. No customer service, no conversation. And no—thank you very much—no phone.

It kept ringing, though.

The Rabbi was vexed. He laid down his Santoku knife and looked around. Where was Sunny? Lawrence was working the register for the shift, so he should have been the one taking phone orders, but he’d left on one of his epic cigarette breaks, which meant answering the phone fell to the manager on duty.

“Sunny?” the Rabbi called out, lining up the fat ends of four carrots. “Phone.”

“Yeah, dude.” Sunny appeared from nowhere, slid in next to him with her elbows on the edge of his station. “I can hear.

The phone rang again, and she gave it the finger.

“It’s 11:30. It’s gonna be a writers’ room with some big complicated order.” Sunny rolled her eyes, annoyed at the gall of it, bunch of jerks wanting to spend money at their location.

The Rabbi frowned and bent to his chop as Sunny sidled away.

This kind of casual disavowal of responsibility made him deeply uncomfortable. He liked it when people were appropriately committed. He liked regular order. The Rabbi was punctilious about his duties. He arrived on time and stayed until the store was closed, and he had finished tomorrow’s prep, and the last of the boards was cleaned and hung gleaming to dry. Never did he poach food from the edges of his cutting board—unlike, say, Lawrence, who was known to slip the occasional piece of ham into his mouth, so you’d find him smiling with cheeks puffed like a chipmunk.

And, again, contra-Lawrence, the Rabbi took exactly the amount of off-clock time allotted to him, although his preference was to cluster his three fifteen-minute short breaks into a single long one, take it all in a forty-five-minute chunk at the end of his shift. Then he would leave work and run home, three and a half miles from Park La Brea to Koreatown: the Rabbi on the run, head down, no earbuds. The soles of his tennis shoes slapping the cracked LA sidewalks. Heart thumping, sweat breathing down his back. On his days off, he ran twice: six miles in the morning, four and a half in the afternoon.

OK, this was—what the hell? The phone had started again.

He set down his knife and stared at the store’s cheap plastic landline, where it sat like a fat black frog beside the cash register. It rang again.

The Rabbi felt a low, quivery dread, which was something that happened sometimes.

Sometimes at work; sometimes just, like, on the street. As if he had accidentally brushed through a curtain of shadow, or as if it had brushed through him.

“Sunny? Are you getting the phone?”

“Just ignore it, Rabbi,” she called. “Ignore it.”

She wandered back over to him now, a white table-wiping rag slung over her shoulder. “How are you, by the way? You look super-hot. Did I tell you that, when you came in?”

She had. Sunny, despite or because of the advent of #MeToo, was a frequent and enthusiastic sexual harasser, although only, it seemed to the Rabbi, of him specifically. She would sigh with cartoon amorousness when he walked in at the beginning of his shift; she would sneak up behind him and squeeze his arms, a risky proposition when a person was engaged in careful slicing. His biceps (which along with his broad scrabbler’s chest and fucked-up right ear were a souvenir of his long-ago time as a middle and high school wrestler) were, per Sunny, “a national treasure.” She called him a piece of ass. She urged him to wear tighter pants. She insisted that it was why she had hired him.

The phone had stopped again. The Rabbi looked at it. Maybe that was it. Maybe it was done.

“Oh, hey, I meant to say—in re: our conversation yesterday, about the two of us potentially getting it on at some point?”

Sunny tried to affect a serious whisper but couldn’t keep the laughter out of her voice. It had not been a conversation; more of a monologue. The Rabbi had listened, shaking his head and chopping, as he did now. “You should know that my dad’s a gun nut. A former Marine. He was—what’s it called? A SEAL.”

“OK, Sunny.”

“So I’m not saying no, I’m just saying: buyer beware.”

The Rabbi happened to know, and did not think it was a particularly obscure piece of information, that the SEALs were Navy, not Marines. He also knew it wouldn’t matter: called out on her bullshit, Sunny would wink and shrug. The Rabbi wiped down his board with a paper towel, opened a plastic bag full of lumpy beets, and got to business.

The Rabbi actually liked Sunny quite a lot, which was remarkable given how few people he liked at all. All of the you look hot business was just teasing, of course—he knew exactly what he looked like—as was the nickname, which she had bequeathed to him in October of 2016, five months after he started working there. He had requested a particular Wednesday as a personal day, and Sunny, grilling him relentlessly over what kind of personal day (“A chick personal day? A dude? One of each?”), had at last elicited the information that he would be fasting for Yom Kippur.

“What?” Sunny had yawped, bringing her hands up to her mouth, gasping, astonished. “You’re fucking shitting me!”

The combined facts of his being both Jewish and Asian had struck Sunny as somehow fascinating and hilarious. This despite the fact that she herself, like most of the people who worked with him at Killer Greens, and like seemingly everybody in Fairfax–La Brea, was mixed in some complicated way. Sunny’s dad was half-Black and half-Latin, her mom half-white and half-Laotian. “Which makes me”—she liked to say, laughing, pretending to do the math—“fucking gorgeous.

Now the door made its cheerful little chime, and Sunny said, “Look alive, Rabbi. She’s here.”

“Who?” he said, but he knew. He looked up, too quick, and Sunny snorted and shook her head with pursed lips.

“Damn, son, you’re making me jealous. I swear to God.”

“Shut up, Sunny.”

He made a final, decisive chop and flipped his board, now dyed murder-scene red by the beets, into the sudsy water of the wash sink. The girl Sunny had pointed out was one of the many young and good-looking women who frequented the half a dozen exercise studios that lined the surrounding blocks. Pilates, Spinning, various kinds of bespoke “boot camps.” All the customers and instructors equally stunning and fit. The girl now airily examining the specials board was a waiflike woman with hair so blond it was nearly transparent; today she wore brightly pinkish orange athleisure pants, her small breasts in a red sports bra under some sort of flimsy breathable top.

She sighed at the specials and brushed her hair back with a thin finger, let her gaze move past the unmanned register to the prep area behind the row of salads, and you could almost imagine, if you really wanted to work at it, that she was, indeed, looking at the Rabbi with some sort of interest.

“Dude.” Sunny, who should have been at the front, leaned in to the Rabbi’s ear, murmuring solemnly. “She wants in. To your pants, I mean. Or into your robes, I guess. Not pants. Wait—what do Rabbis wear, actually?”

“Sunny. Stop.”

“Go take her order.” She said it dirty, like a command: “Take it.”

“No.” The Rabbi pulled down a fresh cutting board, wiped his Santoku with a rag. “No.”

His job was straight chopping. He did not cover front of house.

He lined up a row of celery stalks. He cut them furiously.

“Rabbi. Dude.” Sunny pointed. The woman was waiting. “I’m serious. Take her order.

“No. Sunny. Stop.”

The phone rang again, and the Rabbi jumped and the Santoku slipped and cut off the finest tip of the index finger of his left hand.

“Fuck,” he shouted.

The exercise girl took a frightened half step backward from the cash register, and Sunny clapped one hand to her mouth and her eyes went wide at the blood, and then Lawrence, finally returned from his smoke break, got the phone—“Killer Greens?”—and then said “Hold on” and called over, his voice rich with incredulity.

“Hey, Rabbi. It’s for you.


He walked to the front and took the receiver. He hadn’t wrapped anything around his finger. Blood ran freely in a steady drip from the cut.

A man’s voice on the other end: “Ruben? Honey?”

The Rabbi had to close his eyes.

That voice, sweet and cunning. That old trickster’s wheedle.

It was him, it was his father, the old god of his youth.

November 12, 2008


The cherry-red flip phone was not his normal phone, it was a special phone, and so the very instant it rang, Jay Shenk answered it, snapping it open and holding it to his lips and singing out, high and hopeful.

“Helloooooo?” he called. “Hello?”

“You’re gonna love me so much today, Brother Shenk,” said the gruff voice of the only man who had this number.

At the sound of Malloy the Boy on the line, Shenk’s whole body brightened. His skin prickled and sparked. His spirit beamed and reached up toward heaven.

He pumped his fist and ran faster.

Jay Albert Shenk, attorney-at-law, was running on the treadmill in his office, doing a nice steady six miles an hour, looking out onto the intersection of Overland and Palms, and he had his cell phone connected up so he could talk via the little speaker built into the dashboard of the treadmill. Shenk was jogging in an undershirt and track shorts, and there was sweat on his temples and his ponytail was bobbing pleasingly against the nape of his neck, and he was working his five-pound arm weights too, up and down, up and down, and through the office window he was catching the sweet breeze wafting up from Gloria’s Glorious Donuts just downstairs, and he was watching a foxy young mom navigate her stroller around a hobo who’d colonized the patch of sidewalk right up to the curb line, and he was just generally reveling in the scruffy workaday glamour of West Los Angeles while he listened to Malloy the Boy’s basso rumbling out good news.

“You’re just gonna love me to fucking bits,” said the Boy, and Shenk laughed.

He already did—there was no denying it—Shenk had loved his man Malloy forever. His affection for Malloy the Boy, the most reliable of his various intelligence agents, was like a wide blue rush, borne before the tides, river-wide and river-strong. Jay turned one of his arm weights sideways and used the fat end to hit STOP on the treadmill, and then he rolled off backward and surfed the momentum over to his desk.

“Ready, brother,” he said, and leaned forward, dripping sweat on a fresh legal pad, clicking open a ballpoint, clickity-click-click. “What’ve we got?”

“Wounded bird,” rumbled Bobby, and Shenk’s body tightened with anticipation. His eyes glowed.

“Sad,” he said.

“Always,” said Bobby. “But unless I’m way off, Jay, this one’s a real humdinger.”

Bobby’s voice was low and conspiratorial, like a sexy midnight disc jockey. Jay could picture the man, a goateed male nurse, a burly white guy somewhere north of six foot seven, crouched in a storage closet at the Pasadena hospital where he worked. All 300-plus pounds of Bobby, in his pale green scrubs, with his gleaming bald head and pirate earrings, big Bobby crowded in with the folded sheets and the blood pressure cuffs, the ID bracelets and syringes and gowns.

Bobby sat at the center of a statewide web of nurses and nurse’s assistants and orderlies, many or most of them small, efficient Filipino ladies who paid keen attention to their bustling wards, who were simultaneously supremely competent at the work itself and smart enough to read between the lines of the charts, to see with a single sidelong glance the invisible dollar signs imprinted thereupon, and who knew right away when to slip into a stairwell and fire off a text to their friend and patron, Bobby the Boy Malloy—who would in turn call it in to Shenk & Partners, the little law office that could.

Jay took copious notes on this new humdinger, filling page after page of the legal pad with his florid hand. Bobby didn’t have a lot by way of details. It was all piecemeal, all coming through filtered, from Bobby’s nurse to Bobby to Shenk, but the nitty-gritty wasn’t Bobby’s part of the job. All the careful collection of facts, the arrangement of those scattered stars into a constellation of meaning, which could then be translated into the threat or the reality of legal action—all of that would come later. All of that was Shenk’s job.

Sweat was drying on Jay’s chest and at the small of his back. Out the window, a guy in a Dodgers cap hustled out of Gloria’s Glorious, clutching the top of a paper bag, lust in his heart.

“OK, Bobby! OK! That’s wild.” Shenk studied the notes. Wild. “And we’re pretty confident of the sourcing on this?”

“Damn right we are,” said Malloy, his tone slightly affronted. “This is from Rosa. Rosa knows her stuff.”

“Of course, of course,” Shenk said. “Just making sure. You know me. I’ve met Rosa, haven’t I? From the fractured pelvis? In Dana Point?”

“No, Jay. That was Marina.”

“Yes, right, of course. Marina.” Shenk could not keep these women straight, but he didn’t need to. He had but one nurse. He had Malloy the Boy.

“All right, then, so where does Rosa work? Providence? In Burbank?”

“Naw, man. Valley Village.”

Shenk nodded, jotting away. At some point he had planted himself in his office chair, and his restless right foot bobbled while he wrote. Valley Village Methodist was a midsize not-for-profit, located in North Hollywood despite the name. It had a bustling ER, a regionally regarded practice in ortho and peds, and a total operating revenue northward of $665 million per annum. Valley Village was covered for both general liability and medical malpractice by the Wellbridge Insurance Group, Shenk was pretty sure, but he could look that up. He made a note to look it up.

Shenk had been doing this for nineteen years, since he came out from under the wing of the cantankerous sharpshooter J. J. Barnes, and he could give you the lowdown on every sawbones, on every hospital and clinic and urgent care in Southern California. Which doctors dispensed opioids like they were Peanut M&Ms? Which doctors couldn’t resist trying out their charms on the nurses, opening themselves up to harassment claims and distracting themselves from their life-or-death work? Who among the preening cohort of Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeons had a heavy hand with the Botox, and whose breast implants burst most frequently? Which ERs, though so alluringly busy, were naught but a constant churn of immigrant laborers with ladder falls or gardening accidents, none of whom had so much as a Medi-Cal card in their pocket?

Malloy the Boy’s knowledge was similarly encyclopedic, and he shared Shenk’s appreciation for all the variety and nuance of their distinct but overlapping trades, which was part of what had made their partnership so efficient and remunerative lo these many years. In their time together, Malloy had directed Shenk’s keen attention toward the wounded, toward the grieving next of kin, in every corner of the Golden State.

Most recently had been one Marvin Thomas III, a handyman whose pelvis had been shattered by a three-story fall he took, through no fault of his own—the fault lying entirely, or so Jay successfully argued, with the wobbly stepladder produced by a deep-pocketed Canadian steel-machining company. When all was said and done, Newfoundland Tools had been good for $250,000, negotiated out in a pretrial settlement, meaning without any trial costs, meaning a cool eighty grand and change for Shenk & Partners. A few weeks after he deposited that check, during a wholly unrelated social call to Malloy the Boy’s surprisingly tasteful gay-bachelor pad off Sunset Boulevard, Shenk had absentmindedly left behind a doughnut box containing a half dozen of Gloria’s most glorious, along with four grand in tightly rolled hundred-dollar bills.

Not that all the Boy’s phone calls ended in clover—not even close. Medical malpractice claims in particular are trickier than they look, as Shenk liked to tell his son, Ruben, when he was reading him the specs on a case, testing its soundness out loud for the boy’s edification: you gotta show a specific doctor was responsible for care, and that the doctor failed to deliver that care up to the standards of the field, and that the failure caused an injury, and that actual damages resulted from the injury.

“And that, my love,” Shenk would say, spreading the file out over the kitchen table, “is a lot of ands.”

Meaning a lot of solid-looking med-mal cases melted under the heat of close scrutiny. The potential payout would be too low to make it worthwhile, or the victim or victim’s kin would lack the stomach for a fight. Or, worst of all, one of his shark-suit scumbag competitors would snake in first and snatch the prospect before Shenk could make his pitch.

This one, though—this call—there was something special here.

Gleaming up from among the Boy’s handful of details, there was an undeniable sense of potential. Elusive but brightly present, like the fairy glow from a forest floor.

Shenk, with two fingers of his right hand on his carotid, feeling his pulse begin its post-run descent toward normal levels, ran his left hand very gently over his notes, tenderly touching the individual pieces of information like children.

“All right, man,” said Bobby into Shenk’s thoughtful silence. “Lemme know how it turns out.”

“You know I will. Thanks a ton, my brother.”

“I live to serve.”

Shenk closed the flip phone and stood gazing out at Palms, just giving the moment its moment, tilting his chin up slightly so the sunlight could catch him on both cheeks. Maybe he’d cut Malloy a little something extra on this one. Yeah—probably he would. Shenk lived with a constant low fear of Bobby’s getting restless, finding himself some other lawyer to whisper to, in some other second-floor office.

Shenk peeled off his undershirt and mopped sweat out of his chest hair, which had lately begun a midlife transformation from pure black to a pleasing manly color, like dark slate. He looked at his watch, calculating how long it would take to run home, grab a shower, and get on the 405, and was disappointed to find it was before two o’clock.

Ah, well. Without letting the thought take conscious root, he had been hoping it was after three fifteen, when he would have been able to scoop up his son, Ruben, from school and bring him along for the ride out to the Valley. Let the kid play wingman while he ran this thing down.

Should he wait the hour and a half? Maybe even go over to the school and pull him early? Rubie was a freshman at a small and mildly shmancy private high school in Playa Vista called Morningstar, where the administration was always touting the importance of teaching “the whole child”—a dictum Shenk was often tempted to interpret as a mandate to educate his son on the workings of the law.

No, he thought. Don’t do that. Leave him be.

The wisest voice in his head still spoke after all these years in the raspy-sweet tones of his Marilyn, of blessed memory. The voice reminded him that school came first, and that after school Monday/Wednesday/Friday Ruben had his poetry-club thing, and he shouldn’t miss.

Jay smiled, tightening his little ponytail. He was so proud of that boy. Tonight they would have dinner together, just the two of them, and Ruben would fill him in on his busy little life, and Jay would tell his son about the new case.

The humdinger, Shenk thought. Hoped. Believed.

Trotting down the metal staircase outside his office, waving to Gloria behind the counter of her eponymous doughnut shop. A real humdinger.


Shenk in a hospital lobby was Shenk in full: chin angled up, chest thrust forward, ponytail dancing at his nape, marching forward like a man at the head of a parade.

Shenk was an aficionado of hospital lobbies, of their informational kiosks and layered odors and vast, soaring atriums. How many times had he passed through the whoosh of automatic doors, strode along the speckled linoleum tiles and down the beige hallways, past the seascapes and the still lifes and the soft-light portraits of elderly philanthropists?

He loved all the lobbies, without prejudice or discrimination. He loved the slick modern lobbies with their ergonomic furniture and meditation gardens and minimalist sculptures; but just as fervently did he love the humble old-school lobbies, like this one at Valley Village—with its dribbling water fountain and analog signage, with its dreary little gift shop, offering generic teddy bears and individual Mylar balloons, each balloon tethered limply to its cardboard stick.

And the people! As Shenk bounded through the Valley Village lobby, his heart swelled with love for the hospital people. Here, a clutch of prideful doctors in sneakers and scrubs, speaking softly to one another by an elevator hallway; here, a small, cheerful legion of nurses in six shades of hospital green; and here, a bulky orderly in repose, fists wrapped around the handles of an empty wheelchair, awaiting his next charge.

But whom did Shenk love the most? Most of all, Shenk loved the clientele—the consumers—the customers. The sick and the families of the sick, murmuring and muttering, worried and weary, leaning on the walls or wandering confused in search of a vending machine or a bathroom. Or just slumped in those lumpy overstuffed lobby sofas, under the too-bright lights, hungry but unable to eat, weepy but unable to cry. They were alone or stood in groups of two and three, clutching at scraps of tissue and sipping lukewarm coffee and staring wanly out the tinted glass, in baffled contemplation of a loved one’s mortality and, inevitably, their own. They sat grimly, waiting for news; they made exhausted phone calls, keeping someone out there in the loop or keeping themselves tethered to the rush of life that continued while they were in here, in the tedious no-time of hospital waiting.

“No,” a woman was saying—shouting—at some pinhead administrator she’d buttonholed, backed up against a door to a NO ACCESS


  • "I get excited any time Ben Winters has a new book coming out. His writing is so intelligent, his worlds so inventive, and his novels have a rare combination of being equally entertaining and thought-provoking. I will read anything by Ben Winters, and am always eager to see what he does next."
     —Charles Yu, National Book Award-winning author of INTERIOR CHINATOWN
  • “The always-surprising Ben H. Winters writes books that combine genres, infusing the realistic with the fantastical. . . . Winters is such a fine writer that by the time he asks you to suspend your disbelief, you’ll follow him anywhere."—Sarah Lyall, New York Times Book Review
  • "The Quiet Boy is an utterly enthralling read. It is a novel with a philosophical spine, a tender pulse and prose propelled by rocket fuel. An eerie mystery, a captivating legal thriller, and an examination of the lengths we will go to for the ones we love, Winters infuses this page-turner with a graceful contemplation of humanity and our inner wiring. The Quiet Boy kept me guessing until the very end.” 
     —Kira Jane Buxton, author of Hollow Kingdom
  • "I'm a huge fan of Ben H. Winters! This book is wonderfully dark and thoughtful and deeply humane, while at the same time it's a riveting page-turner. I'm in awe of how good this guy is!"  
     —Dan Chaon, bestselling and National Book Award-nominated author of Ill Will
  • “THE QUIET BOY is a multi-genre delight: part sci-fi, part legal drama, and part detective novel, with all of it infused with insight, wisdom, and humor. And at the core of the novel are the beautiful portraits of an unusual father and an unusual son and their story of love lost and then regained.”—Jonathan Ames, author of A MAN NAMED DOLL and creator of Bored to Death
  • "a page-turner with a heart and soul."—Alta
  • "An entertaining concoction with plenty of twists on the way to a nicely unexpected resolution."—Kirkus Reviews
  • “Winters has proved himself to be one of our most fascinating genre blenders of crime and speculative fiction, a writer who never fails to challenge his readers to embrace new ideas and new forms of reality. A wonderful, thoughtful book.”—Booklist
  • "Ben Winters is know for his quiet, noir takes on science fiction and alternative history, but his latest goes in an entirely new direction as Winters looks at the long consequences of a botched medical procedure and explores the nature of vengeance."—CrimeReads
  • “a genre splicer, taking what he likes from every kind of book and braiding it all together to create his own species of fiction.”—Publishers Weekly

On Sale
May 18, 2021
Page Count
336 pages
Mulholland Books

Ben H. Winters

About the Author

Ben H. Winters is the New York Times bestselling author of The Quiet Boy, Underground Airlines, Golden State, and the Last Policeman trilogy. His books have won the Edgar Award, the Philip K. Dick award, the Sidewise Award, and France’s Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. Ben also writes for television, and lives in Los Angeles with his family. 

Learn more about this author