Between a Rock and a Hard Place: It’s. Nice. Outside by Jim Kokoris

A friend of mine has a child on the autism spectrum, though at first glance, you wouldn’t be able to tell. Her son is intelligent, full of energy, and quite vocal – everything you’d expect from a four-going-on-five-year-old.

The same can’t be said for John Nichols’ son, Ethan.

Ethan is nineteen going on three. He will remain three for the rest of his life. Diagnosed with developmental disabilities in addition to being on the autism spectrum, John and his ex-wife, Mary, have devoted their lives to caring for their son, sometimes to the detriment of their two older daughters, oftentimes to the detriment of their own well-being. John’s got a lot of exes in his life – ex-basketball player, ex-teacher, ex-philanderer. And one of those exes is one he wants back – Mary.

A road trip to his oldest daughter’s wedding, with Ethan in tow, proves to be exhausting and illuminating. By the end of it, the entire family will face a decision John made weeks ago without their knowledge…but will he have the courage to go through with it?

It’s. Nice. Outside. asks the tough question of what to do with a child unable to function as an adult, and it does so with empathy, kindness, and humor. It’d be easy to lay the blame for all John’s problems at Ethan’s feet. Between trying to get him to master basic tasks like walking, potty training, and eating (pickles and Sprite are favorites) and dealing with his toddler tantrums and tics (he likes to squat at random and place his hands on the ground), Ethan is not an easy kid. He’s permanently stuck in toddlerhood, so John and Mary don’t have that someday he’ll outgrow this hope. He never will.

But while John admits to being tired, unwilling to continue at times, and even occasionally taking out his frustrations by yelling at his son, Kokoris never takes it to an extreme that makes the reader dislike John. And the story never falls too deeply into a heavy, somber place that it can’t climb out of. Ethan has a trio of stuffed bears, and John long ago began using them as a means to distract Ethan. The conversations he has with the bears might not make much sense to Ethan, and while they may not be John’s preferred form of entertainment, he’s not above using them to talk out his thoughts.

At first, the rest of the family annoyed me. Mary was far more concerned with Karen’s well-being and why John hadn’t just put him and Ethan on a plane, while Karen was ignoring her father’s phone calls and Mindy kept trying to make excuses not to come at all. Once they’re all together, the road trip makes everything worse. Everyone’s yelling or crying, saying things they regret later…and then something straight out of a slap-stick comedy routine will happen to break the tension.

In the end, the Nichols family is reminded why and how they’ve stuck together all these years, even when it might have been easier to fracture and give up. They’ve still got a long ways to go to fix their communications issues, but you know they’ll make it just fine.

Copy of It’s. Nice. Outside. provided by the publisher.

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