Bringing the tragedy of mental retardation to the printed page is difficult. Only the simplest truth is needed, and yet nothing that is said ever seems quite enough. Through the wry, sensitive Neil Comstock, Kin Platt says more than anybody so far, and he says it with gentleness and guts.
["Hey, Dummy"] begins with a three-man football game in which the Dummy becomes unwittingly involved when he picks up the stray ball. Boyish violence ensues, leaving Neil disturbed. "Thinking about that Dummy just lying there and saying 'Aaaah' after I hit him, ruined my game."
Neil's involvement with the Dummy increases….
[Soon Neil] is attempting to look at the world as the Dummy does. He tries to put himself into Alan's skin….
The build-up to the final tragedy is slow and sure. A young girl is attacked in the park, and the Dummy becomes the target of mob action. Neil, totally committed now, helps him escape. His evaluation of the situation is one of the most poignant moments of the novel. "I'm in big trouble … I'm sure I had to do what I did but it just didn't work out the way things are supposed to when you feel you're doing right." And then the agonized, "If only he wasn't such a Dummy!"
Despite an occasional jarring note (Would any bakery attendant stand by while the Dummy helped himself to nine cakes?) the book has a realistic feel to it. This is largely due to the dimension of the characters. The Dummy and Neil dominate, but Neil's kooky sister could be a book in herself. And Mr. Alvarado, a Mexican-American teacher, in three appearances comes off as a complex and wholly believable character.
There are flashes of humor in this compelling novel, but the nature of mental retardation does not lend itself to a happy ending. And the last word, uttered by Neil, is the same sound with which the Dummy tries to communicate throughout the book, the confused, helpless, "Aaaah."
One closes the book and hears the wry voice of Neil Comstock, "So what did you expect?"
Betsy Byars, in her review of "Hey, Dummy," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 12, 1972, p. 8.