This violent and beautiful novel is a triumph of bending literary genres | Books and authors
“Sleepwalk” by Dan Chaon; Henry Holt (320 pages, $27.99)
Say What You Want About Quentin Tarantino: His films are violent but often hilarious, exulting in cinematic history, from spaghetti westerns to slasher films to authors such as Welles and Kurosawa.
The same can be said of Dan Chaon’s brash, exuberant new novel “Sleepwalk,” a Tarantino vibe in book form, with nods to Pynchon’s paranoia and Kerouac-esque road saga, myths Greeks and dystopian fiction. “Sleepwalk” draws on a range of genres and narratives, but it’s also a visionary work, a glimpse of a nation minutes away.
Will Bear, the 50-year-old narrator of Chaon, officially doesn’t exist. Raised by a mother on the run (now deceased), he has no birth certificate, no social security number, no Facebook page, “a piece of blank Scrabble” that goes by too many aliases to remember. Will – or Billy, or “the Barely Blur” – drives an RV; his best friend is his pit bull, Flip.
He is still in contact with a childhood friend, Experanza, a cipher and potential threat. He travels the country, microdosing LSD and doing odd jobs for a shadowy criminal syndicate, “dealers, cultists, conspiracy theorists and militias, radical reactionaries and revolutionaries, trolls and goblins and parasites” , the seedy underbelly of the American dream. He pulls off burglaries, credit card fraud and even murder – he’s his mother’s son. He’s also laugh out loud.
His routine is disrupted when a young woman, Cammie, repeatedly calls him on burner phones, claiming to be his biological daughter from a sperm bank deposit he made in his twenties. He believes she’s an AI con until she laughs just like her mother, “the kind of laugh a person makes when biting into an apple.” There was a tinkling xylophone, a knowing glow, a gentle caress that made you believe she loved you, despite all your failings. A laugh you’d clown for, a laugh you’d drink like the skin drinks the sun.
“Sleepwalk” isn’t a boring act of sleepwalking but rather a vigorous, polished performance by a writer in command of his gifts. Will takes the blue highways, winding through the Midwest to the desert Southwest to the Carolina coast – in his rear view mirrors he sees a country dotted with military checkpoints, flu outbreaks and robots spies.
Despite his bloody sins, Will is an Everydude who balances rage, tenderness, and gallows humor as he seeks intimacy with a girl who may or may not be real. He lives.
His odyssey, like that of Orestes, turns tragic; there’s a creepy noir scene with a chimpanzee that would fit in a David Lynch movie. And yet, the novel’s complex structure and seductive voice pops off the page. Will’s description of the mysterious Cammie is a perfect summary of Chaon’s method: “She’s good at this game of holding back and revealing, and it reminds me very strongly of the kind of tales, lies and con games that my mother was trying. about me – how she would lure you in with something outrageous, then add a simple little detail to give it a touch of realism, how she would embellish the story in a way that made it personal to the listener.