Sleepless: Charlie Huston

Cover of Sleepless by Charlie HustonSleepless is a book that practically had my name on it. A chronic insomniac since childhood, I’ve watched more than one sunrise with salty tears of self-pity in my eyes. So I was intrigued by a book that promised insomnia so much worse than anything I’ve ever experienced. What better way to comfort myself on those long, long sleepless nights than to remind myself, à la Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? by that mad genius Dr. Seuss, that it could be worse, that I could have a rogue prion in my brain eating holes in it and keeping me awake until I finally die?

At first, I was a little put off by the structure, broken up as it is into three different narrative voices. In the first chapter, you get the protagonist Parker Hass in the third-person, then you switch to some unidentified “I” and then you get Parker in the first person. Lately, I’ve been kind of annoyed with the chapter-based trade-off in narrators in novels (something I’m coming up against in the latest Murakami, which I am just now finally getting around to reading), but Huston keeps it interesting and doesn’t let it fall into the my-turn, your-turn pattern. Not all chapters include all viewpoints and he uses them all to good effect, to tell different parts of the story that need telling.

The whole thing turns on SLP, the sleepless disease, a prion disorder like mad cow, Creutzfeld-Jacob, Kuru, etc., etc. Being an incurable science nerd, I’ve been fascinated with these weird broken prion diseases, especially Fatal Familial Insomnia, which the hypochondriac part of my brain has been insisting I have ever since I first heard about it a few years ago. (But no need for alarm. I am just a hypochondriac and my insomnia is just from my broken brain. FFI pretty much limits itself to some unfortunate families I appear not to be related to. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from worrying. Or double-checking genealogies.) Clearly, Huston has done his research, taking all these prion diseases as a jumping-off point to create his own SLP, an unbelievably terrifying disease that causes sleeplessness almost from the outset.

And there is no cure for SLP, just a chance to sleep again in the form of the drug “DR33M3R”, also known as Dreamer. In a world where one in ten people are infected with SLP, the drug is obviously in demand. But there’s not enough for everyone and that’s where the trouble starts.

Parker is a cop in LA sent undercover to find Dreamer on the other side of the law. After all, if there is such a demand, there must be a black market for the stuff. The cops, along with all municipal, state and federal services, are barely functioning: no money coming in, too many employees with SLP and a group of fundamentalist Christian terrorists hellbent on blowing up the city with car bombs and other time-honoured terrorist tactics.

And the “I” of the third narrative viewpoint? A terrifying man who has lived through some terrifying things.

The story’s good and a good story will definitely keep me reading, but what I am most in love with are some well-drawn characters. And Park with his doctorate in Philosophy and tight moral code, and Rose, his foul-mouthed feminist, SLP-afflicted wife, are certainly fleshed out to the point where they are still living in my head hours after finishing the book.

But they’re the main characters and sharing my head space with main characters is pretty standard for me. It’s the detail lavished on supporting characters like Lady Chizu that really hooked me. Huston picks out a few key character points and the rest of the character just falls out from those. Sometimes, an author can get a little over the top with describing all the little details of their beloved characters, but what really makes a character live is just that skeleton of unique details that allows the reader to hang everything else on there herself. And Huston is one of those writers who can do this. There’s a moment where you learn Park’s daughter’s name that is pretty much perfect. And all that happens is you find out her name. High fives, Charlie Huston.

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