Blackstone Audio, 2010
Since having discovered Charlie Huston some time ago he has quickly rocketed up into my circle of favorite authors. Blackstone Audio’s production of Huston’s Joe Pitt series read with style and panache by Scott Brick are some of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death was a unique, gritty, sometimes hilarious, and constantly entertaining crime novel. While I certainly did not have as much fun with Sleepless as I did with Huston’s other work it is definitely his most thought provoking work.
An insomnia inducing disease is sweeping across the nation; SLP a disease that erodes the mind driving victims insane and eventually to death. Society has not coped well with the disease and the Los Angeles that is the main setting for the novel is one quickly crumbling into chaos and disarray. Officer Parker Haas is working undercover in the drug trade, rampant now that the titular sleepless seek an escape from their suffering, trying to track down illegal trafficking of the consumer drug DR33M3R; the only known effect method for sleepless to actually sleep. Thrown into the mix is the aging mercenary/assassin Jasper who is hired to retrieve an item in Haas’ possession by any means necessary.
Haas is an interesting character. He is a paladin, but a paladin in a society that sees his ideals of justice and law as increasingly laughable verging on outright impossible. Indeed there are multiple times where Jasper, when first running across Haas’ path, automatically assumes that even if Haas is a cop he is a cop on the take. As society crumbles around him Haas holds onto the notion that there is a solid future out there for his daughter his idealized vision of society both armoring his mind and dulling his senses to what is really going on. Haas’ ideals and belief in law and society is contrasted by the civilized, if somewhat cold and violent, Jasper. It is fairly clear through Haas’ internal monologue that his strongly established moral compass serves as counterpoint to a potentially violent nature. Jasper’s amoral view of the world and complete acceptance of his violent nature mask a growing desire for something more. Both characters are well-developed and while the lion’s share of the narrative falls on Haas’ shoulders both Haas and Jasper frequently play foil for one another.
Sleepless bears a lot of resemblance to zombie novels it would be far too easy to write the novel off at first glance on that basis alone. The more one reads Sleepless the more that early impression fades. In truth the sleepless play less of role in the story then you might think. The sleepless are in many ways like a rather large rocked dropped in a rather small pond; they don’t serve any direct threat but the ripples they have on the social landscape of the world and the emotional landscape of the characters are impossible to ignore. In fact it is this trans-formative element of SLP that drives the conflicts of the novel.
It should be noted that in audio form Sleepless is a bit difficult to grasp at first. The novel employs diary entries to start many chapters and the narrative is split between both Haas and Jasper. As a result it took me a solid couple of hours to realize what has going on. The audio version is aptly handled by Ray Porter and Mark Bramhall though I think the complexity of the narrative is likely better served in print. Regardless, the audio production is top notch and if you’re willing to sit down and really pay attention to what is going then it is certainly worth a shot.
While Sleepless is a meaty novel the black humor that marked much of Huston’s earlier work did not feel as prevalent here. There are certainly some flashes of humor, particularly through Jasper, the does not often crack a smile and when it does it is often a very sad smile. This certainly adds to the emotional impact of the novel and the oppressive atmosphere of both the world and the mental concerns of our protagonist lends an element of tension to the narrative. However, that same oppressive quality occasionally grows cumbersome, not overbearing, but enough to cause a distinct and palpable wish for relief. As a result, Sleepless is not quite a casual read. It’s prose is as approachable and clever as any of Huston’s earlier work but Huston’s precise control of tone here works against ever letting the reader feel comfortable. This isn’t a bad thing, and Huston’s ability to maintain a taught emotional state over Sleepless’ 360 plus pages is something I think readers ought to be aware of before going in. I honestly can’t wait to see what else Huston has in store for readers. His body of work shows an impressive breadth of ability that will keep readers guessing and I for one can’t wait to see what avenue Huston chooses to explore next.