Review: “Sleepwalk,” by Dan Chaon

SLEEPWALK, by Dan Chaon

“Sleepwalk,” Dan Chaon’s fourth novel, begins with the mercenary Will Bear, a mild-mannered Mad Max in a tricked-out camper van, delivering a debtor named Liandro into the hands of his creditor. The particulars of Liandro’s debt are as vague as the future awaiting him, though to tell by the ankle shackles and the many tears shed, Liandro isn’t optimistic. Will does his best to keep things light, supplying Liandro with hits from a blunt and offering to play board games with him in their downtime as the two head east through the Bonneville Salt Flats. But Liandro is in no mood, and his weeping turns intense.

Will won’t have any real misgivings about his line of work until his next assignment, when the trade-off involves far more innocent fare: a 3-week-old baby. The end-user is too terrifying to contemplate and quickly provokes in Will a soothing stream of delusions. Here he is justifying his role in human trafficking:

“I like the idea that I’ll pass the little guy off to someone who will sell him to some nice wealthy couple who will raise him as their own son. I picture a movie star and her kindly, infertile husband, or some gay guys in short-sleeved shirts, hoping to make themselves a family in Minneapolis, and I picture them walking along through that rose garden in Lyndale Park with a toddler between them, and they pass that big pretty fountain with the cherubs on it and they let him dangle his feet in the water.”

Hmm, I doubt it. But I did love it. Chaon creates a daring irony in the disconnect between the road warrior’s self-deceit and the reader’s skepticism. The mystery, the moral audacity, the sense that anything is possible in these early pages refreshes not only the hit-man trope but also the world itself. Chaon taps into the prurient thrill of riding shotgun with the unpredictable, and the question dawns: Just how lawless and unhinged will the world of “Sleepwalk” get?

Like Liandro, Will Bear (one of several aliases under the rubric he calls the “Barely Blur”) is working off some kind of debt, incurred by the deplorable mother he eventually murders, as a general-purpose contract killer and cleanup man. This inheritance, like most inheritances in Chaon’s work, hangs over Will with the weight of a biblical curse and stunts all hope of personal growth. But as indebted matricides go, he’s polite, intermittently wise and eminently huggable. He successfully shrugs off his bad memories with copious amounts of marijuana and the occasional morning beer. If those aren’t your coping mechanisms, well, it’s likely your mother didn’t incubate you by turkey baster in order to turn a quick profit and then demand, “Don’t ever call me Mom.”

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