SLEEP WALK, by Dan Chaon
“Sleepwalk,” Dan Chaon’s fourth novel, begins with mercenary Will Bear, a mild-mannered Mad Max in a ripped-off camper, who delivers a debtor named Liandro into the hands of his creditor. The details of Liandro’s guilt are as vague as the future that awaits him, but judging by the ankle cuffs and the many tears shed, Liandro is not optimistic. Will does his best to keep things light by slapping Liandro with a bone and offers to play board games with him in their spare time as the two head east through the Bonneville Salt Flats. But Liandro is not in the mood and his crying becomes intense.
Will will have no real doubts about his job until his next assignment, when the trade-off is far more innocent: a 3-week-old baby. The end user is too terrifying to think about and quickly sets Will in a calming rush of delusion. Here he justifies his role in human trafficking:
“I think it’s a good idea that I’ll pass the little guy over to someone who’ll sell him to a nice rich couple who’ll raise him like their own son. I picture a movie star and her kind, barren husband, or some gay men in short-sleeved shirts, hoping to start a family of their own in Minneapolis, and I picture them walking through that rose garden in Lyndale Park with a toddler in between them, and they passed that great beautiful fountain with the cherubim on it and let him dangle his feet in the water.”
Hmm, I doubt it. But I loved it. Chaon creates a bold irony in the discrepancy between the road warrior’s self-deception 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 the world itself. Chaon takes advantage of the lusty thrill of riding a shotgun with the unpredictable, and the question arises: How lawless and unhinged will the world of “Sleepwalk” become?
Like Liandro, Will Bear (one of several aliases under the rubric he calls the “Barely Blur”) works off some sort of debt incurred by the deplorable mother he eventually kills, as a general hitman and scavenger. This legacy, like most legacies in Chaon’s work, hangs over Will with the weight of a biblical curse and thwarts all hopes of personal growth. But as the indebted matricides go, he’s polite, intermittently wise, and eminently cuddly. He successfully clears his bad memories with copious amounts of marijuana and the occasional morning beer. If those aren’t your coping mechanisms, it’s likely that your mom didn’t hatch you through a turkey baster to make a quick profit and then demand, “Never call me mommy.”