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Review: 'Sleepwalk,' by Dan Chaon

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"Sleepwalk," by Dan Chaon. (Henry Holt and Company/TNS)

FICTION: Dan Chaon's violent, beautiful novel is a triumph of literary genre-bending.

"Sleepwalk" by Dan Chaon; Henry Holt (320 pages, $27.99)


Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino: His films are violent but often hilarious, exulting in the history of cinema, from spaghetti westerns to slasher films to auteurs 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-paranoia and Kerouac-style road epic, Greek myths and dystopian fiction. "Sleepwalk" draws on an array of genres and narratives, but it's also a visionary work, a preview of a nation just minutes away.

Will Bear, Chaon's 50-year-old narrator, officially doesn't exist. Raised by a mother on the lam (now deceased), he has no birth certificate, no Social Security number, no Facebook page, "a blank Scrabble piece" who goes by too-many-aliases-to-remember. Will — or Billy, or "the Barely Blur" — drives a camper; his best friend is his pit bull, Flip.

He's still in touch with a childhood friend, Experanza, a cipher and potential threat. He roams the country, microdosing on LSD and doing odd jobs for a shadowy criminal syndicate, "dealers, cultists, conspiracy theorists and militias, radical reactionaries and revolutionists, trolls and goblins and parasites," the seedy underbelly of the American Dream. He pulls off heists, credit-card fraud, even murder — he's his mother's son. He's also laugh-out-loud funny.

His routine is disrupted when a young woman, Cammie, calls him repeatedly on burner phones, claiming to be his biological daughter from a sperm-bank deposit he made in his 20s. He believes she's an AI scam until she laughs exactly like his mother, "the kind of laugh a person makes as they bite down on an apple. There was a xylophone tinkle in it, a conspiratorial glint, a soft caress that made you think she liked you, despite all your failings. A laugh you'd clown for, a laugh you'd drink up like skin drinks sunshine."

"Sleepwalk" is no act of dull somnambulism but rather a vigorous, polished performance by a writer in command of his gifts. Will hits the blue highways, meandering through the Midwest to the desert Southwest to the Carolina coasts — in his sideview mirrors he glimpses a country blistered with military checkpoints, flu epidemics and robot spies.

Despite his blood-soaked sins, Will's an Everydude who strikes a balance between rage, tenderness, and gallows humor as he seeks intimacy from a daughter who may or may not be real. He abides.

His odyssey, like that of Orestes, spirals toward tragedy; there's a creepy noir scene with a chimpanzee that would fit into a David Lynch movie. And yet the novel's intricate structure and seductive voice lift off the page. Will's description of the mysterious Cammie is a spot-on summary of Chaon's method: "She's good at this withhold-and-reveal game, and it reminds me very strongly of the kinds of tall tales and lies and con games my mother would try out on me — how she'd draw you in with something outrageous and then add a little homely detail to give it a dash of realism, how she'd embellish the story in ways that'd make it personal to the listener."


A contributing books editor for Oprah Daily, Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for a range of venues, including the Star Tribune, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.


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