Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Very Masculine History

Sleep by Nino Ricci (Doubleday, 2015) 235 pages
                    **SPOILER ALERT ***

Secrets are poisonous - especially those kept from one's spouse and closest relations. The secret that our protagonist David Pace withholds from his wife Julia is enormous and eventually undoes the marriage. David has a serious sleep disorder - unnamed specifically but clearly a form of narcolepsy - that almost endangers the life of their son Marcus in a near car accident on the highway at the beginning of Sleep. But as the book progresses we realize that the problem is much deeper than a medical ailment.

What troubles David is what ails many men - an obsession with violence and power and an overwhelming sense of shame when one loses face or control. The diminishing of power engenders rage and violence. This is not a book for the faint of heart - it's a stunning example of "dirty realism", a form of realism that depicts the "seamier" aspects of life in simple and unadorned language.

David Pace is a cauldron of anger and insecurity, alternately fearsome in his rages and self-castigating in light of his list of moral and professional failures. An academic, specializing in Roman history and achieving a sort of minor academic celebrity for his book Masculine History, the main character is ironically named Pace (pace means peace in Italian). Mr. Pace's troubles are many: a failed marriage, accusations of plagiarism and stealing from a student in his academic work, a hostile relationship with his twin Danny and his mother and memories of an acrimonious relationship with his dead father - a successful but bullying totem in David's past.

David is petulant, unhappy and somehow, interestingly, sympathetic to the reader in many instances.

The anger runs through every page like an electrical current - anger at Julia's smothering attentions to their only child; jealousy of his twin Danny's material success and ostentatious home in the suburbs (the homes in Danny's suburbs are said to resemble Rome before the fall); envy of his department head's past relationship with Julia, a fellow academic; the list is endless.

Julia's post-partum depression seems to makes scant impression on David, aside from being a tool to bludgeon her with when they fight over Marcus. In David's mind, he has become: "... the enemy, the threat, the bad parent she needs him to be in order to assure herself she is the good one."

Post-divorce, a trip to the cemetery to see his father's grave with his mother and brother, elicits only this from David: a fantasy that somehow his teenaged father had forged some sort of relationship with the fascist leader Mussolini during WWII when he lived in his small southern Italian village. As a boy, David searched through his father's papers for proof of such an unsavoury alliance to no avail.

When David comes upon his nephews and son furtively playing with their grandfather's gun at Danny's house, David squirrels away the gun under the pretext of removing it from the grasp of the children. He secretly begins to practice shooting at a range - alternately enthralled and repelled by his new fascination. This begets a new obsession.

David is a dangerous creature - not because of his medical condition or his efforts to hide it - but because its discovery seems to unleash the unpleasant, unsavoury, misogynistic wreck hidden beneath the veneer of the mild-mannered, semi-successful academic. David has neither patience nor respect for the women in his life - his ex-wife Julia, his mother or Jennifer, the hapless grad student whom he lures into his home for a night of illicit drugs and, allegedly, non-consensual sex. Afterwards David can remember virtually nothing of their sexual encounter.

When Jennifer lodges a complaint against David suggesting that she was a victim of date rape, David fears the worst  - that he has transgressed in a manner that he can't recall or guess at during his sleep. He thinks of other incidents that he has read about in which narcoleptics have murdered their loved ones in their sleep. He fears:

If intent is there, doesn't blame follow? Maybe all sleep has done is provide the permission the waking mind has withheld.

When David is driven from the college and banished to a lesser position in a school south of the border - driven away by his illness, mismanagement of his meds, near bankruptcy, poor relations with Julia and Marcus and his disastrous encounter with Jennifer - he lands in an equally precarious position. It's as if he is descending into a further ring of hell.

He finds himself falling for Kateri, the wife of Greg, the academic and friend who invited him to the U.S. college to teach. Sensing vulnerability and unhappiness, he is inexorably drawn to her. His relationship with her is brutal and reciprocal. Among his many addictions is his addiction to danger and risk - from relationships that will inevitably implode and will damage his chances of success to his fascination with guns and violence.

 ... for the first time he thinks he gets what the real thrall of a gun is beyond the blood lust and compensations, this feeling of being alone on the road without judges or gods, beholden to no authority but your own. The terrible freedom of that, of making the hard choice. Anything less, it seems is only for sleepwalkers.

David can neither control his more destructive impulses nor does he appear to want to. When he is removed from the college, yet again, for a grievous transgression he ends up in a foreign country on the business end of karma. The end result is spectacular and somehow appropriate.

At one point, David is confronted by a very young band of thugs, all with weapons and poor impulse control, David hallucinates that the leader of the boys is named Marcus, a clever Oedipal detail. For in this tale, the sons will destroy their fathers with the weapons that they have received from their fathers.


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