Insomnia as a plot device is certainly known to American popular culture, in works ranging from those helmed by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), Stephen King (Insomnia) and Christopher Nolan (also Insomnia, of no relation to King). The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had to marks, perhaps, a bit of a first: a novel whose titular character is a teenager. One who simply cannot catch any good shut-eye, not even during the most boring of high-school classes.
The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had to is about a pair of teenaged friends, Darren Bennett (who isn’t named until about halfway through the book) and Eric Lederer. They instantly connect over Darren’s penchant for drawing comics in his binder at school, video games, and their love of geeky movie trilogies, such as Star Wars and The Lord of The Rings. However, Eric has a terrible secret: he suffers from the world’s worst case of insomnia, as he just can’t get to sleep.
Even when he was a tiny tot, Eric would lie awake in his crib when the rest of the world was sleeping. Of course, once Eric reveals his life-long affliction to his new friend, the word gets out and the duo find themselves not only on the run from sinister forces, but also wedged between Darren’s budding relationship with a Drama Club girl.
This is the debut novel of young author D.C. Pierson, who graduated from New York University in 2007 with a television writing degree. He is also part of the comedy group DERRICK, which has made a feature film called Mystery Team, and now has his own profile in the Internet Movie Database as a result. Pierson’s latest addition to the world of insomniac pop culture is fairly compact first novel at just more than 200 pages long, and it comes with both flights of fancy and its share of flaws.
As a novel, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had to starts off rather laboriously, partly because its characters are so dweeby, partly because Pierson has a tendency to use run-on sentences to capture the breathless bewilderment of being a teenaged outsider. (“[M]y inner monologue is still like a cartoon chipmunk having a panic attack,” notes Darren at one point.) Pierson also doesn’t offer much description for his characters, leaving a lot of their motivations to internal monologues and dialogue, so you have to use your imagination to picture what these kids are like.
The novel appears to take place somewhere in southwest America, southwest with its desert setting. (Pierson was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona.) However, Pierson is never clear, presumably to make the book seem more universal. Then again, maybe it’s just sloppy writing.
The book improves about mid-way through, when the world of its two main characters blow open, and they find themselves suddenly and somewhat accidentally interacting with other kids from their school. This mid-section is probably the best part of the story, as the outside world of the duo’s high school is much more interesting that the plots of Darren and Eric to create their own movie/comic book/video game franchise, which takes up much of the first third of the novel.
The last third, featuring our heroes on the run from a Man In Black and the authorities, is gripping but falls a little too hard on the magic realism side, almost as though the author was channeling the spirit of early Jonathan Lethem. It seems a little far-fetched, especially given the bildungsroman feel of the first two-thirds, and the story stops abruptly on a dime.
This novel is probably best suited for older teenage boys, as it’s rife with somewhat explicit sex scenes, some drug use, and foul language, including the use of the dreaded c-word to denote female genitalia. There are also a number of “jokes” about rape that are more than a little unsettling.
As a reader, I was of two minds regarding this frankness. On one hand, it’s refreshing to read a novel that tells it like it is to be a teenager, and mirrors how many teens talk and act in the 21st century. Granted, it’s also certainly nothing new in teen lit as the late J.D. Salinger was accused for being raw in The Catcher in the Rye. That novel about teenaged alienation certainly had its share of f-bombs, but not as many as The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had to which, if turned into a Hollywood movie, would easily garner an R-rating just on strong language alone.
Then there’s the fact that Pierson is guilty of perpetuating stereotypes, particularly anti-gay stereotypes, as our two main characters often remark about the fear of being found out that they could be gay based on their nerdiness – as though that somehow would be a bad thing. The book features a make-out scene at a party between two minor-character lesbians to, one would assume at first glance, mitigate the imbalance of anti-gay sentiment in the book. However, Pierson suggests that one of the characters merely has “a lesbian switch” she can turn on and off, as though one can “turn off” being gay.
When the two make out, their peers catch their actions on camera, one would presume to be used as blackmail evidence on a social media site later on. Capturing what it’s truly like to be an ostracized teen in the Facebook world, or just some lazy stereotyping? Your mileage may vary.
The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had to is a frank book, and accurately encapsulates what it is like to be on the outside growing up. It’s occasionally funny, though some of its humour about teenage sexuality is a bit off-putting. It’s shift in tone in the third act is a little strident, as well, as though Pierson had simply painted himself into a corner and had to weasel out of it by bringing in fantastical elements into the story.
In short, you won’t lose any sleep reading this book, but you won’t lie awake at night, either, thinking about being transported to that mysterious time when bodies were changing, hormones were raging, and all-nighters were really for studying or partying.