Dan Chaon’s stories are restless nightmares. They’re the soft prickle at the back of your neck, the insistent fears that pull you from sleep, the full-blown horror that might greet you when you wake. These stories demand and capture your attention, and they don’t let go even after you’ve finished reading them. That impending sense of doom that permeates? Chaon’s broken, lonely characters can’t shake it, either. “Something bad has been looking for him for a long time,” one wary father knows, “and now, at last, it is growing near.”
Author of two fine novels, You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply, Chaon started his writing career with short fiction in the collections Fitting Ends and Among the Missing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He’s a master of psychological tension, which plays out mostly in small Midwestern towns in Stay Awake. These burgs could be homey, friendly places where the locals slap you on the back and buy you a beer. Instead, they’re desolate landscapes where his characters are forced to confront the monster they’d like to avoid most: the truth about themselves.
That guy who senses something bad on the way in the opening story “The Bees”? His name is Gene, and when his son Frankie wakes up screaming, “(i)t is the worst sound Gene can imagine, the sound of a young child dying violently — falling from a building, or caught in some machinery that is tearing an arm off, or being mauled by a predatory animal.” Gene had another child once — and another wife, too — but he was a drunk, a terrible man, and he abandoned them. Now he’s afraid some sort of payback is due. He can’t stop dreaming about that other boy growing into a man who whispers, “I know how to hurt you.”
Gene is not the only one unable to free himself from the past. When her daughter leaves for college, the divorced mother in “Long Delayed, Always Expected” begins an ill-advised affair with her brain-damaged ex-husband because “she didn’t like the looks of this stretch between forty-five and fifty.” In “I Wake Up”, the son of a mother who murdered two of her children begins to get phone calls from his long-lost older sister; the calls unsettle him because they drag him back to a poisonous history he barely remembers. “What would you do if you saw her again?” his sister asks. He doesn’t know. “What kind of person wouldn’t think about it?” she asks. “What kind of person wouldn’t remember?”
Though the stories range widely in experience, they all carry a heavy atmosphere of dread. The title story opens with the following chilling line: “Zach and Amber’s baby was born with a rare condition that the doctors told them was called craniopagus parasiticus. This means that their baby had two heads.” They have a whole baby, Rosalie, but the “parasitic” twin has no name, though it “had a head and a neck but didn’t really have a body… Nevertheless the head of the second twin was perfectly formed, with a beautiful little face.” The twins are due to be surgically separated, an operation that could kill them, and Zach wonders if Rosalie will survive only to realize something, someone, is missing in the years to come. “Hello, a voice would say. I’m still here. I’m still with you.” If that image doesn’t keep you up nights, nothing will.
In Chaon’s twilight realms, communication is as elusive as happiness. The lonely widower in “To Psychic Underworld” begins to believe someone — or maybe everyone — is trying to communicate with him through random notes he finds (“Roach spray / Batteries / Water Mellon “ or “I had cybersex!! With a guy named eric !”) The teenager whose infant dies in “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow” flees the funeral and can barely bring himself to talk to the high school sweetheart who’s also grieving. Part of him is relieved to avoid his duty. He doesn’t have to get married; he doesn’t have to be a father. He can get the hell out of town. “Already, one man you might have been is dead, and you should take some time to clear his cobwebbed bones from your mind.” When his girlfriend finally corners him, though, she isn’t angry. She’s surprised. “I guess I always thought it would be bigger, when a terrible thing happened,” she says.
Chaon reminds us of the ripples that follow in the wake of those terrible things — fatal accidents, family suicides, a man who consigns his dead mother’s dogs to the vet’s needle rather than find them new homes. He doesn’t look them in the face when he drops them off. “I realize this is something I will probably never tell anyone, ever. Perhaps such things will accumulate more and more from now on, I think.” Chaon’s dark gift is to understand those things we never want to tell — and to make us want to read about them anyway.