Pity poor Bernard Schwartz. He’s upper middle-class, lives in the seemingly charming old town of Bellwether, Connecticut, and has everything a man could want. His two teenaged children, Cathy and Chris, appear to love him profusely despite being your average rebellious teenagers. He has a somewhat interesting stay-at-home job as a newsletter publisher. Life is good, if not sweet.
So why pity him? Bernard Schwartz is a very depressed mess of a man, one suddenly forced to face his own mortality when his meds get switched on him by mistake at his pharmacy, an act that sends him reeling into a drug-induced coma. His immediate family, all strangely more self-absorbed than he is, is suddenly left trying to find a way to cope with this unexpected twist of fate. Bernard, on the other hand, merely struggles. To live.
The Sleeping Father is the third book by Matthew Sharpe following a novel (Nothing Is Terrible 2000) and a short-story collection (Stories from the Tube 1998). It’s also a book that comes into this world with incredible weight on its shoulders. Not only does it have to fight off a kind of TV Movie of the Week stigma, there’s the bad taste caused by previous novels tackling similar territory, like the whiney Prozac Nation.
What’s more, The Sleeping Father also must compete against all the other books about crazy, mixed-up American families in recent years. You even may have heard of a few of them: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Jeffrey Eugendies’ Middlesex, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
Sharpe, like his literary forbearers, examines changes in American attitudes over race, sex/gender, politics and religion by setting his larger story against the day-to-day life of your everyday dysfunctional family. Unlike any of the lengthy 500-page plus opuses listed above, though, The Sleeping Father clocks in at a comparatively concise 300-odd pages, taking into account some way too generous white space.
One might think the brevity is a good thing, something that might usher in tighter narratives at a time when Big American Family Novels are perhaps getting a little too Big for their own good. Alas, the somewhat short length of this book turns out to be a mixed blessing, because - though it mercifully ends quickly - Sharpe lacks the focus to tackle the Big Subjects in such a relatively small amount of pages. A thread about race issues between Chris and his black teenaged neighbor, Frank Dial, comes and goes. So, too, does a subplot around Cathy’s choice to change her religion.
The Sleeping Father swiftly collapses under its own flimsy weight; there’s simply too little substance within its pages. And that’s when this novel’s slightly dour ambiance isn’t constantly reminding you it might have been better off published when Prozac was slightly more topical - say, in 1994.
There are other problems. We really don’t know why Bernard Schwartz is depressed, even though we’re told his ex-wife is sleeping with another man on the West Coast and he probably feels isolated in his work. Bernie is a blank slate, a void—something the reader isn’t allowed to care about simply because the author doesn’t. He is just one of many pawns Sharpe uses to conveniently concoct Definitive Statements along the lines of “Religion is stupid. It’s, like, the crack cocaine of the masses.” Well, duh.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast, particularly Chris and Cathy, have little to do but act like superficial twits. The book actually enters the realm of fantasy at one point when Chris, who has some pretty significant issues involving his mother and unresolved anger, starts receiving romantic overtures from two health care providers. At one point, Bernie’s speech pathologist takes a great measure of verbal abuse from the 16-year-old boy before inexplicably proceeding to administer a little speech therapy and sexual healing. Yes, she deep throats Chris. No, I’m not making this up.
If you can, briefly ignore the professional career ramifications at sake for this pathetic pathologist, let alone the borderline statutory rape charge she stands a good chance of landing by blowing some young kid she barely only met four pages before. Disregard, too, that Chris acts like a prick to women, or that an incredible event - a young boy’s first blowjob - is merely worth a quarter of a page in Sharpe’s narrative.
Can’t do it? Exactly my point.
The book so quickly Jumps The Shark into the absurd with this scene that you’d be forgiven for momentarily thinking that the whole speech pathologist scene was something you saw in a really bad porn movie, the sort of place these kinds of sexual relations occur regularly. But - wait for it - Sharpe writes 12 pages later that she “had indeed blown Chris,” as though even the author couldn’t quite believe the situation himself and had to re-convince himself after the fact of his own incredulous narrative. Try to read this without laughing in disbelief. It’s more difficult than it might seem.
Despite major shortcomings like these, The Sleeping Father isn’t a complete slumber party, which makes condemning the book all the more frustrating. There’s a really nice passage where Chris ponders the fate of tormented poet Sylvia Plath and the discipline it must have taken her to commit suicide by baking her head in an oven.
Ultimately, though, The Sleeping Father is almost one of those novels that threatens to knock the reader out cold out of sheer boredom or disinterest. It actually might make you stay up late at night with an insomniac haze clouding your sleep instead. You might lie there, wondering how an author with two previously published books under his belt - one who has taught creative writing at Columbia University and Bard College - could possibly produce something so awful. And if that depresses the crap outta you, consider the $14 and time you just spent on a whole lot of Dad-aism, a whole lot of nothing.
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