Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sleepless by Charlie Huston

Charlie Huston has proven himself master of series genre, with both his Joe Pitt and Hank Thompson books; the former is noirish and moody, darkly humorous urban fantasy, the latter grittily realistic, with a hero who does what he's got to do to get by. He's proven himself master of the stand-alone literary thriller, including last year's delicious The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. This year he adds master of the post-apocalyptic thriller to his list of accomplishments.
A  plague of sleeplessness has swept the world, ripping apart families and communities, jumping on the back of the recession economy of 2008 and 2009 and bringing the world to its knees. It's July, 2010--oh yes, my friends, far too close for comfort--and Los Angeles, like most of the country, is under martial law. Parker Haas, a young beat cop who's too rigidly honest for his own good not to  mention the comfort of his partners, is tapped by his superiors for an undercover--a deep undercover--assignment. Park is to become a drug dealer and seek out the black market for  Dreamer, the only drug able to give any relief at all to those who suffer from the disease.
Sleepless consists of several different narratives. The main one is a standard third person narrative, following Park as he moves around the city, dealing with the rich druggies and obsessive gamers who buy his wares, with his sick wife and small daughter, and with a crime the depth and depravity of which unfolds slowly and sickeningly. There are excerpts, often heartbreaking, from Park’s journal, in which he keeps a record of his undercover job and chronicles the painful deterioration from sleeplessness of his wife. Finally, there is the first person narrative of an elegant, cultured, for most of the  novel unnamed contract killer, whom, we quickly learn, is stalking Park as his current prey.
The world Charlie Huston builds in Sleepless is richly detailed and all-too believable. We see the sights and smell the smells, from the canals of Venice to the mostly abandoned Los Angeles Airport to the Midnight Carnival, a 24 hour open air marketplace, populated in the overnight hours mostly by the sleepless, “a segment of the population that as often as not had little or no foreseeable need to keep its savings intact...” Fish mongers, all night spontaneous parties, vendors selling the "looted contents of abandoned Inland Empire McMansions;” if you want it, you can find it at the Midnight Carnival.
But Sleepless is not just detail and description. The characters are achingly real, beautifully drawn, full of goodness and conceit, some exhibiting stereotypical--but all too familiar from one’s own experience--behavior. We care about these characters, and the surprise ending is even more shocking and moving as a result.  
Charlie Huston has gotten better with each of his novels. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.  


If you like post-apocalyptic fiction, or if you've never tried it, and need some titles to choose from, check out any of these: The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway, Swan Song, by Robert McCammon, Dinner at Deviant's Palace, by Tim Powers, and, of course, The Stand, by Stephen King. There are many other great examples of this genre, but these are among my favorites.


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