Unsleepy heads: In noir star Huston’s latest, insomnia ruins everything

Smith Galtney

First published in 2004, Charlie Huston still qualifies as a bit of a newbie to the crime-fiction scene, yet the prolific author’s already created a career’s worth of material. Two character sagas, three stand-alone novels, several rebooted series for Marvel Comics—all exhibiting Huston’s flair for goosing the old-fashioned detective mystery with pitch-black satire, high-concept violence and innovative genre twists. It’s a wonder we’ve yet to see a cable series or film franchise “based on the novel by Charlie Huston,” but Hollywood’s wising up: HBO’s developing The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, Huston’s farce about crime-scene cleaning.

Huston’s latest novel, Sleepless, proves his breakneck writing pace hasn’t sucked his well of cool ideas dry. In fact, this cop-thriller, futuristic-mystery, drug-drama, sci-fi horror, cyber-zombie epic leaves you thinking this guy’s still warming up.

The Details

Four stars
Charlie Huston. Ballantine Books, $25

Set in the not-so-distant future—only a few months from now, really—Sleepless presents a hellish scenario in which a plague of insomnia has infected 10 percent of the Earth’s population. A nastier strain of Fatal Familial Insomnia, a real-life hereditary disease that leads to a quick death and loss of sleep only its final stages, Huston’s mutation can also transmit via the exchange of fluids, or if inhaled in large concentrations. A stiff neck and pinpoint pupils are the first recognizable symptoms, followed by lack of sleep that gradually worsens into absolute insomnia, which can last up to a year:

Months were endured by the sufferers, months of constant wakefulness, plunging in and out of REM-state dreams without ever falling asleep, alert, always, to the terrible wrack of their bodies. There was no cure, death was inevitable, and while one’s self might gradually slip away, one’s awareness of the pain and physical chaos never ceased.

Drugs like Valium and Klonopin are useless, and while large doses of amphetamine may give a “Sleepless” temporary energy and focus, the only proven treatment is Dreamer, a sleep aid that relieves an otherwise excruciating death. With mass production tied up in pharmaceutical-industry red tape, it’s bigger than gold on the black market, where Huston sets up a traditional tale of good vs. evil.

The good guy is Park, a Los Angeles cop with a sleepless wife and possibly sick baby, who’s gone undercover as an upscale drug dealer to sniff out illegal trade in Dreamer. The bad guy is Jasper, a business-minded mercenary with a knack for ripping off eyelids. Jasper is as certain of the world’s imminent end as Park is relentless in his belief that things can change. “I know I’m right,” he writes in his journal. “It’s not too late. It’s not too late. I say that it is not too late.”

That might seem a bit Pollyanna-ish out of context, but Park’s stubborn hopefulness helps to offset the novel’s altogether frightening worldview. Traffic at a permanent standstill, cops tweaked out on Demerol and X, Century City as armed compound for the well-connected, populated by human bombs and zombie-like insomniacs—Huston’s vision of LA makes the one in Blade Runner look like an art-deco wonderland. But it’s just as thoroughly constructed and meticulously detailed, and ultimately too fun to resist.

The most amusing passages recap headlines and cultural shifts in the world according to Sleepless. First pegged as Mad Cow Disease, the bug spread even further as everyone blamed the terrorists. Due to the astronomical price of gas, waiting in traffic without your engine turned off is rude and ostentatious, yet open drug use fuels happy hour, and rich folks spend and indulge because that’s American! A zombie movie features zombies played by sleepless extras, confirming the sleepless as a profitable demographic. They’ve got plenty of time to surf the net and hit the cinema, or stop at the local flea market to get jacked full of speed and sealed inside a sensory-depravation tank. Nobody’s better at video games, and since gaming replaced baseball as the national pastime, place your bets on the sleepless. Always.

Huston established himself as a prolific author and original storyteller years ago, but Sleepless proves he’s a dead-on social satirist. The humor hits too close to home to qualify as “laugh-out-loud,” but for a book that literally gave me nightmares, it was a hell of a good time.


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