The Sleeping Father, by Matthew Sharpe

A disturbing blend of irony and cuteness
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The Independent Culture

Prepare for more family dysfunction among the American middle classes. For this first novel, we're in leafy Connecticut where, after an accidental dose of incompatible anti-depressants, Bernie Schwartz falls into a coma and awakes helplessly, and endearingly, brain-damaged.

Prepare for more family dysfunction among the American middle classes. For this first novel, we're in leafy Connecticut where, after an accidental dose of incompatible anti-depressants, Bernie Schwartz falls into a coma and awakes helplessly, and endearingly, brain-damaged.

Bernie has been a single parent since his wife Lila left him and their children to become a Californian lawyer and have lots of sex. Their adolescent offspring, Chris and Cathy, must now take responsibility for both themselves, and their dad.

The 17-year-old Chris has anarchistic attitudes and a dangerously ungovernable tongue. Despite his spots and "flutterymindedness", women in the medical profession keep divesting him of his trousers. His tormented younger sister Cathy dreams of salvation through conversion to Catholicism. Chris's best friend is Frank Dial, a good-looking, articulate black boy cursed with an alarming precocity and dreaming of salvation through Cathy.

When Bernie returns from hospital, the family begins to accrue new members. There is Bernie's doctor Lisa, for whom Chris incongruously lusts, her father, the formidable Moe Danmeyer, who launches an affair with Lila, and the inhabitants of a battered women's shelter.

The plot is dense with danger and misunderstandings, implications not followed up and beginnings that lead nowhere. But The Sleeping Father is primarily concerned with language, with Jewish humour and compulsive ironising. Matthew Sharpe manages to turn American speech patterns into something uniquely his own: "He put the feeling somewhere inside himself where thought would not disturb it, though not someplace where it would not disturb thought, for there was no such place."

Sharpe wastes too much energy in the pursuit of cuteness, and many of his experiments blow up in his face. But, every so often, the writing suddenly feels natural, as if he has gained a higher literary plateau through good luck and perseverance. Even the most unengaging episodes have eruptions of brilliance. And Sharpe renders Bernie's stumbling malapropisms both credible and touching.

So the novel redeems itself, just, and without capitulating to the happy ending which some American writers regard as their patriotic duty. Still, Matthew Sharpe had better watch out. The jacket blurb compares his novel not to other books but to films (bad ones), and there is a movie contract on the horizon. The Sleeping Father would probably make a good script, since much extraneous material would be edited out. But the denouement would be sacrificed to the cause of feelgoodism.

I find Sharpe's approach to depression preferable to literary ego-trips like Prozac Nation and its imitators, and I actually began to appreciate his wacky aphorisms. Moreover, few writers are wiser in the promotion of irony as a means of simultaneously feeling, and deflecting, pain.

The reviewer's novel 'Adele' is published by Bloomsbury

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