The Sleeping Fatherby Matthew Sharpe
The Sleeping Father begins with a divorced dad who inadvertently combines two incompatible anti-depressant medications, goes into a coma, has a stroke, and emerges with brain damage. His teenage sonthe protagonist of the book, Chrisand his teenage daughterCathyinherit money from their grandfather and decide to rehabilitate him on their own.
The Sleeping Father begins with a divorced dad who inadvertently combines two incompatible anti-depressant medications, goes into a coma, has a stroke, and emerges with brain damage. His teenage sonthe protagonist of the book, Chrisand his teenage daughterCathyinherit money from their grandfather and decide to rehabilitate him on their own. decide to make one.
Absent an adequate father, the children decide to make one, bringing with it a host of difficulties and opportunities. Chris tries everything from sex to capitalism in his search for guidance on the path to adulthood and Cathy, believing her secular Jewishness inadequate in the provision of a benign & divine Father, looks to Catholicism for solace and meaning.
The Sleeping Father explores the shift in the way Americans think about mental health: away from regarding ourselves as being shaped by our upbringings and toward regarding ourselves as being shaped by the chemicals in our bloodstreams. The American family, in this novel, emerges as a microcosm of larger social institutions; Moms and Dads as in-home teachers, priests, presidents, and CEOs. In focusing on the Schwartz family in crisis, Sharpe addresses the larger crisis in faith and authority in contemporary American life.
- Soft Skull Press, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.08(w) x 8.96(h) x 0.79(d)
Read an Excerpt
the sleeping father
By Matthew Sharpe
Soft Skull Press
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
Chris Schwartz's father's Prozac dosage must have been incorrect,
because he awoke one morning to discover that the right side of his
face had gone numb. This was the second discovery on a journey
Chris's father sensed would carry him miles from the makeshift
haven of health. The first discovery had been, of course, the depression
for which the Prozac was meant to be the cure, a discovery
made not by Bernard Schwartz but by his son, Chris. Chris figured
it out first because that was how things worked in this family. Soul
of son and soul of dad were linked by analogy. No tic or mood
swing in the one did not go unrepresented in the susceptible equipment
of the other.
Bernie Schwartz leaned in close to the mirror in his bedroom
and poked the right side of his face with the sharp bottom of the
pocket-size silver crucifix his daughter, Cathy, had given him.
Seventeen-year-old Chris, in his room, typed the following sentence
into an e-mail he was about to send to his friend Frank Dial: "You
know you're dead when ... your friends throw dirt in your face."
This was the newest addition to a group of aphorisms Chris and
Frank weredeveloping for a computer screensaver program that
they hoped to sell one day soon for a huge amount of money or, failing
that, a tiny amount of money.
Chris sent the sentence and went to the window and opened it
and looked out. It was seven o'clock on a fine autumn morning in
Bellwether, Connecticut. Chris looked at the trees and the grass, he
looked at his own driveway, his wooden fence, the street beyond it,
several houses within looking range, back to the fence, the roses by
the fence, the cars, a crushed Coke can, a small unintelligible pile of
dirt, a neighborhood squirrel, a fly, a dog. He looked at the street
again, and the cars parked in the driveways, and he marveled at how
each car had a driveway to park in and how every driveway in the
world had a street at one end and a house at the other. Chris felt that
if he'd been the guy they came to when they needed someone to
invent the thing to convey the cars from the streets to the houses,
he'd have choked, he'd have let down humanity.
Chris thought of his mom in California. Often when he
thought of his mom in California, he thought of her standing tall
and strong in a long white robe at the edge of the ocean, her arms
aloft, her hands clenched in fists, watching a thirty-foot wave
approach her. The wave breaks on top of her head, and when it has
subsided, there she stands in the same position, fists high, face
wet, eyes open, wet hair streaming down the back of her white
robe. Chris had the same hair as his mother, though not literally
Chris thought of his dad in the next room and felt the astonishing
surge of affection and sadness that had accompanied his dad-related
thoughts of the past year. Chris thought of his nervous,
obsessive little sister, felt a discomfort he did not wish to explore,
hurried on to the next thought, which was people all across
Bellwether, Connecticut, waking up to classical music or a hang-over,
jogging with the dog, ironing a shirt, putting on aftershave or
eyeliner, buying the paper, catching the train to the city: all the
wretched conduct that made humanity God's chosen.
Chris made a stop at the mirror to study that miniature version
of humanity, his own face, on which adolescent discomfort
expressed itself through the medium of acne. Chris returned to his
computer, where a reply from Frank Dial awaited him: "You know
you're having a bad day when ... you wake up naked and face-down
on the sidewalk of an unfamiliar city to find a policeman
beating the backs of your thighs with a billy club." Upon reading
this latest of Frank's aphorisms, Chris felt so lucky to have a friend
like Frank that he almost wept. He prevented himself from weeping
by uttering the words "Don't weep, shithead."
Chris entered the kitchen in time to hear his sister say, "Bless us, O
Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy
bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen."
"You've got to be kidding with that crap," Chris said.
Cathy's face reddened. "Please don't call it crap." She sat stiffly
and correctly at the table with her hands clasped not in prayer but
in the left hand's attempt to prevent the right hand from throwing
her rosary beads at her brother.
"Did Mom and Dad forget to tell you we're Jewish?"
"No, they did not forget to tell me."
"So what's the problem?"
"There is no problem."
"The problem is that you're a Jew saying a Christian prayer."
"I have Jesus in my heart," Cathy said, believing for an instant
that a simple declaration of truth would be understandable to her
brother, or anyone.
"For all I care," he said, "you can have Jesus up your-"
"Chris, if I'm a Jew, that means you're a Jew too, right?"
"Yeah. You, me, Dad, Mom. It runs in the family."
"And how do you practice your Judaism?"
"Practice it? I don't practice it. That's the beauty of Judaism
in this family and families like ours all across America. We're
not the kind of Jews where you do anything. We're the kind
where you just are it. Judaism isn't just a religion. It's a whole,
When did this twit get so good at arguing? "Religion is stupid,
anyway," Chris said. "It's the crack cocaine of the masses."
Cathy made a gesture at her brother that was definitely not a
sign of the cross.
Bernie Schwartz entered the kitchen and looked at his children
as if he were bewildered to find them in his house. He sat at the
kitchen table in front of a cup of coffee and tapped the right side of
his face idly with the back of his spoon, unaware that light brown
droplets of coffee were clinging to his cheek.
In the quiet kitchen, the tapping of the spoon against wet flesh
made a liquid plop like big drops of water falling from a great height
onto a pile of wet towels. "Dad, get a grip," Chris said.
Cathy gently took the spoon from her father and clasped his
hand in her two. She wanted to communicate the compassion she
felt for him in her heart through the look in her eyes. She tried to
be careful in her actions. She focused on each gesture she made
because she wanted Jesus to love her. She said, "What's wrong,
"'Father'?" Chris said. "His name is 'Father' now? Dad, what's
wrong with you?"
"The right side of my face is numb."
"What do you mean, numb? You mean like it's not there?"
"Oh it's there, I just can't feel it."
"Yeah well don't tap it with a spoon, you're creeping me out, man."
Cathy removed her hands from her father's and wiped the coffee
from his cheek with her napkin. The tremor in her hands wasn't
the outward sign of some kind of saintly passion, it was the
outward sign of the fear of a sixteen-year-old girl whose father was
Bernie said, "I think my Prozac dosage may be off."
"You should call Dr. Moreau," Cathy said.
Bernie dutifully went to the phone on the wall by the dishwasher
and punched in the number of his psychiatrist, Dr. Jacques
Moreau. "Hello, this is Dr. Moreau speaking on a tape ..." said the
faintly French-accented recorded message of Dr. Moreau.
When it was Bernie's turn to speak, he said, "First, I wonder
what idiot doesn't know you're speaking on a tape. Second, the
Prozac you're prescribing is making my face numb. Third, the
Prozac is also giving me homicidal ideations that I'm unaware of, so
unbeknownst to both of us I'm on my way over to your office to kill
you. Listen, just call me back soon."
Chris said, "Look, Sister, Father's got his sense of humor back."
Chris Schwartz met Frank Dial in the road. "Frank Dial" had
become Chris's shorthand for joy itself; tough joy-Frank was acerbic
and dark and quick. He had a word for everything, and often
not a nice one; justly so, Chris thought, for the world was often not
a nice place. But it was nice for Chris to have a good friend who was
accurate in speech. Chris himself was not accurate or even truthful
a lot of the time. He kidded a lot in a haphazard way-kidding
without meaning it-and he lied a bit as well. He had a stern principle
about accuracy and honesty in speech that he said he took
pride in not living up to. Anyway he didn't have to live up to it
because Frank Dial lived up to it for him.
In some half-secret place inside his heart, Frank wished Chris
wasn't white. It was embarrassing for a young black man like Frank
to have a white boy for a best friend, but the Negro pickings were
slim in Bellwether, Connecticut, where Frank was one of five blacks
matriculated at the Bellwether High School for Upper Middle Class
Caucasians. Nevertheless, Chris was an excellent example of what
white people could achieve when they set their minds to it. Chris
listened closely and got most of the allusions. Chris could keep up
with the pace of the patter and the pain.
The boys set out on the journey to school along Southridge
Road. They saw many wondrous phenomena. They saw small children
in their jackets, they saw schoolbuses and birds, they saw houses,
they saw the paint jobs on houses. High up in the sky, they saw
a cloud in the shape of their math teacher. They heard a distant
siren and thought of death. They spoke of all and sundry.
The town's commercial center embraced them curtly as they
passed through it. They entered a deli and came out with a pair of
bright green electrolyte-replenishment sports beverages that God
had not created nor intended to create. They passed the magazine
store where they saw, on the cover of a well-known music magazine,
a photograph of two middle aged rock stars imitating the famous
pose they had struck for the same magazine twenty-five years earlier.
Frank and Chris felt that both these rock stars and this magazine
had used to mean something, but now merely made reference to the
thing they used to mean without actually meaning it any more.
Frank reached into the wilderness of his backpack and came up
with a frayed notebook. The words "Everything in the World"
were printed on the cover of the notebook in Frank's almost typographically
neat hand. As the boys walked through the prosthetic
heart of Bellwether, Frank flipped to the section entitled Things that
look like things that you already know what they look like, stopped
walking, and wrote a short description of the magazine cover. This
section was getting very long. It took up more than half the notebook.
That was because, in the estimation of Frank and Chris, the
world was weary of itself-had trod, had trod, had trod, or whatever;
now ground out shoddy reproductions of stuff it used to take
pride in producing. Trees, shrubs, cats, people, clouds, and stars
were now "trees," "shrubs," "cats," "people," "clouds," "stars." The
world was just putting in the hours now, biding its time until retirement,
when it would cast off its worldliness and return to being
void and without form.
"Nigger!" a kid in a car going by shouted.
Frank said, "I'm so glad that gentleman reminded me that I am
a nigger. I had forgotten."
Chris said, "I'll remind you next time if you want."
Frank stared at his friend, startled. Chris knew he'd misspoken.
Whereas an instant before each boy had been half of a two-man
friendship, the one now represented a group that would always
commit indelicacies against the group represented by the other.
Standing in the school parking lot, they continued to stare at one
another, rendered speechless by the power of language.
"Sorry," Chris said.
"Ass," said Frank, and went inside the school.
Chris stayed outside, stunned. He had English but now would
blow it off. He was supposed to be reading Catcher in the Rye, he
thought, or some other Catcher in the Rye-type disservice to
teenagers everywhere. Yes, it was Catcher in the Rye. It had to be.
They'd long ago crammed Catcher in the Rye down his throat till he
puked. Then they'd crammed Catcher in the Rye plus the puke back
down his throat and he puked them up and then they crammed
down Catcher in the Rye plus his puked puke and by now it was easier
just to swallow. This wasn't Catcher in the Rye's fault. It was probably
a halfway decent book, if you were from someplace like
Bulgaria and had never heard of it; decent for a book, that is, which
wasn't saying much. There was no book that was good. There was
no school that was good. There was no family that was good. There
was no friend that was good. There was no life that was good.
Chris Schwartz entered American History at 9:22 A.M. and sat in
the back corner where he hoped no one would see him.
He was still in his half-conscious youth. Sometimes he saw more
than he was able to feel; sometimes he felt more than he was able to
see; sometimes neither. During the course of any several minutes he
could think of something important, forget it, think of it again, forget
it again, his memory a short-circuited strobe light in the dark
discotheque of his consciousness. So when his history teacher said,
"Mr. Schwartz will begin class today with his oral presentation on,
ah, Paul Robeson," Chris was both prepared and unprepared. He
had been, American History to one side, a casual Robeson hobbyist.
He'd carried on an approach-avoidance relationship to the autobiography,
Here I Stand; he'd rented and viewed The Emperor Jones
and a few other Robeson cinematic vehicles; of an afternoon, he'd
worried his Smithsonian Paul Robeson Anthology CD which, as luck
would have it, was in his backpack right now. Chris fell into a reverie
about the Robeson CD. The reverie, during which everyone in
the class was waiting for Chris to talk or stand up, was interrupted
by someone called Richard Stone, who said "Schwartz!" Chris
jumped out of his chair.
Stone was a psychopath who had it in for Chris. He'd moved to
town the previous year. Rumor had it that his enormously wealthy
parents were bringing him up without love, that in the town in New
York where he'd lived before moving to Bellwether, Stone had killed
a kid by punching him in the face again and again, and that the
Stones had purchased their son's non-incarceration, thus proving
once again the terrible injustice of American so-called democracy
and encouraging in Chris a fervent belief in the life and good works
of Paul Robeson.
Tall, thin, stoop-shouldered, trembling slightly, Chris stood at
the front of the room, facing his classmates. Fear mixed with passion
and rendered Chris's mind-like the 3 by 5 cards on which he
was meant to have written notes for his report-a perfect blank.
Frank Dial entered the classroom, stared at Chris, and sat in the
back. Chris said, "I'd like to begin by playing a selection from the
Paul Robeson Anthology CD, available from Smithsonian records for
$11.99 plus shipping and handling."
Excerpted from the sleeping father
by Matthew Sharpe
Copyright © 2003 by Matthew Sharpe.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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