Every Saturday in August, Globe Books will preview some of the fall's most anticipated novels. Our summer fiction series continues with an excerpt from Nino Ricci's new novel, Sleep.
A wash of chemicals floods David's brain and at once the urge is there, irresistible. What is the trigger, what switch opens the floodgate? If he could find it, he could control it. But even to think of the urge is to bring it on.
These are the times it overtakes him: When he is reading. When he is watching. When he is listening. At the crossroads of action and thought, the mind's gathering place, the very place where he lives.
When he is driving.
"Daddy, wake up!"
He hears a thundering like a stampede, he sees chariots, horses. Then the image splinters and there is only the noise itself, jagged and black, until finally the expressway pixelates into clarity and he realizes he has veered onto the rumble strip.
A car is stopped on the shoulder not a hundred metres in front of them. They are headed straight for it.
"Dad, there's a car!"
Afterwards David will never quite be able to sort out his memory of what happens next in any way that makes sense. It will seem as if he has split in two, on one side of him the nuclear blast of sensation, the thump of his wheels, the stopped car, his son's grating terror, on the other an eerie calmness, as if every fibre in him has long been preparing for just such a moment, when everything hangs in the balance. He will be amazed how much data has been left in him by an event that has happened in the blink of an eye. The slant of autumn light through the windshield. The colour of the car, silver-grey, he is heading toward. The look of its driver, a small, dark-skinned man, Middle Eastern or Asian, who has stopped to make a call or stretch his legs or take a leak, as he innocently turns to check for traffic before opening his door only to discover that death is bearing down on him. And already before it comes, David sees the crash, the mess of twisted metal and broken glass and ruined flesh.
He jerks the wheel hard and the car bucks like a wild animal, no longer under his will. His body has braced itself for impact but, impossibly, the impact doesn't come. Instead there is only a suck of air from the far side of the car like the pull of something's gravity, the scream of a horn as David overshoots his lane and nearly sideswipes a passing van. Then, as quickly as that, the danger has passed. As if it had never been. Already the car on the shoulder has receded to a harmless glint in the rear-view mirror.
David's heart is pounding. He digs his little pill container out of his pant pocket and dumps the pills onto the passenger seat, then grabs two by feel and crunches down on them. Do not chew. They are bitter like cyanide, like hemlock. But pointless now: he is fully awake.
He can feel Marcus eyeing him from his car seat in the back.
"You fell asleep," he says.
"I wasn't asleep." But already David has taken the wrong tack, has responded to the boy's accusation rather than to his fear. "I just closed my eyes for a second, that's all. Because of the sun."
David nudges the mirror to get a better view of him, sees how his shoulders have hunched, how he has balled himself up in his gloom and distrust. He is barely five but already he carries his moods like an adolescent. At the zoo, where they were visiting, he fell into a sulk over a trinket David refused him at the gift shop, and now he will roll this new, larger hurt into the old one, each lending weight to the other. When did he become like this, so vigilant, so hungry for grievance?
David knows he ought to say more about what has happened but is afraid that saying more will only raise the event's importance in the boy's mind. Will only make him more likely to report it to his mother.
"Sit up straight, please. We've talked about that."
A thin line of fire burns a path through David's veins as the drug enters his bloodstream and he feels a panic go through him, nothing like the adrenal rush of the near accident itself but a sense of being vulnerable after the fact, as if by some loop the moment might replay itself, differently. He realizes, suddenly, that his whole body is trembling. It happens sometimes when he is agitated, this loss of control, another of his symptoms.
The sheerest luck has saved him from killing his son.
Daddy, wake up.
He casts another look back at Marcus.
"Almost home now," he says. "Almost there."
A hesitation, then the inevitable question.
"Will Momma be there?"
He is never enough. He is never the last recourse.
David lets the question hang.
They merge onto the valley parkway to find it backed up for miles, lurching forward in tiny spurts as the sun sets and the trees along the parkway flame up like an apocalypse in their autumn colours. Julia will be livid that they are so late, that David hasn't called. It has crossed his mind to call any number of times, but each time he has resisted, knowing that she herself will never be the one to call. This is how she tests him, piling up her grievances the way Marcus has learned to. The behaviour of children.
He feels the dull throb of a headache beginning from the spike in his medication. For the next few hours, his heart will pound like a battering ram. He takes advantage of the stalled traffic to gather up the pills still scattered on the seat next to him: stupid to have let Marcus see them, to risk his mentioning them. Right from the start David has kept Julia in the dark, has passed the blame for his symptoms onto insomnia, late nights, overwork, has hidden from her the doctors' visits, the clinics, the pills. That is his default with her now: to hide any sign of weakness, anything that might give her ammunition.
His mind keeps circling back to the instant when the crash felt inevitable, trying to sort out what saved them, though already it is hard to say how much is real in what he remembers and how much is the illogic of whatever dream he had slipped into. A deep brain disorder. That was how Becker put it, his sleep doctor, a fleshy Afrikaner with the hectoring twang of an apartheid politician and the parboiled look of a village butcher. A breakdown in the border that separated waking from sleep. As if sleep were some rebel force that David had let overrun him, leaving him condemned now to live in this place of constant incursion, where nothing was safe, nothing was certain.
A police cruiser squeezes by on the shoulder, then an ambulance. It occurs to David that the loop he has imagined has really happened: somewhere ahead, a version of the horror he has averted is playing itself out. He will drive by and see his own child lying dead, his own double howling in bloodied agony. At the image, something like relief stirs in him, as if only now has he dared it, the sense of a cosmic reprieve, a second chance. This is exactly the sort of thinking he is constantly having to root out of his students, whose notions of historical process don't go much beyond mindless mantras like Everything happens for a reason.
He takes out his cell phone and sets it to speaker.
"Just calling your mom," he says to Marcus, and he can feel the boy's mood lift.
She picks up on the first ring.
"Christ, David, where are you? It's past six. Why didn't you call?"
Why didn't you?
"We're stuck on the parkway," he says evenly.
"For fuck's sake! I thought we talked about using the cell when you're driving!"
He allows himself the smallest pause.
"We're on speaker, actually."
The behaviour of children.
Into the silence David adds, evenly again, "We had a nice day at the zoo."
"That's just great, David, I'm happy for you. I just wish it would cross your mind sometimes to think of someone other than yourself."
The call leaves David circling along a well-worn path of anger and self-justification. It's her, he tells himself, this implacable she-wolf she has been ever since Marcus was born, framing everything he does as a betrayal of his most basic duties as husband and father. The defence has become so knee-jerk in him by now that he seldom thinks beyond it. That she doesn't call because he accuses her of checking up on him, of being controlling. Or because he might be in class, or in a conference, or driving home. Because in a thousand ways, over the years, he has made it known not to call. Probably all afternoon she has been fighting the urge to call him, meanwhile imagining every horror. He has learned that about her, though she doesn't show it, how deep her fears go the second Marcus is out of her sight, how primordial they are, beyond reason.
It is fully dark by the time they reach the source of the holdup. An accident, yes, but less tragedy than farce. A moving van has spilled its contents and sent half a dozen cars into a minor pileup, emergency crews sorting through the wreckage and traffic choked down to a single lane. Debris from the van lies heaped at the roadside etched in the halogen glare of the highway's mast lights, a half-sprung sofa-bed, splintered end tables, ruptured moving boxes spilling clothes, shattered dishes, DVDs. The van itself is farther up, back doors still open, sitting alone at the side of the road as if the accident had nothing to do with it. David makes out two forms, a man and a woman, hurrying toward it in the dark clutching armfuls of salvage.
Idiots, he thinks.
Past the bottleneck he picks up speed at once. The red taillights of the cars ahead of him weave through the highway's dips and curves as if riding the air, held disembodied by the dark swath the valley forms against the backdrop of the city. He remembers driving here as a teen in his first car, a reconditioned MG he'd paid for out of his own pocket, the top down and the pedal to the floor while his blood pumped through his veins and the wind roared around him. Back then the valley seemed some hopeful landscape of the future, with the river winding its way toward the lake beneath the flyovers and cloverleaves, and the skyscrapers of downtown beckoning in the distance. Now, he realizes, he is looking instead at the past, that all this is part of an order already in full decline.
Nino Ricci is the author of five previous novels including Lives of the Saints and The Origin of Species, which both won the Governor-General's Award for Fiction. His new novel, Sleep, will be published by Doubleday Canada on September 22. He lives in Toronto.