There’s a great joke built into the premise of The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, the debut novel from 25-year-old comedian and actor DC Pierson, one that’s made all the funnier by never being acknowledged directly. The book tells the story of an exceedingly nerdy friendship between two high school kids, Darren and Eric, who spend hours poring over their sketchbooks creating an elaborate universe of sci-fi creatures, gadgets, and cosmic oddities.
Then, one day, Eric makes a confession: he’s never fallen asleep. For some reason—Eric doesn’t understand it, either—he doesn’t need to. While others lay snug in their beds, dreaming and recharging their biological batteries, he has an extra eight hours in which to play video games, find new fringe interests to obsess over, and wander the empty streets of suburban Arizona.
While Darren struggles, understandably, to process this new information, he and Eric both take an interest in Christine, a big-hearted drama student who’s as at ease amongst the high school’s chattering classes as they are inept. She meets them accidentally, while painting sets next to the loading dock where they like to eat lunch in solitude and create specs for the latest model of Agtranian Berserker, or a group of “laptop monks who dwell in The Spoke, an aborted half-constructed space platform.”
And here we find the joke, brilliant in its simplicity and precision: when given the choice between real-life superpowers and potentially making out with a girl, teenage males—even the biggest sci-fi heads imaginable—will inevitably choose making out.
On the whole, the book’s goals are modest. Its means are simple. While not technically categorized as such, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep reads exactly like young adult fiction—which is to say it’s light, propulsive, and charmingly goofy. Don’t come in expecting the language to knock your hat off, or for any Big Ideas to get tossed about. This is pure story, told with enough wit and irreverence to keep the pages madly turning.
When Pierson zooms in far enough, there are also occasional flashes of a finely observed comedy of teenage manners. The scene in which Darren realizes that Eric and Christine have come up with their own inside joke (referring to people and events as “IQs”) is painfully true to life; the more he tries to nonchalantly get in on it, the more desperate and pathetic he comes off. Entire other characters, however, like Darren’s older brother and all of the parents, feel too broadly sketched. I suppose when you move at this speed, a lot of the details inevitably get blurred.
As the book goes on, things take an increasing turn toward the sci-fi, as Eric begins to worry that some mysterious entity is trying to capture him and exploit his ability. (If that sounds like something out of their imagined sketchbook universe, well, you’re not too far off.) And you can see why the third act swerves the way it does: it’s right in line with the book’s off-kilter logic, and further proves Pierson’s fearlessness in shaking up his story. It’s as if the whole thing were a thought experiment, and the author—who is also a trained improviser, tellingly—is dutifully following the premise through to its natural conclusion. If you give a kid superpowers, eventually a man in dark sunglasses is going to track him down. That’s just how it goes.
Looking back on it, though, the best moments come from that sticky middle section, where hormones and imaginations are both running wild in tandem. Take the end of the scene where Christine first suggests that Darren hang out with her outside of school. He anxiously glances back as he walks away, “to make sure the thing that I think just invited me to a party is a girl and not a trick of the light or swamp gas or a bunch of Drama Club flyers whipped around by the wind into a girl-shaped cyclone.”
To his relief, he’s not mistaken. “It is, in fact, a girl, and she’s waving and cute.”
Vintage, 240 pp, $17.99, paperback
(review also appeared in SEE Magazine, March 18, 2010)