When I was a kid I had a couple of unique hobbies. I created my own tabletop pen and paper RPGs for a while, for one. And not just creating worlds, but starting from scratch with entire rule systems for my new games. I spent a couple of months working on an RPG based on George Romero’s … Of the Dead films, for instance (someone may have since created a real RPG system based in that world, but in 1987 none existed, as far as I knew). My brother and I also created a whole superhero universe revolving around a team called The Power Alliance; while we never quite got many comics done we had whole storylines and spin-offs and annuals and world-shaking, continuity-rattling events planned out.
This is probably the nerdiest thing about my extremely nerdy childhood, and it’s something that always felt weird and specific. So when the two main characters in The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To started working together on an expansive ten film science fiction series, complete with graphic novels and other crossovers, designing every character and creature and plot point without actually getting started on the thing, I kind of fell in love with the book. I knew these kids because I was these kids.
The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To is the debut novel from DC Pierson, a member of the DERRICK comedy team and one of the stars of Sundance sensation Mystery Team. And while the book is very funny, it’s not Pierson’s comedy that makes the book work, but rather his deep love for his characters. Pierson’s written a book that feels like a lost Amblin movie, something that Spielberg could have made in the early 80s – Darren, an artistically inclined high school kid who doesn’t quite fit into any of the cliques at his school, makes friends with the school weirdo, Eric, and discovers his big secret. Eric has never slept. He’s never had to, and from the moment of his birth he’s been completely conscious. Darren’s been playing around with this complex fantasy/scifi world, but it’s Eric – who has nothing else to do all night – who really adds the fuel to that fire and makes everything explode.
Things get more complicated than that, but part of the pleasure of the book is the slow escalation of the situation and the surprisingly big ideas Pierson pulls out in the final act. But as big as the ideas get, and as fantastical as the story grows, he never loses sight of his characters; Darren and Eric remain identifiable, believable people. And more importantly, believable kids. Sure, Eric’s really smart and mature because he’s been awake for every moment of his life, thus giving him technically almost twice the lifespan of us sleepy types, but he’s also a high school student, somebody looking to be cool and accepted and loved. The book is actually filled with betrayals – little and big – but they all feel real and honest, the kind of things kids do to each other out of spite or simple selfishness. These two are best friends, but they also fuck each other over at the drop of a hat and that’s something real you rarely see in stories about young people.
Pierson’s a younger writer and he’s set his story in the very modern day. As a crotchety old guy who has found himself saying ‘In my day’ with alarming frequency of late, I was worried that a book about the shitty young Facebook generation would leave me cold. But of course I was being a crotchety old guy and not a guy who remembers that good stories and characters are timeless – The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To could have been set in the 1950s or the 2050s and it wouldn’t have made a difference. People are people, and their ability to use social networking sites has no real impact on that. The characters of Darren and Eric are timeless, as are the parameters of their relationship – two kids maturing at different rates yet together.
If there’s one complaint I have about the book it’s that it’s too short. Pierson has written a book that reads almost like a treatment for a movie, and that means he’s created more or less a three act structure and he sticks with it. There’s a segment in the book where Darren and Eric start spending time with older kids, and it’s told in a style that’s essentially literary montage – we fast forward through it. I was frustrated by this; sure, this is stuff that would never make it into the movie version (and I think that The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To would make a really kick ass movie, by the way), but it’s stuff that works in a novel. I would have liked to explore this section more – there are a number of characters who come and go in a blink, and some really intriguing situations that get passed over very quickly. Pierson has a lot to say, and I’d like to see him stretch out and say it, as opposed to being worried about keeping the story always moving forward. That’s very much a cinematic concern, and one of the beauties of novels – even novels that are inherently cinematic – is that they give the author more time and space to play around.
Coming in to The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To I was expecting some sort of a goofy teen comedy with moderate fantasy elements. Pierson really surprised me, writing an earnestly honest teen story with comedy and very fascinating, verging on Philip K Dick fantasy/scifi elements. What really struck me is that Pierson is willing to let the comedy take a back seat to the story and the characters. Some might complain that the first half is funnier than the second; while they’re technically correct I don’t see why it’s a problem. Pierson’s voice remains light and humorous throughout, but the jokey stuff falls away as the story gets more serious. Being transported with these characters this was something I appreciated; there are lots of opportunities for cheap slapstick in the second half of the book and Pierson never once takes them. It helps that most of the humor in the first half is based on observational reality stuff – there are elements of the 21st century high school experience that are still very, very much like my 1980s high school experience, apparently. And a lot of that stuff is just as funny today as it was twenty long years ago.
This is an incredibly strong first novel, and I’m really interested in seeing where Pierson goes next. I hope it’s continuing in this direction; while I don’t doubt that Pierson could write a terrific straight comedy book, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To shows a mind that’s also capable of telling truly excellent, truly human scifi and fantasy stories.
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