When Bernard Schwartz, a divorced dad, inadvertently combines two incompatible anti-depressant medications, goes into a coma, has a stroke, and emerges with brain damage, his teenage son — Chris — and his teenage daughter — Cathy — who inherit money from their grandfather — decide to rehabilitate him on their own. So begins “The Sleeping Father,” a novel by Matthew Sharpe. The book is the February selection for “Today’s Book Club,” as selected by novelist Susan Isaacs, and it's story addresses the larger crisis in faith and authority in contemporary American life. Read an excerpt here:
1.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 email 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 were developing for a computer screen-saver 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 of course.
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 hangover, 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.”
2.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, like, thing.”
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?”
“‘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 16-year-old girl whose father was falling apart.
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.”
Excerpted from "The Sleeping Father." Copyright 2003 by Matthew Sharpe. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Soft Skull Press.