This Town Sleeps: A Novel
- By Dennis E. Staples
- 224 pp.
- Reviewed by Drew Gallagher
- February 27, 2020
This tale of murder, spirits, and sex on an Ojibwe reservation is hamstrung by unappealing characters and clunky prose.
Writing about sex is hard. There’s a fine line between titillating and nauseating. As evidence of this difficulty, there is even an annual award for Bad Sex in Fiction presented by the British magazine Literary Review. So kudos to debut author Dennis E. Staples for attempting to portray copious carnal congress in This Town Sleeps.
Another difficulty in writing about coitus is trying to invent phrases that capture the appropriate imagery without falling into cliché. Props again to the author for crafting similes uniquely his own. Staples is clearly trying. But when sex and similes miss the mark? The results are, well, flaccid.
There is a story worth telling somewhere in This Town Sleeps, but it gets lost amid endless hookups between unlikable characters and a narrative arc that resembles the trajectory of the ball in a game of frat-house Beer Pong played by freshmen pledges one errant bounce away from puking into a nearby potted palm.
After starting with the murder of a teenage basketball star — a crime couched in echoes of a Native American warrior past — the story picks up with Marion, an openly gay twentysomething Ojibwe man from Geshig, a small town on a Minnesota reservation where the killing took place. As much as Marion wants to stay away from Geshig, he keeps getting pulled back — just as he does to the men-seeking-men websites he obsessively visits.
Marion soon has a tryst with white Shannon, a closeted former classmate and star jock not at all comfortable with his own sexuality. Naturally, Shannon wants nothing beyond these secretive late-night hookups with Marion in the dark corners of Geshig.
Shannon is also apparently being raped by his roommate, another former jock. But when Marion considers intervening on Shannon’s behalf, the elders he confides in — his mother and stepfather — tell him to mind his own business.
Maybe This Town Sleeps aspires to be a book without sympathy: an unflinching look at the pain of reservation life, where spirits occasionally haunt characters like chlamydia of the throat. (This is one of the similes that fell flat for me.) But in this era of #MeToo, readers may search in a novel like this — filled with off-putting characters — for the tiniest glint of awareness or redemption.
Unfortunately, they won’t find it.
What they will find is the ghost of the murdered Kayden Kelliher, yet another storied athlete from Marion’s high school who led the basketball team to a state championship. Soon after the big game, Kayden was slain by a boy who’d been forced, at age 12, to perform fellatio on an older cousin to get into that cousin’s gang.
Marion doesn’t know why Kayden, generally appearing as a feral dog in the night, is visiting him, since they barely knew one another in life. But Kayden keeps turning up, so Marion tries to figure it out. (One character tells Marion that ghosts are for white people; as a Native American, he must look to his ancestors for answers.)
Kayden’s death certainly reverberates throughout the reservation, and when Marion brings up the dead teen’s name to his mother, she almost can’t finish her frybread that is “cold and soggy like a half-eaten placenta.” At first, I assumed she’d stopped eating because of the mention of Kayden, but it may have been more about the womb-like meal.
As a dog, Kayden kills a number of small animals around the resort lake where Shannon works and then rips the carcasses into unrecognizable masses of fur and blood. I don’t think this was symbolism, but I had trouble ascertaining the importance of the maimed creatures to the story.
Perhaps spirit Kayden was angry for being murdered at 17 and had a bloodlust to sate. Yet, toward the novel’s end, Kayden reveals to Marion, not unhappily, that he could enter him and watch his behavior. Marion apologizes to Kayden for having to witness — unbeknownst to Marion — Marion’s numerous hookups, but Kayden bats his concerns away:
“Can’t say I haven’t laughed a time or two…you fucking my old basketball coach, that was a bit of a shock.”
There seems to be a pervading desire to use sex to give readers more than a bit of a shock in This Town Sleeps. Much like in the relationships in the book, however, that desire is unrequited.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, VA.