Most writers of fiction find it impossible to make a respectable living entirely from their book sales. For many years now, teaching college has been their preferred way of staying afloat. As a result, the campus novel, from Herzog to Blue Angel, in this time of mandatory accreditation, has developed one of the more important themes of the age: namely, the ever-widening gap between existence in the academy and real life. Nino Ricci’s new novel, Sleep, explores a phenomenon decisively banned from the campus: male violence.
David Pace (pronounced “Pah-cheh”—like Ricci, he is of Italian descent) is a historian in a city very like Toronto, teaching at a university very like York. Pace is an expert in Roman antiquity and the author of one well-regarded book, Masculine History. Sadly, he has been unable to follow up his early publishing success with succeeding volumes, possibly because he had cribbed the idea from his best friend Greg, when they were grad students.
As the story begins, Pace has a bad marriage, a worse divorce, a lousy relationship with his son and awful dealings with poisonous, back-biting colleagues among his faculty.
It is downhill all the way from there.
Professor Pace develops a rare sleep disorder, a form of narcolepsy that drives him to a cocktail of pills and street drugs and results in blackouts where he starts throwing punches. The sleep disorder erases his identity, sending him swirling into madness.
It must be said that David Pace, despite his taste in rare books and fine wine, even making allowances for his narcolepsy, is one of the most unlovable protagonists in recent memory. Hard-punching Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull fame is a sweetheart in comparison. Jake slapped only his wife and brother around. After dosing a young aboriginal woman—a junior lecturer in his department—with the date rape drug sodium oxybate, Pace proceeds to prey on her; this costs him his job. He gives up his tenure track position and lives on a line of credit and sessional appointments. Ill tempered, friendless, he seems like a small, mean, driven type even before narcolepsy hits, a self-described “insufferable narcissist prick.”
When Pace finds his late father’s Beretta pistol, he develops a nasty little gun fetish complete with sexual overtones and sets off doggedly for the shooting range. As he falls further into his passion for firearms he starts to resemble Valery Fabrikant, the Concordia engineering prof who took out three colleagues because he did not receive sufficient credit on a minor academic publication. Packing heat restores the virility that life on campus has stolen, makes him feel as if he has “swallowed a box of Viagra.” Pace falls completely into the gun nut subculture, hoping that his concealed weapon will give him back his life, make him a hero, a warrior, will arouse him from sleep.
In other words, David Pace is an incorrigible loser, a chain-smoker who could pass as a badass only on campus, the kind of dude who would screw the wife of the last friend he has on Earth. The good professor is not even a charming rogue, just a dull, malicious pedant, as sociopathic as any petty strong-arm collecting juice loans in a strip mall. There is no line he will not cross. Lacking a single loyalty, Pace is not Byronic or satanic, even though you can almost see him twirling his mustachios. He is just a rat fink. As his friend Greg tells him, after discovering the affair with his wife, “everything you touch turns to shit.”
But, unsurprisingly, all the unpleasantness described by Ricci bears the stink of reality. Sleep is one long rant against the “enforced mediocrity” of academia. Ricci has clearly paid his dues on campus; his novel makes the suffocating, airless world of “the prevailing orthodoxies” of political correctness, the petty faculty politics and controlling, manipulative department heads all too vivid. The groves of academe are definitely no country for a man’s man.
Nonetheless, Ricci’s portrait of life on campus seems far too dark. His protagonist’s rage seems excessive, even if he cannot get a good night’s rest. The novelist never gives David Pace a fighting chance against his illness; in every situation the dice seem loaded against him. His wife is a bitch on wheels and the aboriginal lecturer is a sexy airhead hired solely for her ethnicity; his best friend’s wife is a twitchy neurotic. Pace seems never to have met a sweet charming woman on the flying trapeze. Doctors, lawyers—the whole world seems to be in league against him.
Almost everybody knows at least one unfortunate soul who falls dramatically from a middle class existence to one of soup kitchens or jail or worse. Not to argue for a Pollyanna optimism, but not every fall is a straight line descent. There are plateaus, momentary reversals of ill fortune. Ricci sends his hero down the chute with the brakes gone. There is little drama in a parachute that fails to open. David Pace is so angry and hostile, it is difficult to sympathize with his plight. He is not a hero with a tragic flaw; he owns an entire catalogue of them.
In the last third of Ricci’s novel, Pace’s sleep illness recedes into the background. It is clear that his entire life has been at odds with a feminized society. After a course of self-defence simulations, in order to finish the book that is going to put him back on top, he goes to an unnamed third-world desert country similar to Iraq, as though he were a sex tourist visiting Bangkok. There, violence abounds. There, a man can do what a man’s gotta do.
After being banged for a bottle of gin by an alcoholic woman reporter, much much tougher than the good professor will ever be, he falls into the hands of feral, jihadi children. Untrained as a combat correspondent, he is a complete amateur. With no idea of how to operate in a war zone, he is exploited at every turn by blatantly untrustworthy “guides.” You would not be surprised if Pace ended up wearing an orange jumpsuit and getting his head sawed off in the name of Allah, but Ricci sends him to the all-too-predictable death he has been planning for his character from the beginning.
Underlying Ricci’s book there’s a yearning for a freer, more masculine, more traditional life than the one found in strictly controlled universities. But the fall of David Pace seems more like a case history than a tragedy, the idiosyncratic decline of one isolated man. But, all the same: the latest bulletin from our schools of higher learning.