D. C. Pierson’s adolescent heroes hope for a future in which “‘existence engineer’ and ‘clone wrangler’ will be viable career paths.”
D. C. Pierson’s debut novel, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, follows our teenage heroes, Darren Bennett and Eric Lederer, as they lose their virginity, run from a peculiar madman, and eventually fall into a sci-fi abyss. Darren and Eric are “free floating nerds” at a high school in the Arizona suburbs. As the title reveals, Eric has a secret: He never sleeps.
Darren and Eric bond over Time Blaze, a sci-fi world Darren invented. “It starts with this scientist that works for the government,” Darren explains. This movie trilogy and series of novels morphs into an eight-episode saga with numerous notebooks filled with the boys’ sketches. Eric questions the scientific integrity of the plot, while Darren envisions mechs, characters, and alien animals to populate their new world. Eric’s supernatural ability enables their fantasy world to seem more real. At one point Darren confides, “We sort of hope we were born late enough in history that by the time we are in our forties and fifties ‘existence engineer’ and ‘clone wrangler’ will be viable career paths.”
Pierson makes the fantastical plot appear plausible, in part by creating a high-school world that looks a lot like mine did. Sometime in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the cheerleader-and-jock zoology of John Hughes became irrelevant. MTV’s character Daria gave aid and comfort to cynical girls and the boys who liked them. The Internet—first LiveJournal and now Facebook—finally taught weird kids that they aren’t weird: there are thousands, millions, of teenagers just like them.
Pierson peoples his novel with lively minor characters, nailing the weird-but-not-weird denizen of today’s high school hallways: Tony D’Avillo, who draws cartoon characters smoking weed, and Cecelia Martin, whose hair looks like it was dyed with a highlighter. “It’s just that she’s so fucking standard and convinced that she isn’t,” Darren says of Cecelia:
because her hair is dyed a different color and she listens to music that she finds on LiveJournal… If this were a movie she’d be the person you’d go to. The freaky chick, the outcast. But Cecelia Martin is on yearbook and newspaper. Cecelia Martin gets straight A’s. Cecelia Martin is about as outcast as the head fucking cheerleader.
Darren, like most fifteen year olds, does not think or speak in proper English. His errors pop off the page. One particular habit grates at my ear: “Her and Jen Ackerman and Teresa Saylor make up this clique…” Like a fifth-grade English teacher, I need to point out that “her” is a possessive article, as opposed to the pronoun, “she.” I am too square for demotic grammar. But to be fair, this colloquial prose style has its advantages. When Darren loses his virginity to a drama girl named Christine, it feels perfectly honest. He is bumbling and confused and thrilled: “I always forget which bases are which but I think so far I’ve been to second base? Maybe first.” Even in the midst of this, he realizes it was dumb luck: “I have forced her hand with my cunning make-out-when-made-out-with-and-talk-on-the-phone-when-called technique. I am a master.”
Pierson is a complex writer, as is readily apparent on his blog, Ham-Fisted Theatrics. Though it relies on improbable scenarios and ends even more improbably, at its best The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep is an honest coming-of-age novel about two smart kids and the dumb world around them. As Darren and Eric flee their mysterious pursuer, they wind up with college-age friends who begin to teach them about life outside of high school. Darren realizes that he assumed “part of being smart is not being able to start a sentence with a subject and then end that sentence by saying that subject is a good thing and actually mean it.” He clings to that cynicism even as it’s fading away, and he starts