The Sleepwalking American Male


Midway through the second season of HBO’s The Leftovers, the main character, Kevin Garvey, wakes up handcuffed to the bed frame. A viewer might suspect sexual play, but no. Kevin’s partner Nora has been shackling him to the bed to keep him from wandering off in his sleep—something he’s been doing fairly regularly. One night while sleepwalking he shoots a group of stray dogs, another time he attempts suicide by trying to drown himself, and on yet another occasion he kidnaps his nemesis Patti and brings her to a cabin to beat information out of her. Kevin is clearly troubled, and for good reason. More perhaps than anyone else on the show, he carries the emotional weight of having been “left behind” after a rapture-like event that snatched away two percent of the world’s population (140 million people) on October 14, 2011. But what to make of his sleepwalking?

Based on the 2011 novel by Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers is part of the recent trend of dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives in films, novels, and TV shows. But Kevin’s narrative—that of the man who faces social and political upheaval and becomes a somnambulist—isn’t actually new. In fact, it’s woven into the fabric of American storytelling. Kevin is simply the latest in a long line of American men who experience trouble firsthand… and fall asleep. What happens after that varies, but the genre of sleepwalking narratives might be a useful lens for gauging how American men prepare for and respond to socio-political crises. As Kevin’s late-night exploits suggest, men don’t tend deal with such stress very well. Hence his dream in which Patti, now dead, exhorts him to “Wake the fuck up!”—he does, though only temporarily. It’s one of various moments in the series in which Kevin emerges from sleep, and realizes he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be doing.

The most well-known story about the sleeping habits of the American male is Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” from 1819. (Though it’s not the first—this honor belongs to a 1799 novel by Charles Brockden Brown entitled Edgar Huntly, or, the Sleepwalker). Even if you haven’t read “Rip Van Winkle” since high school, you probably remember the broad outlines. Rip, put off by his wife’s demands that he actually do some work on his farm, leaves one day for a short hunting trip in the Catskill Mountains. When he gets there he encounters a surprise: a mysterious group of men dressed in old world Dutch clothing who give him a bewitched ale. Rip falls asleep, and upon waking finds that twenty years have passed, and that everything has changed—most especially the political sensibilities of the people back in town. Here is one of the more memorable quotes:

The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility… [A] lean, bilious-looking fellow, with his pockets full of hand-bills, was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens—elections—members of congress—liberty—Bunker’s Hill—heroes of seventy-six—and other words, which were a perfectly Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.

Rip, of course, has slept through the American Revolution. It may be that this is just a coincidence. But a more likely explanation is that his extended case of narcolepsy is a kind of wish-fulfillment. Better, his subconscious has told him, to sleep than to go through the pain and confusion of rebellion against his parent country, however oppressive it might be. And Rip isn’t shy about his anti-revolutionary politics. When one of the townspeople asks him whether he intends to vote Federalist or Democrat, he reveals his Loyalist leanings. “I am a poor quiet man, a native of the place, and a loyal subject of the King,” he says. “God bless him!” Rip wants the world to be as it was, autocratic rather than democratic.

What we have here is a character not unlike Kevin Garvey. “Am I awake?” Kevin asks in the pilot episode of The Leftovers, just before helping an unnamed man shoot the pack of dogs in his neighborhood. “You are now,” the man says. But if Kevin’s subsequent actions are any indication, he is essentially sleepwalking through his now changed world. The Leftovers largely sidesteps direct engagement with political questions. Still, it’s evident that the story (both the novel and the TV show) is a refracted meditation on America after 9/11. Like our September 11, the fictional October 14 is the day when America suffered a traumatic loss, and woke up to a new reality. Kevin’s problems are especially noteworthy in that he’s the local sheriff in his home town, and thus charged with keeping order in what looks like the waning moments of America’s democratic experiment. “No one wants to see the Chief of Police crying in his car,” he says at one point in the first season. Which prompts us to ask: if Kevin can’t do the job, who can?

This question is underscored at the end of the third season, in a dream-like sequence in which Kevin is both the President of the United States and the assassin tasked with killing the President.

“I don’t want to do this anymore,” President Kevin says moments before his doppelgänger arrives. The crisis of authority echoes America’s after 9/11. Like Kevin, George W. Bush pretended to be in charge, but in fact we were rudderless—marching like dreamers into two wars that have yet to end, and snoozing while deregulation ushered in the financial crisis of 2008. Indeed, by his own account, Bush slept like a baby during his presidency.

“I must tell you, I’m sleeping much better than people would assume,” Bush blithely said at one point, explaining his habit of going to bed at 9 p.m. every night.

But if “Rip Van Winkle” is the urtext for The Leftovers, surely another important inspiration is Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 Slaughterhouse-Five, replete with a sci-fi gloss of time travel. Here, the main character is the aptly named Billy Pilgrim. Traumatized by having witnessed the firebombing of Dresden in WWII, Billy convinces himself both that he was abducted by aliens called Tralfamadorians, and that he’s able to shuttle back and forth between different moments in his own life—his daughter’s wedding day, his harrowing time in Germany during WWII, and so on. Note, though, that his time travel is always associated with sleep. “Billy had gone to sleep a senile widower, and awakened on his wedding day,” we’re told in a typical line.

So, much like Rip and Kevin, Billy is a sleepwalker. More to the point, Billy’s sleepwalking is itself a strategy for evading social or political action. A good student of the Tralfamadorians, who preach that our futures are predetermined and that there’s no such thing as free will, Billy is convinced that acting to better the world is pointless. “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfamadore,” he says. Hence Billy’s apathy about the Vietnam War, which is raging in the present of his life. Hence too his lack of concern about poverty, racial inequality, or anything else. He is as apolitical and ineffectual as Rip and Kevin. Instead of acting, he sleepwalks.

Which brings us to our current president. Donald Trump brags that he only needs three or four hours of sleep a night. Apparently, this is a trait shared by various high-powered executive types (the Wall Street Journal has dubbed them “the sleepless elite”). Trump might belong to this group, but what about all those late-night tweets? We might laugh at slip-ups like his infamous Twitter complaint about “negative press covfefe,” or his 2 and 3 a.m. tweets about Hillary Clinton and Megyn Kelly. But more than a few neuroscientists have wondered whether his erratic behavior is the result of sleep deprivation. Could it be that our President’s midnight missives are the dream-scripts of an Id-ruled somnambulist, one who, like Rip Van Winkle before him, doesn’t know the first thing about American democracy? Oliver Stone, talking about his new documentary on Vladimir Putin, commented recently that we may well be “sleepwalking toward a nuclear nightmare.” This is a sentiment shared by many in recent weeks, as Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un bluster at one another like a couple of insecure grade school bullies. What to do when the man with his finger on the nuclear button is quite literally asleep on his feet?

The literary critic Leslie Fiedler once declared:

The figure of Rip Van Winkle presides over the birth of the American imagination… Ever since, the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat—anywhere to avoid “civilization.”

His observation applies to each of the texts—and both of the presidents—I’ve mentioned here. Traumatized by dramatic, often violent change, American men become sleepwalkers precisely in order to flee the anxieties and responsibilities of life in democratic America.

The troubling thing is that men like Kevin Garvey from The Leftovers are less exceptional than representative. We are all, it seems, sleepwalking in America these days. How else to explain the Rip-like surprise of November 9, 2016, when the nation woke to find that Trump had been elected President? We must have drunk from a bewitched flagon, and dozed off in the mountains. The question now is whether we dither and dream like Rip, Billy, and Kevin, or do as Patti says to Kevin: wake the fuck up.


Image credits: feature image, image 1.

David Anthony is a professor of American Literature at SIU Carbondale. He has written on American manhood in various contexts, including a critical study entitled Paper Money Men (Ohio State UP, 2009), and the novel Something for Nothing (Algonquin Books, 2011). More from this author →