Book review: ‘Stay Awake: Stories’ by Dan Chaon

Tribune Newspapers

Stay Awake: Stories
Dan Chaon
Ballantine: 272 pp., $25

A father, fretting about a young son’s night terrors, is gradually haunted by his own terrors from an alcohol-fueled past. Another man, marooned as a single parent since his wife’s tragic death, decodes meaning out of the scribbled scraps of paper and debris left behind by strangers. And another young man, raised by foster parents after his mother went to jail for an unfathomable crime, experiences a creeping and possibly sinister disassociation from reality after speaking with one of his sisters.

These are the sort of damaged and unmoored characters of “Stay Awake,” the latest short-story collection from Ohio-based writer Dan Chaon. An understated master of the form whose occasionally devastating debut story collection “Among the Missing” was a National Book Award finalist in 2001, Chaon has returned to the format with more quietly haunting stories of isolation and disconnection that stick with you like faded images from a disturbing dream.

Thoughts of nightmares and mysterious shapes at the corner of your eye come naturally in considering this batch of stories, which often flirt with horror and the supernatural. In one of the book’s most overtly creepy turns, “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted” finds Chaon constructing what at first seems a fairly typical small-town economic scene around Brandon, a dazed college dropout shuffling around his parents’ house after they “made a very difficult decision” and left him behind. Slowly, Chaon ratchets up a feeling of something more sinister with mysterious deaths, forecasts of “dead clouds” on the horizon and a shuttered beauty academy’s abandoned hair dryers looking like “dead spacemen”: This creeping, hallucinatory dread could easily be in Patrick’s head because of “intracerebral myiasis” — maggots on the brain, of course — or it could be an actual descent into some kind of Hell.

Chaon thrives on this sort of uncertainty in his characters, even on the more everyday level. As his characters struggle to collect their lives, to move forward, it’s telling that they all have either lost somebody close to them or are on the cusp of being lost themselves. Considering that Chaon lost his wife to cancer in 2008, it’s not difficult to imagine these stories rising out of those harrowing, blue-hued nights when people find themselves facing both the raw-nerved struggle to hold onto their loved ones and the incomprehensible attempts to reassemble their lives once they’re gone.

The book’s title story constructs a maze of worry and grief around a couple who, after a contentious struggle to conceive, give birth to conjoined twins. As “the host” twin Rosalie struggles through her earliest days of life in a hospital with her unsettlingly active parasitic sibling, her father tells the story of his own struggles, which Chaon reveals as something far more dire than readers are at first led to believe. He pulls it off with a sleight of hand so nimble that it begs readers to look back and find the hints he left behind to engineer such a twist.

Oddly, it’s only when Chaon revisits the unsavory types that populated his 2009 novel “Await Your Reply” that the book fails to connect. In the pitch-dark “St. Dismas,” an amoral 23-year-old describes the aftermath of a well-intended kidnapping of the son of a meth-addled woman he briefly dated, only to be uncertain of his next move at his hollowed-out family home in Nebraska. For the only time in the book’s fuzzily interconnected arc of struggle and uncertainty, the story’s voice never comes into its own, and the results feel slight against the rest of “Stay Awake’s” intricately drawn cast.

Far more successful is Chaon’s remarkable venture into cloudier, more unconventional waters with the book’s closing story, “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily White Hands.” Employing ghostly details and curious games with line spacing and punctuation reminiscent of more preciously “experimental” writers, Chaon unfurls a story that feels more like blunt fragments of a fever dream, haunted by nightmarish details of three sisters who narrowly escape a young, violent death and their tortured father, who’s left to a bleak yet well-earned isolation.

With the subtle tug of a Ouija board’s pointer and spare hints of death and cold-blooded fate, Chaon twists the story’s conclusion with a chilling break in the narration to address the reader, alone with his words, all struggling in our own way. “We understand each other, don’t we?” he half-taunts as a shadow clenches around the story with Chaon’s final, expert reveal. “Are we not, you and I, both of us spirits? Reader, do not ask me who at this very moment is dreaming you.” Sleep tight.