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LSD, vodka and burner phones fuel the shadowy world of Dan Chaon's novel 'Sleepwalk'


Will Bear lives off the grid. He's got so many aliases he can forget them. He's got a bucket full of burner phones and tosses them out the window of his van when they're done. He's never worked a 9-to-5, paid taxes or been in a real human relationship, save for with his dog Flip, a 60-pound pit bull with PTSD. Will Bear microdoses LSD and Tito's vodka the way some people suck down oat milk lattes. He's 50 years old and makes his way through life locating people who owe a shadowy company or group or whatever called Value Standard Enterprises. And sometimes, well, they don't quite make it there. Then one day, one of his aliases gets a call from a woman who says, I think you might be my biological father. Will Bear is at the center of Dan Chaon's new book, "Sleepwalk." And Dan Chaon, the author of the previous bestseller "Will" (ph), joins us from Cleveland. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAN CHAON: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Boy, Will Bear's story can be dark, and it seems to be set in a dark time and place that might be just ahead of us.

CHAON: Well, I was having a - kind of a struggle as I was working on this book. It was in the, you know, early days of the Trump administration, and I was trying to figure out how to write about the current time. And it seemed to me that the only way to do it was to create a kind of alternate version of America because there was just no way to know what was going to happen next. It seemed like everything was changing so fast. And so I guess this is a novel that happens a little bit in the future - maybe one more pandemic away, maybe one more natural disaster away, maybe one more constitutional crisis away - not that far.

SIMON: Wow. And I was, again, especially struck by a sentence early on - no doubt in the great scheme of things, we are, all of us, the offspring of murderers. If we weren't, we probably wouldn't be here. Oh, my word, that cuts deep.

CHAON: (Laughter) Well, Will has a - I think - a kind of cynical view of humanity, although that I think - part of the novel is that that cynical view starts to change once he meets this young woman.

SIMON: Well, and tell us about that. He gets a call from a young woman who believes she might be his daughter, but not that she - she is not the fruit of any romance in his past.

CHAON: No, she's the product of a sperm donation that he made when he was young, somewhat ill-advisedly, given his job. And as things go on, there's a bit of a question for Will and for his employers about whether she's a real person, whether she's someone who's scamming him. And a lot of the drama in the story has to do with Will trying to decide - should I meet my daughter, or should I kill her?

SIMON: Well, what parent hasn't been faced with that?

CHAON: I know.

SIMON: No, no, no. I don't mean that in any real way. You know, I wrote down in my notes a prompt to ask you - what put this story in your mind? But the more we talk about it, the more I realize - everything put the story in your mind, didn't it?

CHAON: Yeah, well, that's the way it is with novels. They're like a black hole, and everything on the news, everything you see on TV gets sucked in until there's, you know, there's only the novel. I mean, the other thing that really did inspire me was when - 20 years ago, I met my own biological father for the first time. I was 30 when I met him as an adoptee. And he's kind of a character in his own right. And I think the voice of Will has a little bit, at least, to do with my meeting of my biological father.

SIMON: Well, God bless. Can you tell us about that?

CHAON: Yeah, this was when I was 30 - I had been sort of researching. I just had kids and really wanted to know just medical information because, you know, it's hard going into the doctor and telling them that your child - you don't know any of your background information. As it turned out, my bio dad really wanted to meet me, and we had a friendship that lasted until his recent death. And so it was about the best kind of outcome that you could hope for.

SIMON: Yeah. You're in Cleveland now, but you grew up, I gather, in a town of just 20 people.

CHAON: In Nebraska, yeah - one of those grain elevator towns that are slowly returning to the dust. I was one of the only kids with - for miles, so I learned very early on to make my own entertainment. And I think that may be why I became a writer.


CHAON: Yeah, I used to walk around with a tape recorder, telling myself stories.

SIMON: You know, I think of Hemingway growing up in Chicago or Philip Roth in Newark - Toni Morrison in Metro Cleveland. And I understand...

CHAON: ...Yeah, Lorraine...

SIMON: ...And I understand how the bustle of cities can help spark the imagination of a writer. But in a town of 20, you had to do everything, I guess.

CHAON: Yeah, I played all the characters, and, you know, I threw myself a ball and then caught it.


SIMON: All right, all right. I guess I deserved that, but - yeah, but it taught you to entertain yourself, you think?

CHAON: Indeed, yeah. I mean, and I think it really helped my imagination. It's a stark landscape out there. And I mean, there's a kind of beauty to it, but it's also very lonely. And I think in some ways that inspires some of the moods that I get into with my novel. I mean, this is a novel that takes place on the road. I-80 ran right near where I was growing up, and I remember watching the lights of the semitrucks passing in the distance and just sort of dreaming about where they were going.

SIMON: Boy, that sounds like a country song. Or...

CHAON: Doesn't it?

SIMON: ...Or a Dan Chaon novel - yeah. At the heart of this novel, maybe - despite your best efforts sometimes, there's a - it's a story about parental instinct.

CHAON: Right.

SIMON: You know, I mean, underneath all of his burner phones and microdoses, does Will Bear discover that instinct, that love?

CHAON: I think that that was, to me, the thing that was most important about the book, was that longing for kinship and that longing for connection is awakened in this guy. And, you know, I'm a sentimental sort of guy. That really gets to me, and that was something that - as the novel went on, I found the heart of the book was this awakening that I'd like to think is still possible at age 50 and still possible for anybody to have.

SIMON: Yeah, Dan Chaon - his novel, "Sleepwalk." Thank you so much for being with us.

CHAON: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.