House of Sleep. Brad Kelly. RarePoverty, 2021. 311 pages.

Cults are guaranteed drama, in that any tale of an “alternative religious organization” is bound to get mouths watering. Audiences line up as if at a ticket booth for Taylor Swift to catch the latest tale of charisma gone wrong. Part of the fascination might come from the needling question inside: “Would I fall for this quack’s line? Would I feel my resistance fade away and take the paper cup of Kool Aid?” Because people do. The Manson Family. Rajneeshpuram. Branch Davidians. NXIUM. Heaven’s Gate. Where kooky theology, anthropology, and true crime intersect, there you will find an abundance of cult horror stories and a specialized appetite to finger the wounds in the false messiah’s abdomen. Something about America’s freedom culture gives cults the right environment to take hold and flourish, like Japanese knotweed that stubbornly holds on no matter how scorched-earth the landscapers become.

We’re suckers for narratives about leadership and power, especially when the leader treads on the dark side. And we’re made doubly uncomfortable when we’re shown that the distinction between light and dark is not as clear as a high powered pulse of x-ray vision would have it. Brad Kelly’s novel House of Sleep would not be served well if I reductively described it as “a novel about a cult.” That would be a facile, lazy dismissal, a shrug over where to place a book on a bookshelf. It is 311 pages long but this metric conceals that House of Sleep is a thick book, a maximalist, heavy, syrupy book teeming with description and lyricism and mystical insight bordering on snow blindness.

The basic premise of the novel is that individuals, seekers, are drawn to a large house by a deep river (I’ve forgotten if there was a geographical location mentioned, more on that later) where an often half-naked guru called the Diving Man entices them into living and working and sleeping in a large central room, where the Diving Man (“DM” for short) penetrates their dreams, for therapeutic purposes. Just go with it. The novel’s structure is built on foundations, pylons sunk into mysterious sands that require, like all fictions, your help in the form of magical concentration to stay upright. The reader has to assist the writer in the psychic feat of bending the spoon with his mind. This was a challenge at times but after some mental effort, the trick was pulled off and the live studio audience was wowed.

The novel’s narrative mainly focuses on two wandering souls who find themselves coming to the “House of Sleep” and entering its trance: Lynn, a therapist who maybe should know better but is reeling from the loss of her dead partner (husband? details slip away from me) Michael; and Daniel, a drifter recently cut loose from a squalid home life with a grotesque evangelical family, a “rescue dog that sorta knew how to talk,” a man child who is either blessed or cursed with an extraordinary lexical facility that allows Kelly to let his Cormac McCarthy chainsaw rip:

“From conversations overheard at the store in town, television, the news and the advertisements…Daniel held an internal image of the city. It seemed a tense alliance between curmudgeonly, splendorous trees and squared-off castles of concrete and glass, Babylonic towers competing for the ire of God. In the massiveness of night, both taunted and reveled in, they smeared the stars in full orange. His father said they could not bear to glimpse the infinite, for it struck fear in their hearts to know that they were watched…They came down toward the city’s river, the same he’d slept beside grown monstrous, his father said, to grind away at the foul edge these city-dwellers had etched into the earth. Cars joined them now from concrete tributaries at seventy-five miles per hour. The buildings taller than he thought possible and these cars, them in one, growing smaller in their shadow. They approached as toward a cave at the foot of a mountain and so fast it did not seem they could stop as the road punctured through the concrete—Daniel flinching at an imagined crash—into the very cetacean belly of the city.”

The ornate scrollwork of the novel’s prose is its most notable and winning characteristic. We’re positioned in a rotating triad of character’s minds—Lynn’s, Daniel’s, and DM’s—and while all of them are capable of bearing witness to their limited world with beautiful language, only DM seems to be fully aware of his powers. The scenes where DM speaks to his gathered flock in a mishmash of new age “heart speak” and hep, with-it, late night radio DJ rap constitute some of the best characterization that Kelly brings to the table. There is never any doubt as to who controls all the game pieces, who brings the characters together, and who stands in their way. DM is the omniscient source for the novel’s dramatic tension, but if I had a criticism of House of Sleep, it would be that the story did not pull my little makeshift raft through the expansive swamp of its middle section and I had to pole the rest of the way until I got to the strong current again. Smaller details from the first half of the book, like where in the USA it all occurred, did not persist and it was hard to find the motivation to recover them, which might be more my fault as a distracted reader than Kelly’s.

Dreams as portentous settings interpenetrate with waking life, mysterious connections between characters are revealed with a twist that was more convincing than expected, and a wiseacre prophet performs his all-knowing schtick for a rapt congregation of followers. House of Sleep is a thick bowl of novelistic soup with plenty of delicious prose flavoring, but I had to reheat it in the microwave several times to finish.

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