Any novel which opens with an assisted suicide posing as a public art happening is a book after my own heart. Such is the case in Bruce Bauman's latest work, Broken Sleep, a story which gathers an eclectic band of characters, each involved in their own personal quests and forming a sort of modern day Wizard of Oz. Broken Sleep contains many a scene which may leave readers feeling slightly guilty for laughing. Case in point; the aforementioned opening gambit.
It is September, 1966 when our book opens. We are in Central Park by the Bathesda Fountain. The Fugs are playing music. A young artist named Salome Savant is about to premiere her first public art "happening." She has titled it, "Art Is Dead."
At the center of this event is Art Lemczek, a friend of Salome's who is suffering from chronic diabetes. Art has already endured two amputations and attempted to end his life more than once. Along with Lemczek is a large plexiglass cage which sits above the crowd and is a focal point of this evening's event. Tired of living, Lemczek approached his friend Savant to help him end it.
It's a win-win situation. Savant takes this opportunity to create her first happening as well as help her friend. The crowd is buzzing, the music is playing, and, as is the case with most happenings (which have just become the rage amidst the early 60s Pop Art movement), there is a grand anticipatory excitement in the air.
The crowd is oblivious however to what is about to happen after Lemczek enters the plexi-glass booth. Amidst the hoopla, Lemczek flips a switch which explodes himself within the booth into a crimson bloom. Art is dead. The crowd is stunned. Salome is on her way to stardom. It turns out to be a hard act to follow.
And so it begins, this parade of characters, each attempting to solve their own dilemmas. In the tradition of a great memoir, the reader is entreated to follow how each reaches or doesn't reach their hoped for goal. At the center of this story is a young man named Moses Teumer, recently diagnosed with an aggressive case of leukemia and in search of his birth parents to seek a marrow donor. The woman who raised him is not his birth mother and the father fled before Moses could even capture a memory of him. Moses uncovers a panorama of twists and turns during his hunt and new characters creep into the pages. Moses's father, it seems, has loyalties aligned with the Nazi party and is currently alive but MIA. Salome Savant whose art career we have just seen launched, begins who her own quest for a stable plane of mental health. When Moses discovers that she is his real birth mother, Salome is in no frame of mind to dish out any motherly love, let alone marrow for his cancer.
The ancestry surprises don't stop with his mother. Moses discovers the sudden existence of a half-brother, one Alchemy Savant, a very famous rock musician and front man of a band called The Insatiables. Alchemy is that rich and famous rock star brother we all wish we had and is more than willing to join the search for the Nazi dad. One might think that the fame and glory and money that comes with being a rock star would be a fulfilling life, but alas, not for Alchemy. He plans to eventually run for the president in 2020 and bring revolution to the United States. That's not all his famous half-brother is looking for though. Despite all the glam and chutzpah of loud music and gleaming guitars, Alchemy is shooting blanks. He needs a donor too. Of a different kind.
Broken Sleep is an interlocking puzzle of personalities and it is an enthralling read to witness how Bauman orchestrates their intermingling, unions and denouements. Added to this ménage of characters are cameos of such icons as Greta Garbo and others who bear a strong resemblance to real life beat generation heroes. Bauman takes advantage of the time and place of his novel to create a running commentary on art and music. It provides a portrait of an era in a way that only great fiction can do as opposed to standard works of non-fiction.
If you were not alive during the 1960s, Broken Sleep evokes several prevailing moods that I recall from that decade. That hope of creating a better world amidst chaos, the energy that came from the music and the flirtation with madness that sometimes arrived with the influx of readily available hallucinogens. Bauman has an uncanny ear for writing about this particular era which was born out of the post Beat Generation and Andy Warhol factory time period—that transition from beat to hip. His characters help define the type rather than stereotype it. So be prepared for a raucous journey which will keep you jostling until the final pages. Just relax. Bauman is driving.