Book Review : Will Viharo - Things I Do When I'm Awake (2016)
Seattle-based author Will Viharo is known for writing humorous, anachronistic pulp novels about a sex-addicted private detective named Vic Valentine. I was a big fan of his latest novel Hard-Boiled Heart, which savantly mixed contemporary problems (addiction, Hollywood burnouts) and classic Californian hardboiled mystery elements (greed, femmes fatales, rudderless starlets, etc.) While it was provocative, Hard-Boiled Heart was never hollow or tasteless. Its subtext of failure and loneliness counterbalanced the unapologetic eroticism. I've picked up Will Viharo's new book Things I Do When I'm Awake expecting a similar ride and was I ever wrong or what? Turns out there are hidden gears on that guy.
Things I Do When I'm Awake is a short book. It's barely 100 pages-long, really. It's a series of interrelated vignettes narrated by a nameless dog walker. Journal entries if you will. The narrator is having trouble coming to terms with his mother's mental illness. He suffers from loneliness * and a disconnection from reality ** that causes him violent and pornographic dreams where he satisfies his predatory compulsions or the aforementioned predatory compulsions satisfy themselves on him. It's violent, steamy, sometimes even bloody and gory. The narrator's life slips out of control when he starts wondering what's real and what's a dream. His existence turns into a muddled in an hyperviolent freakshow that resembles what the most religious of you would call hell.
This is a book about mental illness. Will Viharo wrote a blog post to explain how Things To Do When I'm Awake was influence by his mother's struggle with schizophrenia. It's pretty straightforward about what it is, but it's also very convincing. Mental illness are fostered by unhealthy, visceral fantasies and a disconnection from reality and the narrator of Things I Do When I'm Awake is thoroughly isolated, both socially and psychologically. His reality turns into a psychoanalytic nightmare because his vulnerable mind is the only baseline he has to differentiate what's real and what's not. This is exactly how mental illness works, people. There's no clever allegory to Things I Do When I'm Awake. It's a raw, straight and honest portrait of how mental illness devour people and it's absolutely terrifying.
My mother is worried I will inherit her madness. I tell her now to worry, I am fine. I am simply a dog walker in real life. There is nothing wrong with me.
I am only crazy when I dream. But she doesn't need to know that. No one does.
That said, Things I Do When I'm Awake is far from being devoid of literary merit. It's a gorgeously crafted novel with an oppressive atmosphere and a lurking sense of dread. There is this great simile at the end of the first chapter where the narrator finds his mother smoking in a hallway at night. He compares the burning tip of her cigarette to the eye of a beast in a cave. What a beautiful way to convey a sense of danger without overplaying your hand. I knew Will Viharo was somewhat of a stylist, but he goes above and beyond in Things I Do When I'm Awake. The first name that comes up to my mind for comparison is British author Richard Godwin. Both men write about about the human subconscious with the same passion and fearlessness.
Things I Do When I'm Awake is a very personal book. Will Viharo said he didn't really have a plot in mind when he wrote it, which is a good and a bad thing. It's somewhat predictable, yet it's ominous. I knew about twenty pages in where this thing was going, but the sheer gorgeousness and psychological precision of Viharo's writing kept me reading. I can't say Things I Do When I'm Awake is a pleasant read the way Hard-Boiled Heart is pleasant, but I find comfort in the idea that someone portrayed mental illness in a narrative with such an uncomfortable level of accuracy. While Things I Do When I'm Awake wouldn't technically qualify as "entertainment" per se, I am convinced it is a book that needs to exist. It is a book I strongly recommend to whoever is looking to understand mental illness better.
* A common, often underlying theme in Viharo's fiction.
** That one's entirely new.