Sometimes, people need a push. They need a jolt to cause them to move; they need a confident voice in the background to urge them on. Scott Honea’s debut novel, Devil in a Sleeping Bag, takes a look at a man who needs an overhaul in the worst kind of way.
Sam, Honea’s protagonist, is bored. As a matter of fact, Sam’s been bored with his life for a long time. He lives quietly in Florida, paying his bills and living life as easily as he can. He doesn’t have much in the way of friends or family. His only real interest is his job, and even that began to fade a long time ago. Sam is a tombstone etcher—yes, the guy who engraves names and dates on tombstones. Honea describes Sam’s mindset at work: “He thought about the lives of the people whose names he was immortalizing; how they lived, how they loved, how they died. Eventually, the demands of his job wore him down and the jobs and names all began to blend together.” All is okay—really just okay—until one night when Sam gets a strange knock at his door. It’s a police officer, and he says to Sam, “We’ve got a sinkhole getting ready to swallow up half this neighborhood, and you need to evacuate.”
Sam initially resists the call to leave his home. He’s settled. He doesn’t want the disorder that a move creates. He’d just as rather die than change anything. But Devil in a Sleeping Bag is a story about getting a push to go out and start anew. The sinkhole is half of the instigator that Sam needs.
The other half comes via a woman named Cathy. Cathy is a dreamer, who very much wants something—she wants her happiness back after her child died; she wants her singing career to take off; she wants to love. She’s the perfect balance to Sam’s rather blandness.
Cathy notices Sam’s disinterest in life, and she calls him out on it: “All these things that you carry around with you… maybe they’re just slowing you down.” She continues, “Whatever it is that you’re looking for here, I don’t think you’re going to find it. I think it evaporated a long time ago. I think it lives in the sky, and in your head.” Her words are vicious, but they are what he needs to hear.
The beginning of Honea’s novel is smooth and enjoyable. The story is immersive and honest. It feels like a true story about people finding themselves—reconnecting or, at the very least, regrouping. Sam is likeable enough because he’s a type of everyman. How can you not root for an ordinary guy down on life? Cathy is wonderful to experience. Honea gives her a voice that is calm, yet mighty. There interactions are authentic, mixing sadness and hopefulness in equally believable parts.
It’s in the second half of Devil in a Sleeping Bag that the novel takes a slightly uneven turn. To escape the sinkhole, Sam and Cathy take a roadtrip across the southern and western parts of the United States. They get into a Monte Carlo and travel aimlessly, exploring bars and meeting random misfits. The story becomes a bit too convoluted. Rather than getting closer to Sam and Cathy—and turning inward, the story opens itself up a bit too wide.
I kept wanting more of Sam and Cathy. Sure, they are present throughout most of the book, but I wanted more of them—the guy trying to figure out what he was and the woman hoping to find her own dreams.
Still, the novel does have its pleasures. Honea knows how to write—and how to write well. After Sam meets Cathy for the first time, Honea describes Sam’s reaction: “Sam felt something awaken inside of him. Something once lost and now found, like a face he hadn’t seen in so long that its contours were no longer recognizable. It felt foreign, this sudden longing. It made his heart beat in a way that he could not control.” Beautiful, right? Just when you think he’s finished, Honea follows it up: “Sam also recognized that all of these feelings could exist merely because he hadn’t eaten all day.” It’s a clever and smart follow-up.
Honea also does a fine job in establishing his setting. His descriptions of the various underbellies are spot on, and he has an ear for dialogue.
For a first time novelist, Honea shows a lot of promise. Devil in a Sleeping Bag isn’t perfect, but it has its rewards.
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