He sleeps : a novel /
Reginald McKnight.
1st ed.
New York : H. Holt, 2001.
210 p. ; 22 cm.
More Details
New York : H. Holt, 2001.
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A Look Inside
This item was nominated for the following awards:
Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, USA, 2002 : Nominated
First Chapter

Chapter One

N'Gor village June 19, '85

Dear Rita,

Looks like your birthday wish that I not be alone came true, but in the most bizarre way. Get this. I come home from working all morning in a nasty rainy Dakar on the 17th and find a family I've never seen before having lunch in the foyer of my house. There they are--mother, father, daughter--hunkered down on the floor in the customary Senegalese style, eating fish and rice from the customary big enamel-covered bowl. The father, a guy named Alaine Kourman, rises from the floor smooth like a gymnast, his oily skin and his glasses shining under the yellow light. He forks over his hand, says, "Hey, welcome home," and invites me to dine. "I show you my family," he says, "and then, you eating."

    I can't tell you how disconcerting it all was, Sis. Actually, I should say, How it's been, 'cause they're still here. Here to stay, apparently. I mean, one day I'm walking around this place in my ass-eaten underwear, my tapes and papers and clothes strewn all over the house, and next day there's a family living here--completely moved in--and all my stuff placed neatly, lovingly, in my bedroom. Everything's as orderly as a post office now, a credenza in the common room, a big potted rubber tree between the common room windows, loud African prints, matted, framed, and hung on the walls, and three comely strangers named Kourman using and having access to parts of the house that I either had no use for (the kitchen) or was told were off limits (the big, well-lighted bedroom just off the foyer).

    Monsieur N'Doye, my landlord, is down in M'Bour this week, so I can't ask him who these folks are and why they're here, and it wouldn't be right to give the Kourmans the third degree. But I have learned a few things about them in the first 36 hours of their residency.

    Kene, the wife, teaches math, French, and earth science at the village school. She's gorgeous and tall, broad shouldered, graceful, toothy, buxom, and an amazingly good cook. The tjebudjin lunch I sat down to the first afternoon was as good as I've had in my three months here: the grouper was tender, the rice perfectly sweet, tomato-y, onion-y, firm, oily, the vegetables as savory as Ma's gumbo. Kene tried to make sure I got plenty of everything, telling her husband to slow down so I could catch up to him. She even smacked his spoon hand. At dinner she served this dish I've never had here before, these small fish about the size of bluegill, which she sliced width-wise, three deep cuts right down to the spine. She dipped them in flour, salt, and pepper and fried them. They reminded me of Ma's Friday fish fries, only none of the Hail-Mary-Full-of-Grease indigestion afterward. Ol' Kene has a very light touch with the grease. She met her lucky bastard at the Sorbonne, where she studied chemistry (and he studied government), so maybe she knows some kind of scientific maneuver to siphon off all the oil.

    Alaine, the lucky bastard, is, in his own words, a "pure Marxist." And he appears to be, right down to the Leninish Vandyke and round spectacles, just that. He's a little shorter than his wife, a shmendrick, as Rose would say, but he's very good looking, has a big presence; he's muscular and lithe, kind of an African Bruce Lee. He apparently doesn't mess around when it comes to how-do-you-dos. He asked me before I'd had my second spoonful of fish, that first afternoon, "Do you like Reagan?"

    I told him I hated Ray-gun as passionately as I love my wife.

    He asked me how the American people could have voted into office--not once, but twice--a man who made movies with a monkey. I told him I had no idea. "Let him eat, Alaine," said Kene, but, without missing a beat, said, "Why didn't you bring your wife here to live with you?" And before I could answer (thank God), Alaine said, "Kene, it's all right for you to talk and not me?"

    "Politics?" she spat.

    And then they left French behind, going into a language I don't know. I'm guessing it was either Pular or Bambara. If it was Wolof, they had an angle on it I've never heard. Whatever it was, you wouldn't have needed no stinkin Ph.D. in anthropology to get the gist. The skirmish lasted only a couple seconds, though, and apparently lucky boy won. He said, kind of abruptly to me, "If he don't have so many bombs, no one could ever take him serious." My answer was that he didn't need to speak English, but, like I told you last time I wrote, if a person speaks only two words of English, I'm gonna hear 'em. "No, no, I need to practice," Alaine said. Then he asked me about "cowsboy" Reagan again.

    I did go ahead and talk politics with him, in English, but I felt funny about it. Kene was clearly steamed. She fussed over the little girl, Mammi (pronounced Mommy), as though she were six months old rather than six years old, and it was easy to tell she was doing it to annoy Alaine, who kept flicking glances at wife and child. Finally, Alaine said something rather tart in the mystery lingo, and Kene stood up, took Mammi by the hand, and went into the big bedroom off the foyer. Then Alaine excused himself and went in after them. Then I heard Kene tell the lucky bastard to go fuck himself, and I think she threw something at him, 'cause the door thumped and rattled.

    Well, I said to myself, this is going nicely, and I laid down my spoon, walked out into the rain and to my assistant Idrissa's place, which is on the west side of the village.

    I tapped on Idrissa's door, and the first thing I said to him was "Idi, there're people in my house." He looked at me like I was crazy, and I suppose it must've sounded kind of crazy, the way I said it, or maybe it was the look on my face. He looked at me as though there were indeed people in my house, that I'd invited them but had forgotten I'd invited them. He has these big thick eyebrows that he expertly arches whenever he's annoyed or confused. He arched the left one and pursed his lips. So I said, "I mean they're living there. A family. In my house." He didn't say anything at first, and I was silent too. After a second or two, he said, "Have you eaten yet?" and I said I'd had a bite or two with the people living in my house and then told him about the fight. He tossed the book he'd been reading onto his bed, said, "Let's go chop," and we walked in the rain to the bus stop without a word, and when we got there, he still said nothing, but I could see his brain working. So I watched Idrissa's face, his alert, fox face, as a metallic green van carrying tourists from the airport to the Meridien Hotel glided past us with hardly a sound. The air momentarily filled with the smell of its exhaust, and I wrinkled my nose, squinted a little.

    It was in such a van that I met Idrissa my first day here, and his last day as an airport shuttle driver. He's a good guy, Idrissa. I'm surprised I haven't said much about him to you before, but I clearly haven't, since you said, "Who's this Idi-guy?" in your letter. It's just that I've said so much about him in my letters to Rose and Ma, and mention him so often in my journal and my daily notes, that I feel as though everyone I know already knows him.

    Before I came here to collect data for my silly little ethnographic survey, Jewel Hefler, a colleague of mine from the University of Denver, told me it would be unwise to befriend anyone I met at the airport. She aimed her sharp nose at me and said, "They're vultures (she pronounces it `vulchaz'), the whole airport crowd. God, they even stoop like vulchaz. Wear vulcha haircuts." She told me to ride with the shuttle drivers from the airport to the village, speak little, pay them no more than fifteen hundred francs, plus a small tip, say merci, au revoir, and keep going. But Idrissa has charmed me, it seems. His English is good, he's extremely well read, he's droll, and I was intrigued by the fact that he wouldn't take a tip (the stuff of monstrous scams, Jewel would say). But if we anthropologists are supposed to be serious about studying other cultures, we should investigate the real as well as the ideal. We should, from time to time, study trouble. But so far, the dude's gotten me out of trouble and never got me in it.

    When he delivered me to the Masatta Samb Hotel that day, he merely helped me with my bags, shook my hand, and wished me a good afternoon. When I held out the one hundred CFA coin, he folded his hands behind his back, nodded his head a shade, and said, "It's OK, man." He turned and left. But I saw him later that day, just after he delivered a tourist couple to the hotel, and when they offered him a tip he took it. I approached him, asked him why he'd accepted their tip and not mine, and he replied, "You came to work; they came to play. People like to pay for play, not work." I liked that, added it to my compilation of West African proverbs, in fact, and invited him to have a drink with me in the hotel bar, the Blue Marlin.

    We sat at a table near the center. The place was virtually empty, save for two tomato-skinned "white" men at the bar. Their utterances were furtive--gripes about Africa, no doubt--and their voices were more like the grunts of apes than the whispers of men. Idrissa looked at the men and arched his brows, but I think it was amusement that shaped his face rather than contempt. "Are you still at work?" I said. "Yes," he said, "I'm still on the clock." Then he smiled when I evinced surprise at the level of his idiom. "I take a lickin' and keep on tickin'," he said, then laughed, held out his palm so I could slap it. "How'd you know I came here to work?" I said.

    "I've done this job a long time," he said. "I'm older than I look. I'm about thirty." He looks nineteen or twenty, and I told him so. He nodded and said, "You got a tape recorder and a serious camera. You got a pen in your pocket and a valise full of writing paper. You don't wear sunglasses or got on a flowered shirt or shorts. You don't smile so much. You look sad. You look tired."

    "You're good," I said.

    "You're on the clock," said Idrissa.

    We sat quietly for several minutes. I ripped at the label of my beer. Idrissa folded his arms and gazed at the table. Finally he said, "We used to get a lot of anthropologist here in the seventies, but they tell me your Mr. Reagan doesn't care for that sort of thing and won't pay for it."

    "Well, that's not exactly right, but I, for one, am glad the old bastard can't run for a third term. But how do you know I'm not a journalist?"

    "Same reason I know you're not CIA. Journalist act like he know everything; CIA act like he know nothing."

    "You mind if I write that down?"

    "No charge."

    I write everything down, eventually. That's my problem. Rose would tell you it's one of many. Have you heard from her lately, by the way? I haven't. Not a single goddamn word, though I've written her two letters a week since my arrival.

    He finally asked me what I was dying to tell him--what's my project--and I told him that aside from collecting contemporary proverbs, I was looking for urban legends, but he didn't know the term, so I told him that they are the only folktales around anymore that most people believe. Still he didn't get me. I said, "Stories that are passed by word of mouth, but that can't always be found in newspapers and books. I told a few from Brunvand and Dorson, a few from high school and college, the Decapitated Biker, the Death Car, the Sewer Gators, the Gerbil story, etc. I'm not entirely sure he understood that these things aren't necessarily true, but this was no big deal at the time, since he wasn't my assistant. He said, "You have heard about disappearing pickpocket?" and I asked him what he meant, so he told me:

    "As far as I know, this story is true. My cousin, who live in Saint-Louis, told me that, one day, a friend of her mother was shopping in the grande marché. It was in January, so the harmattan winds were making a lot of dust in the air. People were in a bad mood, as they are this time of year. There was a lot of pushing and shoving at the market, and Mrs. Wade, is her name, I think--"

    "Spell it?"



    "Close enough. Anyway, she was being pushed aside to side. But she had her money in her hand, and not in her clothing or bag, so no one could take it from her. She had five thousand CFA-back then, maybe twenty American, now, maybe seventeen. OK?

    "Yeah, so her husband, this guy who did electrical work, was on strike, so he told her that the money was little, so they had to buy only what was necessary. But she was tired and in a bad mood. She was angry about the crowds pushing her aside to side, and about the dust on everything, her eyes and everything, you see?

    "She said the winds were making her mad, and angry, and she thought all the meat bad, and the fish too soft. She bought only three vegetables and a small, small piece of fish to go with the rice she was going to cook that day. She had almost all her money left over. Four, four and a half thousand. And at the leather stand she saw a pair of sandals that she loved, so she asked to see them. They were her size and very beautiful. Just as she was handing over the money, a strong hot wind blew, and for a second, dust was in the air very heavy. When it settled, a man in a brown khaftan was standing so close to her that she almost fell over. But in a sudden, the wind blew again. When it settled again, the man was gone. And so was her money. It was gone, completely gone from her hands." Idrissa held out his hands, palms up, and shook them a little. Then he lit a cigarette and sat back. That's my boy Idrissa. A natural anthropologist, a born raconteur, a sharp research assistant.

    The thing I liked about the dude was when I showed him two other versions of that story in my notes, he didn't get defensive and tell me how his was true, etc., etc., as other folks do. He seemed delighted. To do what I do for a living, you've got to let go of the usual tendency people have for believing good stories. You've got to have a full-tilt bullshit detector. Idrissa seems to have the right stuff.

    Anyhow, the village grapevine led him to the place I'm now living--a tidy, ranch-style house with flower gardens, lots of space, but only a fair amount of light--not five minutes, by foot, from the beach and an equal number of minutes to Idrissa's room. He helped me negotiate the rent I pay to Monsieur N'Doye, and I was so pleased with the price, one hundred dollars a month, that I decided I'd better keep Idrissa close to me, and hired him as my administrative assistant. Idrissa has shown me good and inexpensive places to eat and helped me get a box at the airport post office, something that foreigners can't easily do. Or so he tells me. The most important thing is that he's introduced me to practically all my informants, the older folk in the village who are full to the brim with the proverbs, the traditional and urban folktales, and sacred stories I've been trying to collect since my arrival. I'm not ashamed to say that without him I'd be quite lost here in Senegal. Anyway, that's Idrissa.

    So we take a table at the airport café that rainy afternoon, and the guy, the born raconteur, says, "I knew about these people in the house." I asked him why the fuck he didn't mention them to me, and he told me he'd meant to but that he'd been so busy doing library research for me that it just slipped his mind. What could I say? I have been pounding him pretty hard lately. I got wind of this story about peanut skins causing liver cancer that sounded like a classic urban legend, and had him burning oil into the wee hours for five straight days, digging up every article he could find, while I conducted interviews with medical and lay people. I'm pretty certain it's a UL. Not as fantastic as the Penis Thief and the Vanishing Thief and some of the older tales, but ULs is ULs. I'm not picky.

    Idrissa said to me: "I have told you, have I not, that the first grapevine ever planted was planted in N'Gor village. People talk about everything all the time, even while they sleep. But you? You don't listen."

    I told him my job is to listen. That's all I do.

    "You tape," he said, "and you write down, but you don't listen in your ears." And he pointed at my left ear with his fork. Goddamn Africans. Always got to be a step ahead.

    So lunch, late as it was, and hungry as I was, wasn't so great. Nothing like Kene's chop. Nothing. The rain let up, though, and the ride from the airport café was pleasant, what with the sweetened air, and the uncrowded bus, and Idrissa's customary chattiness. The sun broke out, and everything glittered golden pink--the ocean, people, the skins of baobab trees, the road. I watched a bunch of fishermen spreading out their nets on the beach, hoping, I guess, to catch the last couple hours of sun. And I saw a half dozen stick-legged boys chasing a stray cat with toy spears, and an old woman pounding millet with a pestle the size of a baseball bat as I listened (with my ears) to Idrissa talk about the Kourmans--people he swore he didn't know--as if he knew them. He told me Alaine worked for one of the government agencies not far from the American embassy (though he didn't know which) and that he had grand political aspirations. Idrissa said Kourman believes that the watery socialism of the current regime is insulting, and seems obsessed with revolution. I could tell that Idrissa isn't fond of the man, but can't tell exactly how I could tell.

    He described Kene as "more brillianter" than her husband but added that she wasn't at all interested in politics, excepting feminism. I told Idrissa there wasn't anything more political than feminism, and he smirked and said, "What I mean is that she does not dream as her husband does. If you look at her close, you can see that she is no talk but action." I told him that I didn't mind looking at her in the least, and he gave me the strangest look, pregnant pause and all, then said, "You're married, man." I would have said something like "I'm married, not dead," but I'm sure that retort is just as stale here as it is back in the United States.

    "The village women don't like her," Idi told me, and I asked him why. He said he heard some of the village women gossiping about her this morning on the bus while he was on his way to the university library. "They said she was holding Maine's hand while they were walking to the market."


    "This is something only Frenchwomen do around here."

    "So it's OK for guys to hold hands--"

    "And women, too, but not men and women. I thought you knew that. They think she should have left her French habits back in France."

    I told him I did know it but didn't think it was such a big deal, and Idrissa said that they weren't especially fond of foreigners here. Seems that Kene is from some southern ethnic group, but Idrissa didn't know which. And it seems I'm so wildly foreign to the folks here that, like a white man, I don't really count. Alaine, he tells me, is originally from Yoff village, meaning, like the people here in N'Gor, he's a full-blooded Lebou, and while they might have preferred that he marry a homegirl, they're all right with him.

    So I was feeling pretty educated about the Kourmans, but the thing that really bothered me was the deal with their room. See, the room off the foyer was the one I'd initially wanted. It's twice the size of the room I'm in. It gets more sun than any of the other rooms in the house, and it's got more windows, meaning that when it gets hot, the place gets nice cross breezes. "What about the room, Idi?" I said. "Didn't Monsieur N'Doye tell you to tell me it belonged to some itinerant German artist who was away for a couple months?"

    All Idrissa said was "Apparently it wasn't true."

    So that's basically all I know, which isn't much. I've got roommates now, so be careful what wishes you make for baby brother from now on, OK? If I can't live with my own wife, I can't see, right now, how I'm going to live with these folks.

    Thanks for the beautiful card, the compass, and the (ha ha) toilet paper. You're quite the comedienne, Rita. But maybe you thought I was joking. I wasn't. I really and truly don't use it anymore. (Except maybe if I catch cold. I can certainly use it for blowing my nose.) Anyway, no one uses TP, except, I'm pretty sure, the Westerners and Westerniks who live in Dakar.

    Using the can is a whole different trip here. It's hard to describe, but I'm told this type of toilet can be found in Europe, too. Imagine a toilet bowl that is countersunk at floor level. Somewhere nearby is a kettle or a can filled with clean water. On either side of the bowl, east and west, you've got footrests. You put your feet on these and hunker down into a full squat. You do your thing, and when your thing is done, you use the water from the kettle and wash your flue with your left hand only. People shake hands all the time here and would probably kill you if it somehow became known that you washed down with your right. But anyhow, I swear it's a great deal cleaner than toilet paper, though I don't imagine there will be any practical way to carry the custom back home with me when my year is up, or my project finished, whichever comes first.

    The thing that bugs me, though, about the plumbing is that now and then I'll see the occasional crab scuttling out of the bowl, which suggests that our waste is being flushed directly into the Atlantic. Can't say I like that, but I'm not about to squat in the long grasses outside the village. But still ...

    Good God, am I tired. Long, strange couple days here. Tell Ma I love her and I'll write her soon. Tell the Dad I'm well and the fishing is pretty good, but I haven't had much time for it. And kiss baby Syria for me. And even though she hates me, tell Chloe I said hello. Write when you find the time.

I Love You,


P.S. One more thing, Sis. The happy couple made up that very night. I got home about 8pm, after hanging out for a couple hours at Idrissa's crib. Kene offered me the delicious fried fish, and I chatted with Alaine and ate. Alaine and I talked for a while. He wants English lessons (of course), and I want to improve my Wolof. We agreed to meet after dinner twice a week for the exchange. They all went to bed at about ten, and I read for about an hour then went to sleep myself. Woke up to the sound of them shrieking the springs at maybe about one in the morn. It seems they make up a lot. They made up twice more that very night. More than Rose and I ever did or probably ever will. Alaine really is a lucky bastard. And Kene is very noisy.

* * *

    Thought you were dead.

    As you can hear, I'm not.

    What's wrong?

    Just writing. Living. Nothing's wrong. I've just been really busy.

    Well, you're not writing me .

    I've been busy. My thesis was due in April, you know.

    Yeah, I know, Rose, but I manage to--

    I did write you. Did you get my card?

    That was a month ago. I've written you.... Are you getting my letters?

    About twenty cards and letters, yes.

    You sound annoyed.

    I'm a little overwhelmed right now. I've been eating, sleeping, and thinking Paulo Freire for six months now and--

    Have you bought your ticket yet?

    Excuse me?

    Are you still coming out?

    I'm kind of broke.

    Rose, I left you--

    I know you did, but after I paid your storage fee and your-

    I gave you the money for the ticket. I told you I'd take care of all my own stuff.

    Then why didn't you? You know how many times those people have called here?

    They should be calling my folks.

    Well, they're not. They call here. So I just sent them the money.

    I'll send you more money, then.

    No, that's OK.


Excerpted from He Sleeps by Reginald McKnight. Copyright © 2001 by Reginald McKnight. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2001-08-27:
In this passionately written, thoughtfully conceived novel, McKnight (White Boys) portrays a man's confrontation with racial identity in its most elemental form. Bertrand Milworth, a young African-American anthropologist, moves to Senegal to complete research on myths and legends in village societies, leaving his white wife, Rose, behind in Colorado. A true babe in the woods, Bertrand rents a room in a house inhabited by a fiery young Senegalese couple and quickly finds himself tormented by his attraction to Kene and his resentment of her devious husband, Alaine. As his research falters amid worries about his failing marriage, Bertrand an intellectual taught to view race solely as an abstraction begins to view the question more viscerally. Through subtle excursions into Bertrand's past and vivid recreations of his disturbing dreams, McKnight brings his character's insecurities about race to the fore, particularly his anxiety about African-American women and penchant for white girlfriends. As his subconscious life encroaches on his daily waking existence, Bertrand begins to suspect that his alien identity in the village has put him in danger. Here, McKnight's language wonderfully evokes the sights and smells of the African landscape, transforming the dark terrain of his character's mind into a plot of intrigue and mystery. As its multiple layers thicken and converge, the narrative twists and turns, alternating perspectives and voices, spinning at times almost out of the author's control. McKnight's prose swings wildly between the blandly recognizable phrases of American slang in Bertrand's journal and his letters home, to the lyrical descriptions of his thoughts as his grip on reality slips. At times frustratingly opaque, McKnight's intricate plot remains gripping, and he constructs an illuminating tale about race, gender and our fragile sense of self. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2001-08-01:
Exploring some of the themes in his previous work, White Boys (LJ 10/15/97), McKnight blends the search for racial identity and culture shock in a surreal journey through one man's dreaming and waking lives. Bertrand has been living in Senegal to study folklore, but the sudden appearance of a family in his house causes him to confront other, truer motives. Did he leave the United States to write or to flee a failing marriage? Is he an African American seeking his heritage or an arrogant Westerner seeking primitive sexual encounters? Are his dreams of an affair with the beautiful woman under his roof merely dreams or is he the victim of a magical curse? Bertrand's confusion and ignorance reveal that race and culture are not the same and that the most disturbing prejudices are within. McKnight's flair for writing about his character's inner self lets the reader see all his flaws without sacrificing compassion. Patrons looking for an unpretentious, well-written work of literary fiction will enjoy this. Recommend for public libraries.Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L., IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, July 2001
Booklist, August 2001
Library Journal, August 2001
Publishers Weekly, August 2001
Chicago Tribune, September 2001
Los Angeles Times, October 2001
New York Times Book Review, October 2001
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Main Description
Bertrand, a young African American anthropologist, has come to Senegal to do field research. but has also left his home in Denver to gain a fresh perspective on his troubled marriage. As his sense of isolation escalates, he comes to believe both sense of identity but his very life is at stake.
Main Description
In this prize-winning author's most ambitious book to date, an African-American anthropologist trying to "find himself" in Senegal instead finds himself caught in a surreal web of deception and betrayal Bertrand, a young African-American anthropologist, has ostensibly come to Senegal to do field research. But in truth, he left his home in Denver to gain a fresh perspective on his troubled marriage. Struggling to fit in with his new Senegalese family -- Alaine, his wife Kene, and their young daughter -- Bertrand finds himself, for the first time in his life, haunted by surreal and increasingly violent dreams. His waking hours are no less sinister; unwittingly, it seems, Bertrand has become caught in the tension -- sexual and otherwise -- building between the married couple. His relations with the rest of the village community are also strained; he can't escape the sensation that he's being set up for a grand-scale betrayal. As his sense of isolation and alienation escalates, he comes to believe that not only his fragile sense of identity -- but his very life -- is at stake. A riveting tour de force, He Sleeps confirms Reginald McKnight's status as a writer of vivid imagination and exceptional talent.

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