As far as opening gambits for novels go, here's a good one: a man with no memory and the inability to feel pain shows up in a small Texas town and goes to work for a two-bit carnival that barely puts twenty paying butts in the seat every night. The man, who has no idea how he showed up in Texas bloody and wearing a suit, starts an act where he shoots nails through his hands every night to the delighted, squeamish satisfaction of the growing crowds. He doesn't know his name, so they call him Numb.
Meet Numb: A Novel (written by Sean Ferrell, Harper Perennial, 2010).
As Numb quickly rises up in the circus to the main act, the other circus freaks have mixed opinions. One, a strongman known as The It, thinks that Numb is just spectacle. He's not a performer. He's a human pincushion who shoots himself full of nails.
It doesn't take long before Numb attracts a more sinister kind of opportunity to exploit his unique condition. A wealthy Texas oilman offers a large sum of money to see him wrestle a lion. Numb agrees, but he's not exactly sure why he's doing this.
Throughout his early adventures, Numb remains surprisingly rooted in the real world and feels very human ... despite the almost garish and painful subject matter. In the first half of the book, Numb loses so much blood, it’s like a horror flick. This poor guy at one point is nailed down, hands and feet, to a stinking bar while strangers pay $100 each for the privilege of driving another nail through his flesh.
Of course Numb is a metaphor—or at least it works like one. In Numb the man, people find a perfectly exploitable human being. Since he cannot feel, and since he is so very different, he is the ideal canvas on which others can paint their ambitions, cruelties and sick fascinations. It's true that the metaphor is carried a bit far; after relocating to New York City, Numb is recruiting by an agent who makes him famous. Yet aside from his freakish nature, it's hard to understand exactly what qualities or talents propel Numb to fame. A great deal of thematic energy is spent on the idea of Numb as an artist, but the exact nature of his art is harder to understand.
But still, I really liked this book—rather, I should say this book really stuck with me. Numb is so perfectly passive, so immune to the world, that when he does awaken, it’s especially sweet and heartfelt. The writing is clean and has moments of pure ambition and insight. And the central conceit—a man who is victimized by his own indifference and unique nature, then slowly awakens to the realization that he is the central actor in his life—is instantly recognizable.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars