SLEEPLESS IN THE CITY
Insomniac City by Bill Hayes is the story of two love affairs running on parallel tracks. The first focuses on the author and the distinguished neurologist, Oliver Sacks, the object of his affections, and the second is the love affair between him and New York City. Hayes is almost fifty when the book begins—with the death of Steve, his partner. Steve died of a heart attack, ironically, on a day when the ‘insomniac’ Hayes was asleep. Unable to bear the heartache, Hayes moves from San Francisco to New York City, where he meets and falls in love with Sacks, a man thirty years his senior, who has ‘no knowledge of popular culture after 1955’ and ‘zero interest in celebrities or fame’ (to the point of asking ‘what is Michael Jackson?’)
Sacks is well known to readers as the author of books dealing with psychological disorders, including The Man Who Mistook His
Wife for a Hat. But his unique personality comes across through Hayes’ precise, simple descriptions and the lovers’ conversations. ‘Are you conscious of your thoughts before language embodies them?’ Sacks asks. ‘I like having a confusion of agency, your hand on top of mine, unsure where my body ends and yours begins,’ he confesses in a rare erotic moment.
The magic of Hayes’ writing lies in its minimalist yet evocative images. As Sacks’ health deteriorates, the modest, self-effacing Hayes focuses so deeply on his partner’s misery that it’s easy to forget it’s a trauma for him, too. There is tenderness without sentimentality, acceptance of what cannot be altered and a strong positive attitude that embraces life in its entirety. This book is not only a fascinating ode to romantic love, but also a profound reflection on life and death. The little ‘vignettes’ are meant to be enjoyed slowly and gradually as sips of fine wine rather than in a single gulp.