Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Unconventional Carpenter: A Review of Sean Ferrell's Numb

Title: Numb
Author: Sean Ferrell
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: Harper Perennial (2010)
Pages: 278
How I Came By This Book: Sean Ferrell grew up in the Rochester area and came to give a talk at his alma mater, Nazareth College, sometime last year. Naturally there's been some buzz about him around the city. So I decided to pick this up from the library to see what all the fuss was about.

Synopsis: A man with no memory who feels no pain, Numb travels to New York City after a short stint with the circus, following the one and only clue he holds to his hidden history: a brittle, bloodstained business card. But once there, word of his condition rapidly spreads--sparked by the attention he attracts by letting people nail his hands to wooden bars for money--and he quickly finds himself hounded on all sides by those who would use his unique ability in their own pursuits of fame and fortune. It is a strange world indeed that Numb numbly stumbles through, surrounded by crowds of suck-ups and opportunists, as he confronts life's most basic and difficult question: Who am I?

Sean Ferrell's Numb is a wildly entertaining examination of identity, friendship, pain, and the cult of celebrity that heralds the arrival of a fresh and uniquely inventive literary voice.

Review: I don't even know where to start. This book is one of the most darkly funny books that I've read in a long time. Ferrell's voice is, in fact both "fresh" and "uniquely inventive." His characters are fun and new and ultimately likable. But the ending of this book just made me so frustrated.

So here's the deal: Numb wanders into a circus in a nice suit, covered in blood. He doesn't know his name, where he came from, or what he's doing there. He doesn't even realize that he's special until he accidentally nail-guns himself to a tent pole. Ouch, right? But Numb doesn't even feel it. He feels no pain whatsoever. Seeing an opportunity, the ringleader of the circus offers to put him in the show as one of the freaks. Night after night, Numb nails himself to things for dwindling audiences for a failing circus. And then the man with the plan shows up: some rich jerk wants to see Numb sit in a cage with the circus' lion and he's willing to pay top dollar to film it. Numb performs the trick, which ends in a rather surprising way, and quits the circus, travelling to New York City with his friend Mal. And this is where the story gets started.

I'm not sure why but I pictured Numb as
Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) from Trainspotting.

Mal knows that they can use Numb's unique talent to make money. So, yet again, night after night, Numb allows his hands and feet to be nailed to a sticky, alcohol-covered bar by spectators drooling at the idea of a man who feels no pain. All Numb is concerned about is finding out who he is, and he thinks he can find out by finding whatever shop his bloody business card belongs to. While he's searching, an agent contacts him, telling him that he can help Numb make it big. So begins Numb's ascent to stardom, with a guest spot on Dave Letterman (featuring Johnny Knoxville) and a photo shoot with the world's latest hot model, Emilia. Throw in a blind artist named Hiko and Mal's descent into crazier and crazier stunts and you've got a recipe for awesomeness.

The characters in this book are larger-than-life. They are all unique and they are all uniquely flawed. The only one that you don't end up wanting to smack is Hiko, Numb's girlfriend, and the one voice of sanity in the entire novel. Ferrell's book is short but he packs a lot into those pages. Each chapter is well-crafted and there's barely anything that doesn't move the story along. It's very tight, like a good script, and it's incredibly well-written. Although this is his first novel, Ferrell writes like he's been doing this for years. It seems effortless at times, like he's not really writing but instead is watching these events unfold and is taking down what he's seeing.

Numb is a very sympathetic character. He's naive, so he's easily taken advantage of. He's also not very assertive, so people walk all over him while he stands by and lets it happen. Even when he tries to make the right decision, it backfires. By being forced to climb the ladder of fame by his agent, Michael, Numb is pushed into situations that take away any semblance of dignity he may have had. He's a curio, something to be gawked at. No one seems to care that he has a serious condition, no one's looking out for his health or his best interest. They just keep driving the nails in, using him for their own ends.

I'm not a particularly squeamish person; I don't think you can be in our violence-obsessed society. I will say, however, that there were some parts of this book that made me cringe. Numb may not be able to feel pain but the reader feels it for him. Whether its the claws of a lion or the deranged sexual fantasies of a crazy model made real tearing at his flesh, the reader can't help but feel twinges of pain whenever something happens to Numb. Those parts are needed, however, if not to show how numbed to pain he really is, then to show how disturbing we as a society are if we find these things amusing.

So, how about that ending I told you about? I won't give anything away, but I was expecting more of a resolution. It was almost as if Ferrell decided to give up on Numb and his past. I'm sure he had his reasons, but I grew to care a great deal about Numb and I wanted the narrative to take him through to the end that I expected. The book sort of just ends and it ends in a speculative manner. As a reader, I hate it when books do that. Unless Mr. Ferrell's planning a sequel, I feel a little cheated.

All things considered, though, it was a great book, unlike anything I've read up to this point. I can't even really think of a book to compare it to, which is good. I was beginning to fear that there was nothing new under the sun. I'm looking forward to anything forthcoming from this author and am now kind of wishing that I'd made it a priority to go to the talk he gave.

I'm giving Numb 4.5 out of five Gabriels. If it hadn't been for the less-than-satisfying ending, I think the book would have merited the full five.

For anyone interested, here's Sean Ferrell's website/blog thing. The same sense of humor present in his books is noticeable here as well.

Sean Ferrell


  1. I was just taking a look at your "on my shelf" page...and I cannot believe how many classics you have not soon as you read a few you'll have to post something so we can talk about them. I could talk about classics until I breath my last breath. :] Its my little bit of crazy.

  2. Nonners: I'll do one better: I'll challenge myself to read some classics. I don't know the specifics yet but I noticed the same thing as I was putting together that massive list the other day and I was thinking about giving myself an added challenge. This comment has cemented that decision.

    I'll have a post about the specifics up in a few days.