Bertrand Milworth, a black American anthropologist, has left Colorado to study "urban legends" in Senegal and to reassess his marriage after a brief affair. When Reginald McKnight's "He Sleeps" begins, Bertrand is writing to his sister about the Senegalese Kourman family -- the intimidating Alaine, his shockingly gorgeous wife, Kene, and their young daughter -- who have mysteriously moved into his rental home. Bertrand's letter is funny, friendly and familiar-sounding and at the same time elegant and vivid, but it offers little foreshadowing of the madness and eventual upheaval to come. Bertrand will go from amiable to unpleasant to poignant in the course of this gripping, hallucinatory novel -- which is not that surprising when you consider that one of the more grotesque urban legends almost becomes his fate.
Shortly after the Kourmans' arrival, Bertrand begins having titillating, often terrifying dreams. Sometimes he wakes up bloody. He dreams about Kene and wakes up aroused. He confides in his friend and guide, Idrissa, who coolly replies that the dream "means what you decide it means." Ever the academic, Bertrand seeks to archive his emotional life -- complete with excruciating research and documentation. But his inner turmoil raises such potentially destructive questions that Bertrand, alone in an unfamiliar place and surrounded by villagers ever more skeptical of a black American studying Africans, begins to implode.
Are outside forces -- freaky, voodoo-type forces -- working on Bertrand and plaguing him with these nightmares, as one villager warns? Or are his own personal problems, ignored for so long, emerging in this dangerous way? Bertrand, who has never slept with a black woman before, is haunted by both the dream Kene and the real Kene, tormented by the incessant sounds of the loud, angry sex she has with Alaine. He begins to question his attraction to white women, especially his wife. So obsessed has he become that he can barely comfort his best friend Kevin after the death of Kevin's baby son. "I know you're hurting, man, I know," Bertrand writes in a letter. "I know you are, but I need your help. I need someone to tell these dreams to. I need your wisdom to help me figure out how to fix my marriage." His self-absorption is disgusting, but it's also ominous. Bertrand's identity crisis has taken over his entire life.
Yet, identity, especially when race and sex are involved, can be just that consuming, and McKnight uses a disorienting, occasionally maddening mix of notebook entries, letters and omniscient narrative to drive this point home. McKnight has captured the apprehensive, jumpy, almost paranoid feeling of those moments when you're caught between how you see yourself and how others do -- and when you know that if you don't finally face your demons, you might lose everything.
Bertrand's personal demon is his profound sense of shame, which he attributes to a humiliating experience in his youth: "Now, he felt something so far beyond shame that he has to this very day yet to find the end of it." But McKnight suggests that shame isn't something you can pinpoint; it has more than a single source and it contaminates everything -- Bertrand is too ashamed to date black women, but he's also too ashamed to live with his white wife. Eventually, he writes to her: "I'm writing to confess that every time we were together, I couldn't keep my eye squarely on you. It was as though I had one eye on you and the other scanning corners, looking for the invective, the evil eye, the shaking, shaming heads. In a way, I got used to it." Shame rules him, so much so that the story of his childhood humiliation is overshadowed and you start to wonder if he was just born that way.
At the end, appropriately, the villagers who've found and read his notebooks describing his lustful musings on Kene, a married woman, bring Bertrand to trial and interrogate him. For looking at a black woman. For not looking at black women. For what he writes about in his notebooks and for what he was too scared to explain. Bertrand finally does confess everything to his wife (who has already sent him divorce papers) but, McKnight seems to say, whether Bertrand's marriage has ended matters far less than whether he now has the courage and pride to begin again.