By BERNIE BELLAN In the mid-1980s a young Dr. Meir Kryger was beginning to establish his reputation as one of the pre-eminent experts in the area of sleep disorders. Having moved to Winnipeg to take up a position at St. Boniface Hospital (where he was to establish Canada’s first sleep lab devoted entirely to researching sleep disorders and was the first doctor to describe a case of sleep apnea in Canada) Kryger also somehow found the time to begin working on a novel – which, for various reasons, he just couldn’t complete.
Eventually though, in 2020 Kryger did publish that novel which, appropriately enough (given his career’s major primary focus) was titled “The Man Who Couldn’t Stay Awake”. As Kryger wrote to me in a recent email, “While I was still in Winnipeg, I wrote a novel that I never did anything thing with because my medical career had priority. When COVID hit, I published it on Amazon.”
Now, you might expect that after taking more than 35 years to complete his first novel, Kryger was not exactly sitting on an incipient blockbuster that people would really enjoy – but you would be wrong.
If anything, “The Man Who Couldn’t Stay Awake” is a first-rate mystery that moves at a whirlwind pace and which, if it had been promoted by a major publishing house rather than being self published would probably have received considerable renown by now.
I couldn’t help but think that in the past eight months we’ve published reviews of two other novels by Canadian Jewish doctors (“Prairie Sonata, by Sandra Shefrin Rubin, and “Lost Immunity”, by Daniel Kalla), along with a book of poetry (“Tablet Fragments”, by Tamar Rubin). All of these books have gone on to receive widespread critical acclaim and, in some cases, have either won awards or been nominated for them.
That doctors can also be talented writers should come as no surprise. What I wonder though is how a practicing physician can find the time to write for pleasure, given how busy most of them are – and how polished the end products have turned out to be. (As a writer of non-fiction in these pages – although some readers may say that what I actually produce would best be described as fiction, I can attest to how one has to force oneself to sit down and write – on top of freeing oneself from all distractions: no easy task.)
But, as Meir Kryger explained in an email to me, Covid afforded him the opportunity to finish something that he had set aside many years before – and after he had already authored many other books of non-fiction, all to do with the subject of sleep.
I asked him how long he actually spent writing “The Man Who Couldn’t Stay Awake”? He answered: “I did many drafts of the book, some handwritten (which I still have). Hundreds of hours.”
So, what’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Stay Awake” all about? It tells the story of a doctor (naturally) by the name of Sam Moroz, who finds himself enmeshed in a plot involving oil drilling in the Arctic. The book opens up with Moroz falling from the sky on to the Arctic ice – certainly a riveting beginning to what unfolds as a complex mystery involving various subplots, including an elaborate investment scheme, life among the Inuit, marital betrayal, a trip to Las Vegas, followed by a rafting trip on the Colorado River, Swiss bankers, French gastronomy…need I go on?
The plot moves back and forth in time – a device that we’ve come to expect in good mystery novels, as we gradually begin to understand just how it is that Moroz ended up falling from the sky in that opening scene. Through the course of the novel Moroz befriends an Inuit hunter by the name of Pauloosie.
I asked Kryger though, whether in his final draft, he had thought of changing his references to “Indians” in the novel? Although the term would certainly have been acceptable in the 1980s, I’m not so sure that he would escape criticism in our contemporary age of liberal “cancel culture” .
Here is how he responded: “The word “Indian” appears about 35 times in the book. That was the term in common usage in the 1980s. Even government agencies used that word. The book was reviewed by an aboriginal professor at U of M who had no problems with the book. Most of the readers have been Americans: The term “American Indian” is widely used in the US.”
(That’s all well and good, Meir, but in an age when using the wrong term can lead to being pilloried by certain groups, I just don’t know how that would go over with the agents of political correctness.)
I also wondered though whether Kryger had ever thought of updating some other references in the novel to make it more accessible to younger readers. After all, reading about characters using payphones does seem somewhat anachronistic. So, I asked him whether he had thought about revising the book to make it more contemporary?
His answer was: “I did think of updating it, but the events and context are early 80s. I suppose I could have modeled Kian (the novel’s primary villain) as an internet tycoon (rather than an oil baron, which is how he is depicted). Maybe for the sequel?” (By the way, I did suggest to Kryger that he should bring back Sam Moroz in another novel, which is why he referred to writing a sequel – apparently an idea he’s contemplating).
Something else about “The Man Who Couldn’t Stay Awake” that might especially appeal to Winnipeg readers is that some of the action does take place in this city, although the descriptions of some of the seedier parts of Winnipeg are not exactly flattering. Kryger does delve into some interesting historical references though when he writes about the way Inuit suffering from tuberculosis and other maladies were administered to by well meaning White doctors. In his description of Pauloosie’s father’s treatment for TB, he reminded me of a story we published in our paper by Susan Turner about how her uncle, Dr. Earl Hershfield, became the leading expert on the treatment of that disease among the Inuit. (You can read that story on our website at http://jewishpostandnews.ca/8-features/608-dr-earl-hershfield-and-inuit-bobbie-suluk-connecting-over-time.)
In my email correspondence with Kryger, I suggested to him that he has the makings of another Dan Brown (author of “The Da Vinci Code”) in the way he provides the reader with so much interesting information as the action moves quickly from one locale to another while the hero attempts to solve a complicated mystery.
Kryger said though that he was inspired more by Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers”. (I’m sorry to say that I haven’t read that one, but now my curiosity is piqued.)
The painful truth for a writer, however, no matter how good they may be, is that it’s very rare for a book to gain any sort of acclaim unless it’s picked up by a major publisher. Kryger says that he doesn’t have a literary agent, but if Amazon reviews are any indication, readers of “The Man Who Couldn’t Stay Awake” are overwhelmingly positive in their responses to this book.
Comments on Amazon (which is where the book can be purchased) range from “a real page turner” to “a well written travelogue”. And, although there aren’t a huge number of ratings, it does score an impressive 4.9 out of 5 in customer reviews.
For Winnipeggers who knew Meir Kryger when he, his wife, Barbara, daughter Shelley, and sons Michael and Steven, lived here until he took up a new position in 2011 at Yale University, I thought it might be interesting to catch up with where they’ve all ended up, so I asked Kryger to give a summary of where they all are these days.
Here’s what he wrote: “Shelley is a math teacher in NYC. Michael, my middle son is a doctor in charge of a spinal cord unit in Pennsylvania. Steven, my youngest son works in the financial industry. Barbara was a consultant in HR (career development) for APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) until about 4 years ago.
“We are all vaccinated and well.”
“The Man Who Couldn’t Stay Awake” is available on paperback or in Kindle format from Amazon.