When a bloodied stranger with no memory of who he is or how he got there wanders into Mr. Tilly’s Circus in south Texas, the only thing the battered and confused man can think to tell the curious workers who surround him is, “I’m numb.” Though he means it literally, that proclamation also comes to be his name.
Numb’s ability to absorb physical punishment without feeling the resulting pain makes for a highly successful circus act, one that finds him pounding nails through his hands and feet, making creative use of a staple gun, and acting as a human dart board for members of the crowd.
Yet it’s only when he finds himself thrust into a wrestling match with a lion that Numb finally realizes his future is going nowhere, in large part because he doesn’t know his past. And so, along with best friend and fellow circus performer Mal, Numb heads to New York City in search of his identity.
Once in New York Numb’s life changes dramatically, as what had previously made him a freak and outcast in the circus garners him popularity and fame in the big city. Be it doing television commercials, magazine cover photo shoots, or even appearing on Letterman, Numb’s problems appear to be over. And that’s when author Ferrell pulls a brilliant slight of hand, taking what initially appeared to be on the surface a straightforward “Hey, look at the freak!” story and downshifting into a much more serious gear.
Through his interactions with those he meets in NYC (his agent, who may or may not have Numb’s best interests at heart; an ambitious, and slightly psychotic, model he meets on a photo shoot; the beautiful – and blind – artist who appears to be the only one to “see” him for who he truly is) Numb comes to understand the necessity of pain; its role as the counterpoint to pleasure. Despite all his apparent success, Numb realizes he’s stuck in a limbo world of sorts, wondering if he’ll ever really be able to feel joy if he doesn’t know what it is to experience pain.
Numb is a clever, offbeat tale of a man searching – both literally and spiritually – for the answer to the ultimate question: who am I? I’ll leave it to you to discover whether Sean Ferrell allows Numb to figure out the answer to that age-old question, but I will tell you that Ferrell sure as hell has served up a book that makes you think about how we define ourselves. Is it by what’s inside, or by what is reflected back to us by others? And when an author has the chops to both entertain readers as well as make them think, that’s a beautiful thing.
Numb is available from Harper Perennial (ISBN: 0061946508).