Throughout “Sleepers,” Ray is portrayed as lethargic and apathetic, watching lazily from the sidelines as he observes other characters take initiative to improve their lives. Although he is only employed part-time, Ray does not look for other work. He also acknowledges his poor health, recognizing that he should see a doctor and cut back on drinking, yet drinks to excess, anyway, to the point that he falls asleep in his truck. When he goes to Steve’s party and considers socializing, he decides it is too difficult and chooses to just sit by himself and eat. Throughout the story, Ray’s resignation and acceptance of his circumstances and personal weaknesses traps him, further discouraging him from trying to make any positive changes. Through Ray’s actions and inner monologue, Kennedy suggests that hopelessness and apathy are self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling.
Ray is apathetic when other characters propose activities and encourage him to improve his life. When they were still together, Ray’s now-ex-girlfriend, Sharon, would badger Ray to landscape their garden, presumably to make their rented house feel more like home. However, he would always reject the idea because he saw no point in putting any effort in while they were “just renting.” Sharon walked away in frustration during one particular argument about landscaping, but Ray was only capable of “standing there, stranded,” emphasizing that he is paralyzed by his apathy. Not only does Ray have no interest in putting effort into the garden, he also puts no effort into their relationship. Sharon eventually breaks up with him, tired of being the only one who has “tried” to make things work while Ray would only wait to see “what she was going to want next.” In the present, Ray reacts with indifference when Bernie encourages him to join the many locals who have begun to steal discarded sleepers, wooden beams from the construction site at the railroad tracks in town. Although he learns of successful thefts, receives advice from Bernie, and knows the wood will be useful for landscaping or firewood, Ray expresses no desire to take a few sleepers for himself. With this characteristic indifference, Ray watches on as other people spruce up their gardens with stolen sleepers.
Much of Ray’s apathy manifests as deferral and procrastination, as he always waits for better circumstances to occur instead of taking action to make his circumstances better. Toward the beginning of the story, Ray experiences a flashback to sitting in traffic with Sharon in the passenger seat. Her “mouth [was in] a sour twist,” and she was “Having a dig at him” with her condescension towards construction workers. Even though Ray’s flashback suggests that he was unhappy in the relationship, he did nothing about it at the time. Instead, as he looked at Sharon, “Something creep[ed] over him like a slow anaesthetic,” suggesting that the relationship was becoming toxic and he was simply letting it happen. Ray’s reluctance to landscape the garden despite Sharon’s repeated requests also indicates his tendency to defer tasks and find excuses. By not wanting to put any effort into a home they are “just renting,” Ray implies he will only do so once they own a home, but this aspiration unlikely to come to fruition while he is only working a part-time job.
In the present, Ray chooses to keep eating and drinking at Steve’s barbecue despite experiencing worrying physical symptoms that warn him to improve his lifestyle, such as a squeezing feeling in his chest that could potentially indicate a heart problem or unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety. He resolves to make a doctor’s appointment yet decides he can “ring tomorrow” while indulging in the meantime. However, Ray seems unlikely to follow through on his resolution and very well might say the same thing to himself over and over, perpetually postponing the doctor’s appointment.
Having let his situation deteriorate this far, Ray feels hopeless and uses his depressing circumstances to further justify not taking action, ending up trapped. Even though he is still not over Sharon and wants to “let word get back to [her] that he was out there, available,” Ray hovers around the fringes at Steve’s barbecue and does not strike up conversation with any of the women there. He remarks to himself that they “knew all about him anyway”—that he is not a desirable romantic partner because of his employment and housing status—so he does not even try to make connections with any of them. He also thinks to himself that it is “probably all for the best” that is not on the path to raising children, since he feels too old and unhealthy to do so. He attempts to act as a parental figure for Sean, Steve’s son, suggesting that he still wants to be a father, but in the end accepts his inability to be one.
Ray’s apathy paralyzes him in any situation where he finds himself faced with a challenge, leading him to wait for things to go from “shit to good” when they are unlikely to do so without effort on his part. Once his poor situation solidifies, he resigns himself to remaining there and makes no acts of protest or rebellion until he decides to steal some sleepers in order to make a garden of his own. When he is caught in the act, he does not run and views it as a confirmation of his inability to rise above his circumstances. Like Ray, the town itself seems incapable of resisting a bad situation happening to it, in the form of the construction project “they all had [forgotten about]” that disrupts traffic without providing jobs. Even the residents’ collective effort to steal sleepers has virtually no impact on the project’s momentum, and it seems improbable that things will ultimately improve for the town.
Hopelessness and Apathy ThemeTracker
Hopelessness and Apathy Quotes in Sleepers
The road worker aimed his mirrored and shadowed gaze at Ray as he drove past and gave a wave that had been reduced to its bare minimum: a single, slow-motion finger lifted in acknowledgement that here was one man passing another man who was pretending to be doing a job of work, bored shitless and leaning on a one-word sign. Ray raised a finger off the wheel in response, glancing at the expressionless face and looking away again. Didn't know him.
Ray nodded. He'd seen gardens himself, of course, edged with old redgum sleepers. It was just the kind of thing Sharon had always been on his back to do, landscaping the garden.
“Why do it,” he'd argued, “when we're just renting?”
“Ray,” she'd said, exhaling a breath of resigned frustration. He'd waited for an answer, but she'd only repeated it as she'd turned away. “Ray, Ray, Ray.” Almost tenderly.
And him standing there, stranded, never knowing what she was going to want next.
At Steve's barbeque that night, he walked up and down the brand-new paved barbeque area, bordered by lines of sleepers. Set at intervals in the freshly shovelled topsoil were small clumps of perennials, which reminded Ray somehow of a hair transplant.
“It looks great,” he called, feeling Steve's eyes on him.
There must have been something wrong with him, some bug he had—how else to explain that bottomed-out energy, the sapped, exhausted feeling as he watched Steve turning steaks on the grill? He'd go and have a check-up. A blood test.
“A rustic border,” Steve was saying. Full of focus and purpose, pressing here and there on the meat with the tongs. “That's going to grow in no time.”
Ray swatted a mosquito in the dusk, racking his brain for something to respond with. Nothing.
“We'll have a pool in here next,” Steve added. “Get rid of the lawn altogether. Just an outdoor entertainment area. You right there, Ray?”
He'd driven past Sharon's house tonight and seen a car in the drive he didn't recognise. He couldn't stop thinking about it; his brain was like a dog jerking on the end of its chain over and over, returning to it. So that'd be the thing to do—get chatting to someone else, let word get back to Sharon that he was out there, available, a catch, on his feet. But even though he could feel those eyes on him (car in her drive, that convulsive choke in his throat as he circled it again), he sat back down with his laden plate on one of the sleepers instead, because the thought of trying to get a conversation going with any of them felt like heavy lifting. And they knew all about him anyway; a 35-year-old man who lived in a Colorbond shed at a mate's place, not exactly unemployed but a part-time storeman. A liability, not a catch.
“Hey, Ray,” a voice was calling him. Steve's teenage son. Scott. Sam. Something.
“Come and check this out,” the boy said, beckoning Ray over to a big black telescope on a tripod, pointed straight up into the night sky.
“Not quite dark enough yet, Sean,” Steve called from the grill, scooping meat and sausages up onto a platter. “Wait till it's dark and I'll show you how to adjust it properly.”
Ray stooped and squinted through the lens.
“I think it's Mars,” said Sean.
The smell of him—grass and sunscreen, sweat and energy, all of it barely contained—registered in Ray's head with a sudden painful awareness. This shortness of breath, the pressure on his chest…He thought of his old man's heart attack, the way he'd staggered crabwise across the lounge room, his arm out, wordless. Take him five weeks to get a doctor's appointment, anyway. He'd ring tomorrow.
Ray stretched as he stood, his spine cracking. In the back he found himself a pair of gloves, let down the tailgate, and here came the moon, sailing out from behind a cloud, ready to help him. Sean, if he was still up, would be able to see every crater on that surface, it was so clear. Ray ducked under the orange flags and tugged at a sleeper, pushed and pulled it free, dragged it over to the ute and heaved it in with a grunt. Easy. Another one. Another. He'd only need ten. Some people he knew had taken dozens of the things. It felt good, even though it was the middle of the night, to be working up a sweat. Cold oxygen in his lungs prickling like stars, clearing his fogged head finally.
And as he turned, squinting in their sudden highbeam, his chest squeezing, all that false warmth descending into his boots, he knew that they wouldn't bother with their siren, because they could see that it was just him. Just Ray. They knew he'd turn around like this, and take what was coming to him. Because they need an example, he thought wearily as he peeled off his gloves, the realisation flaring like a little chunk of burning rock, a tiny meteor.
What was the word? An escape-goat? Nowhere to put the gloves, so Ray threw them onto the ute tray, and missed. The cops' headlights casting big crooked shadows.
He waited there for them, next to the sleepers, lowering his bare hands for comfort onto weathered, solid old redgum, hauled up and discarded but with so much life in it, still, it just broke your heart to see it go to waste.