Review by Josie E. Davis
October 12, 2012
In the opening pages of The Invisibles, the 2012 Flannery O’Conner prize winner for short fiction, author Hugh Sheehy creates a landscape so bleak and ordinary that the obscurity, horror, and ambiguity of what happens next is a near contrast to the sublime. The collection begins with “Meat and Mouth,” in which Luke Dixon, a mournfully peevish character whose refuge from an ultimately disposable father is likened by his own invisibility at school – Dixon’s attempt at personifying and mentally defeating his daytime bully, Davey Schwartz, is thwarted by an all too real hostage situation controlled by two much older and armed former students. The story’s narrator, Maddy, “cradles” Dixon to sleep in the school boiler room after witnessing Meat kill off Dixon’s father in cold blood. The gravity of adulthood and a series of irreconcilable psychologies leave Maddy to consider how and if Luke Dixon will “beat the odds” of a future easily disrepaired by solemn and selfless choices – and seemingly indefinite time.
The collection revolves from one “invisible” to another and stories pronounce, with a terrific thrill, the darker and more dreaded turns in life that leave the reader falling “through the cracks” and forever wanting to be seen. Sheehy makes his mark in fiction with a vast range of characters – missing and invisible, disconsolate and notorious in their longing for revenge; near addicts and the unborn – calling out from the most conventional and hapless Americana. This is Sheehy’s gift: balancing the horrific and the humane in stories that exfoliate the more painful triumphs of American adulthood.
In the story “The Invisibles,” seventeen year old Cynthia reconciles the disappearance of the three people closest to her – her mother, and, years later, her two best friends Brianna and Randall. Cynthia describes herself – rather scholastically – as an “invisible” or “someone who doesn’t get noticed, who for one reason or another isn’t memorable.” Cynthia’s invisibility is admonished (or, ironically, not recognized at all) by parents, peers, and the police involved in solving the alleged serial murder of Brianna and Randall, passed off instead as presumptive teenage woe; validated only by a year of post traumatic nightmares and hallucinations in which Cynthia is visited by Brianna and Randall in the skating rink where they were last together before “going off the map.” Sheehy guts his readers from the inside out; the trauma of loss is resolved into a cruel acceptance that everything, regardless of the outcome, will be okay: “The answering machine kept switching on, and we laughed to hear my father gloomily repeating that we weren’t home […] We would call those people back, and shout, laugh, cry, produce the sounds that people make when they’re together. We owed them that much, out of the empathy we felt, listening to them speak slowly, faithfully putting words into the void of our answering machine, against the chill that grows when a name is said and silence answers.”
Sheehy aborts his stories with discerning and impeccable grace. However cloudy or unaware of their surroundings, it is clear that Sheehy has a prolific eye for feeding his narrators the most life altering decisions – and moving forward regardless of the consequences. The collection is one of the more approachable reads of the past decade, combining dry humor and acute sentiment in detailing what, exactly, it means to be human. In the “The Tea Party,” a married man separates himself from an affair with a much younger colleague, while Marcus, a former English professor and a scholar to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, is the victim of short term memory loss and in a pitiful state of mending both work and love in “Translation.”
In “After the Flood,” a ferry pilot dreams of “churning brown currents, collecting survivors” in the aftermath of a Mississippi flood. The recurring dream is a preamble to a series of plantation house fires and a moral dilemma faced by the narrator, Daniel, in turning in his socially delinquent stepson Clive to local police. In the end, Daniel chooses to absolve his stepson from what he feels is a lifetime of mistakes he has already made by assuming the guilt for a series of felonies he would not otherwise – and did not – commit.
A lecturer of creative writing at Yeshiva College in Brooklyn, it’s difficult to surmise that Sheehy has cultivated these stories without any glimmer of his own self. Where is Sheehy in a world populated by a miscarried fetus named Henrik the Viking, washed down into a “river of sewage” and “whirled among pearly mullet” only to return to the headboard of his womb, “just as Hazel dropped off to sleep”? Sheehy memorializes his characters as if becoming invisible is a matter of obligatory introspection. It’s not just that these stories tell the things we don’t always want to hear – miscarriage, drug addiction, disowned children and serial murders. Sheehy has done his homework, and this collection is a sharp, relevant, and exquisite first entry that deserves what critical acclaim it can muster. I am on the edge of my seat for Sheehy’s next book – a novel, I suspect – but for now, The Invisibles is hands down my recommendation of the year.
Josie E. Davis is the Managing Editor of the PLOP! Review. Additional research, bio, and publications can be found by visiting www.josieelizabeth.com