The world in Hugh Sheehy’s short story collection, The Invisibles, is a distinct one. It constitutes the American nightmare of the last 30 or so years, including lax gun control, increased dependence on drugs, and more extreme episodes of neurosis about the ability to love ourselves and others. It shows a time when Reagan, Bush, and Clinton became less proper nouns and more belts of alternating plasticity and cheap heavy metal used to persecute the poor, entertain and quell the middle class, and fatten the accounts of the rich. The stories portray a scurvy, jumbled, and faintly resolute country reminiscent of Robert Frank’s photographs in The Americans. People drink, swear, tease, addle, enrage, but mostly drink, getting jacked enough to not be able to watch the only good thing about their life walk away as they stay in a stupor: wordless, detached, and only full of nostalgia for the fists their old friends raised at the people who dared to hurt them.
As the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award winner for short fiction, Sheehy’s stories perfectly fit in the vein of that Southern writer whose characters hold similar hardened, messy lives bordering on Messianic in her attuned symbolism. Often taking place in the burnt-out, brutal Midwest of small towns with a bar on every corner, these stories throw a documentary-type lens on the reckless youth who grow up to sputter through life — shirking responsibility and unable to imagine a world in which their existence might make a difference. Besides the travails of addiction, there are good reasons for this apathy. A Lake Erie killer haunts the story “The Invisibles,” in which a motherless teenager loses her two best friends to a mysterious menace that goes unsolved. In “Meat and Mouth,” the two eponymous marauders take a teaching assistant and a student staying after school hostage on a snowy Friday when everyone else has left. And fate again intervenes in “Whiteout,” in which the protagonist, a cocaine addict and general ne’er-do-well, is on his way home for Christmas for the first time in 13 years. Getting there during a snowstorm, he sees an overturned minivan on the highway. His decision to help will dictate whether he will make it to his family, an encounter too painful to have for so long.
It might be said, possibly correctly, that trouble seeks the troublemakers or lost souls who have knowingly abused their lives, without knowing how they’ve hurt someone else’s. A fitting karma is a lesson to be learned. A hallmark of these stories is a certain type of slacker behavior grounded in drinks and friends. In “A Difficult Age,” the main characters, Francis (the narrator) and Lionel, sit with Brooke on a riverbank getting away from it all:
We sit together, painless, sharing a pipe, and drum our legs on the bank. Brooke calls us idiots, but more importantly, the autumn is its naked self, bold and inelegant, and hard like a new tooth driven through a baby’s gums. We laugh hard and cry and get scared and laugh hard, and Brooke stares at the pond and shakes her head, drinking wine and being pregnant.
People want to have fun together, and screwing around, as handed down by their parents, getting drunk, and getting stupid are how these characters unwind. But Sheehy couples the desperation with a powerful metaphor, placing the scattershot behavior of the characters against the world they still have to inhabit, as everything, including their choices and any “new tooth…through a baby’s gums” turns and changes. If they don’t grow up, their careless philosophy will infect others.
The characters in The Invisibles might not exactly be asking for their gloomy fate, but often it is the best thing that can happen. In the exemplary “Smiling Down at Ellie Pardo,” Sheehy builds a twisting narrative stretching from a young man’s (Nolan’s) deleterious adulthood to his more hopeful teenage years as he returns home to be again paired with Henry, an old friend from the neighborhood, after a single woman they knew from their high school days has been killed. In one swooping sentence the reader gets the mysterious Ellie described in a flashback:
A feisty Italian who always had a tray of lasagna in the oven or red sauce bubbling on the stove, she jogged back and forth on our street each day, exposing her beautiful legs even to the wicked cold of our winters on the lake.
The alliteration of “wicked” and “winters”, as well as “of,” “our,” and “on” at the end of the sentence makes this evocation full of sound and substance by showing how she lived her life and where it played out. Each of the two men had a different relationship with her back then, and when Henry reveals that he once dated Ellie, it sends the story into another quadrant of psychological ramifications that Nolan tries to reconcile as their grief eventually leads them into a dark woods and an unforeseen but apt confrontation. Though many of the stories have an element of mystery, Sheehy isn’t interested in finding out who did what — he knows the dramatic cornucopia lies elsewhere, with the living and the mistakes they have to examine in light of the dead.
There is a unique sadness to this book. Sometimes there’s a touch of Raymond Carver, whose spirit is reminiscent in the broken down characters who are often missing a parent and pouring another glass. Sometimes early Paul Auster is evident as in a unique variation on the Memento-type story where a classics professor unwinds himself with the help of Ovid in “Translation.” Things are happening faster than ever, but Sheehy slows down and looks to see where and how our innocence was lost. The most important thing to be said of this book is that it’s true, presenting a reality of deteriorating values many face and foster in our country, equally unwelcoming for young men or old.