A primary joy in reading a short story is finding the confidence of a voice combined with the right amount of detail and prose styling to immediately drop the reader into a situation not only imaginable but seemingly wholly real, making the prose itself invisible while the described scenario becomes vivid and truly felt. In Hugh Sheehy’s debut collection of short stories, The Invisibles, we get such stories. Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction in 2012, part of the success of the stories lies in the normalcy of so many of the characters. Software trainers, retirees, middle-American working class, and the children of these people as well: these are the folks of Sheehy’s writing, and the situations they struggle with—drugs, desertion, adultery, abortion, murder—are compelling because the actors feel so real.
Sheehy’s strengths lie in a combination of plotting and prose styling. In the first story, “Meat and Mouth,” what could be a simple story about a brief but violent hostage situation involving a student, a teacher, and a couple of small town thugs is transformed into an examination of identity and make-believe that deepens the complexity of the situation. In “Whiteout,” a drug-abusing son returning to see his family for the first time in 13 years encounters first a person offering him a stress-test—a thinly veiled Scientologist’s plea—and then an accident during a snowstorm, situations that take the story from good to great. It’s evident that Sheehy has done his homework. As an author, he’s crafting tales with details that overlap and deepen as the what-next unfolds. It’s clear why Sheehy’s story, The Invisibles, appeared in the Best American MysteryStories 2008. It’s a complicated, character-based tale, much more than a simple whodunit.
What underlies the plotting is a well-crafted prose, a styling that feels, for the most part, crafted with the care a carpenter’s chisel: a word here, a word there, shaving by shaving until we’re just plumb. “On the patio I found my stepmother, an impressive work of self-made beauty with big pale hair, smoking in her black robe. She stood beneath the moon and gazed out over a mile of dark shining corn,” writes Sheehy in a paragraph near the beginning of “The Invisibles.” Simplicity paired with a few clever items: self-made beauty, impressive at that, and the dark shining corn. We see the overdone woman, we feel the tension of a woman older than she wants to be, and perhaps the helplessness or futility that comes with age, and another dark night, the pensiveness and desperation of the smoker under the vast sky, with miles of field of a repetitive crop to reflect upon.
The first three paragraphs of the story, “The Tea Party,” are practically perfect, cleverly written mixing abstract description with careful specifics. “Maybe she had never loved him; maybe he scared her. She was twenty-four, he thirty-seven, married, with twin girls who fought over the phone when he called.” I read “The Tea Party,” with high admiration. In less deft hands, those three, compact paragraphs would be six. It’s a joy to find tight, seamless prose. The story of a man recovering from his own adultery, an affair he perceived as a true love, the recovery and redemption discovered at the end of the story work all the more for the clever insertion of a seemingly innocuous catering assistant.
“After the Flood” is a type of mystery story in which we learn what family will do to protect itself. The story of an aging man caring for his adult stepson, a previous adult and juvenile felon, this is more of a literary exploration of a dysfunctional family than a mystery. “A knocking at the window wakes him from a recurrent dream. At first he’s disappointed, a dried-up mansion of the past, an aging man who fits the ruts of his empty bed.” As Daniel wakes to find the Sheriff bringing him into the uncomfortable reality of the story, the reader is attached suddenly to the plot, while also captivated by the power of the metaphor of the old mansion: one pictures a vine-covered, Savannah estate in complete disrepair, and our imagination immediately knows a thing or two about Daniel’s posture, walk, facial expression, and demeanor.
There are a few places in the collection that feel forced, as if the dialogue is serving to move a situation or conflict; in a couple of places, characters seem wiser than they might really be. It’s not a perfect collection, but there are few books of stories one could perceive as unflawed. This is a respectable, solid first book from a writer with gifts: care for craft, an eye for the details of the ordinary person, and the desire to make good stories happen.
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Reviews Editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook, Halflives, (New Michigan Press.) Find him at www.andrewcgottlieb.com.