A dark little collection is Thieves I’ve Known, Tom Kealey’s first book of stories, dark but creative and inspiring in its scope of character, its range of explored ideas. These stories—winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction—give us a number of portraits to mull over, adolescent or young adult lives, humans all struggling in their ways, deckle-edged, toughened characters far off Easy Street and whose future is uncertain at best. There is trouble here, and that’s what we like in stories.
The exchange between Nate and Merrill, siblings heading home after work at the grocery store, encapsulates a lot of the work the book, this author, is doing.
“Do you think they’re watching us?” she says. “Who?” She points up at the houses. “The people in there.” Nate shrugs. “Why would they bother?” “It might be interesting for them.” Merrill considers the light in the windows. “We seem as if we’re just outside, but we’re actually far, far away.”
In this opening story, “Introduction, or Nobody,” the brother and sister are walking home through the cold night of a Pacific Northwest town, a Seattle suburb, though perhaps a far suburb, an Everett, or a Gig Harbor (the term “The Sound” is our most direct clue, the common usage that refers to Puget Sound), and the salty air, the cemetery, the train tracks, the father’s trailer are touchstones. As they pass lighted windows, they make up increasingly complicated stories about what’s happening behind each one. This starts simply. ‘“Somebody’s in love,’ said Nate…,” but the stories become denser, more detailed reflections on the siblings’ lives, on their ideas of the world. And we are watching them watch, though Nate wonders why anyone would, his jaded maturity offering a pragmatism to which Merrill hasn’t yet acquiesced.
We watch Kealey’s characters because we care about humanity, about people, and also because we’re dealing with an author who sketches these characters with a fresh sense of detail and action, with ideas that concretely and metaphorically make challenging situations seem vivid and real. The last story, “Coyote,” perhaps the best story in the collection—something refreshing given that so many collections leave a dud for last—returns us to Nate and Merrill, but this time in their trailer, with their father. Their father is deaf, so we read their signed dialogue in italics, these siblings fighting for their father’s and their own survival. It’s new and creative, and for a reader, rewarding. The two take a boat out to check their father’s crab pots, and we’re again surprised when, as the story proceeds, it turns out Nate and Merrill are thieves of a sort as well, a surprise that’s not really a surprise.
So these stories take us to places we both don’t expect and accept with instant recognition. If Tom Kealey were a painter, he’d be Breughel, these characters acting through scenes of common places—a suburban house, a ferry, a prison—where something’s always a little off, even as the activity might seem straightforward. Breughel with a bit of Egon Schiele mixed in, making stories that require a second look, a careful eye that picks out exactly which detail is making us feel uneasy.
The story “Groundskeeping” is set most likely somewhere in North Carolina, and we’re again given only a few reference points—a bus ride through Tennessee, the Appalachians, the Outer Banks, an Atlanta Braves banner—and this kind of thing makes the story and the landscape that much more interesting. Kealey makes his readers think. We meet an antagonistic young 14-year-old named Grady who’s lost his father and spends a month with a distant, broken-down uncle, Jake. The relationship is contentious, confrontational, and Grady is sadly already bitter, expecting loss, let down, and he’s not afraid to express it. There’s a chance for Grady to appear too mean here, too aggressive towards his uncle in this setting, a man he’s visiting, after all, but on the second page of the story, Kealey deftly inserts a scene where, while Jake needs to go under the hood to start the old truck—an ominous beginning to any fictional relationship—Grady uses a match to silently remove a tick from Mulligan, Jake’s dog. Sympathy for Grady is in place. We like him. We realize that Grady is good, in spite of his anger. It’s a clever piece of crafting; an authorial skill weaves through these stories, mostly felt, secondarily recognized.
We go to the circus too, in a way, in “Circus Nights,” a story where a young girl named Laika is the Assistant Camel-Keeper, tasked with caring for an albino camel. It’s a nonlinear tale that just barely hints toward any kind of redemption, of hope for these stragglers. The cover of the book, a dark void above the three lit points of a big-top tent, lit only by a few bulbs, suggests the nature of this circus, these tales. Shady. Dark. Unwholesome. Reading the collection, and certainly once in the grip of “Circus Nights,” one is reminded of Katherine Dunn’s novel, Geek Love, or, perhaps even more, William Lindsay Gresham’s classic novel, Nightmare Alley. These characters walk a fine line between hope and tragedy, and the delicate existence between those two places is what we feel in Kealey’s art.
There are a few places where the dialogue feels not quite right. In “The Lost Brother,” we meet Daniel Atkins, a younger sibling crazy enough to ride on the hood of his older brother Albert’s Jeep as they speed down the road. Albert needs a wheelchair, a paraplegic, and they’re on their way to visit Merrill, who reappears here as Albert’s girlfriend. But the ensuing dialogue feels blunt, carved far too hard to offer reality. And even though the story’s in first person, we don’t get enough of Daniel’s assessment of his brother or of Merrill. We may feel the characters here aren’t given a fair chance to live up to their complexities, the full potential of the story.
In sum, this collection is a grouping of stories that are creative, interesting, complex, and well-crafted. These are stories worth rereading, for their places, their characters, their struggles: there’s more to be learned here, more moments of discovery for the reader in the fine details Kealey’s obviously worked hard to select. One can hope he’ll deliver to us many more stories. We watch Kealey’s characters because they’re people who’ve perhaps given up hope that anyone is watching them. Merrill may be right in that these characters feel themselves far, far away from any sense of life, of stability, but we read and watch because they’re also so close, because we’re all like this, and because, of course, they’re us.
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.