The Invisibles

By Hugh Sheehy


University of Georgia Press
October 2012

Reviewed by Peter Fontaine


I want to draw your attention to Hugh Sheehy's debut story collection, The Invisibles. It's possible this collection might slip past your notice. The characters found in these stories certainly do. That's a shame, however, and it would be a shame if you missed out on this potent and engaging look at character.

The titular story explains the conceit for the other ten stories that appear alongside it in this collection:

The invisible, a person who is unnoticeable, hence unmemorable. Mother knew all about invisibles and kept her eyes open in public. She brought home reports: a woman licking stamps at the post office, an anguished old man in line at the bank, a girl crying by a painting in the museum. The library crawling with them.

The narrator of that story, Cynthia, and her mother are both invisibles, and as such they can spot others of their ilk. It's not hard to imagine the other stories in this collection being reports brought home by Cynthia's mother, stories about a Delta ferryman who suspects his stepson might be an arsonist, about a Florida lifeguard who gets caught up with a mysterious woman, and about an amnesiac who might just be a plagiarizing literature professor. If these sound like synopses of tense, hard-boiled neo-noirs you're not far off from the truth. Like a certain author whose name is lent to the award this book won, the attention to character, to the sentence, and to pacing is that of a master stylist and craftsman, but death, catastrophe, and people at extremes are the soul and body of these stories.

From O'Connor's grotesques to Sheehy's "invisibles," these characters are all unremarkable people who often find themselves in violent and inexplicable situations. For the teenage boy in "A Difficult Age" who takes to smoking homemade crack, and for the adulterous husband and father of "The Tea Party," the fraught situations at the center of their tales are of the characters' own making, yet those characters feel powerless in the wake of consequences that follow. For other characters, like the grade school teacher Maddy in "Meat and Mouth," or the drug addict Mason in "Whiteout," they are more victims of circumstance, finding themselves in the wrong place at the right time. The truly impressive one-two combination has to be the expecting wife of "Henrik the Viking" who finds her marriage disintegrating, and the young professional of "Smiling Down at Ellie Pardo" who returns to his hometown to find the older woman he once had a crush on has been murdered in her home. These stories occur one right after the other, the first a vibrant and cutting slice of domestic fiction and the second a labyrinthine and suffocating rural noir, and the consistency and precision of Sheehy's style make both stories compelling and original. Compare this, from "Henrik,"

When they began to congratulate her on her pregnancy and ask her personal questions about her development, she deleted the pictures and closed her account. She sat in the living room feeling vaguely soiled. She feared she had been very close to turning into a crazy person on the Internet.

with this, from "Ellie Pardo":

He looked up at me. 'Nobody asked for this.' I couldn't tell him that sometimes you don't ask for what you have: a certain distance from the people, the right to be aloof. I knew this, and I also knew that philosophy is worthless just after a loss. So I told my father that he was right.

In both instances, connectivity is measured out against a major event. The pain of connection is at the center of those that we would identify as the invisibles. In the bounty of Hazel's pregnancy she can't bear her cloying friends and acquaintances, whereas Ellie Pardo's murder cannot help but be borne and suffered by the surrounding community of those acquainted with her who didn't know her well enough to be able to prevent the tragedy (which includes especially the narrator and his parents).

Those of us who read enjoy a special sort of connection to the lives of others. It's no coincidence that Cynthia tells us in the title story that the library is "crawling with them." The invisibles move through daily life unseen and unacknowledged; loneliness pushes them to find solace in books. In reading The Invisibles, we do what Cynthia implores us to, "we... call those people back, and shout, laugh, cry—produce the sounds that people make when they're together."