The people in Hugh Sheehy’s debut collection of short stories aren’t really invisible, but they might as well be. As one character puts it, “Not because I’m literally invisible, but because I don’t connect to other people.”
How to explain their peculiar status? Maybe it’s because their histories are filled with people who’ve disappeared: a friendly neighbor dismembered in her own basement, a father who descended into madness, friends who climbed into “a faded maroon” van and never returned, a wife stuffed into a bathtub after a lethal drug overdose. Some fade away without ever going anywhere at all. Even their memories vanish.
Left behind, the characters in The Invisibles (University of Georgia Press, $24.95) try to make sense of what remains. In the title story, a teenager whose two friends have been abducted revisits the disappearance ten years earlier of her mother, recalling the chilling games of hide-and-seek they played together beforehand that proved people could go missing without notice.
“The invisible,” the daughter tells us, “is a person who is unnoticeable, hence unmemorable.”
But you’ll remember them — Sheehy’s finely crafted genre-bending mash-up of thrillers, fairy tales, realism and children’s stories makes sure of it. Murders, dismemberment, abductions and marauding killers add suspense and terror to these layered accounts of loneliness and loss, where there’s always more than one way of falling through the cracks.
A son who severed his relations with his family after flunking out of college makes his way home through a snowstorm in a cocaine-induced frenzy. Having stalked each family member or a decade, following their day-to-day lives through Facebook and the internet, his shame is transmuted into a smug but shaky conviction. “Mason had been watching them for some time now. He knew all about them, felt as if their lives had been restricted to a small compartment of his consciousness. Sometimes he felt he might be connected to them in a way modern science couldn’t explain.”
A small boy, grossly neglected by his “loser” father, waits after school with his teacher, who lets him pretend to be the school bully, a game that comes in handy when a pair of murderous thugs, “Meat and Mouth,” hold the two hostage. His terrified teacher continues the charade, hoping to keep the boy invisible and safe; but to complete the picture she must also engage the killers’ help to maintain the illusion.
A widower finds a carbon copy of the girlfriend he lost when a murderous admirer ran her car off the road: “This girl … looks a little thinner, with an unhealthy gauntness in her cheeks, as if my fiancée hadn’t eaten during her stay in the underworld.” They end up lovers, “locked in fantasies allowed by how little we knew each other.” But his fiancée’s killer had a kind of fantasy too: he kept “a diary filled with observations” about her, recorded conversations they’d had, and even photos of “her parents and her sister.”
While most of Sheehy’s invisibles are driven to replace the missing, some are on the brink of disappearing themselves. In “Translation,” a highly regarded scholar of antiquities emerges from an amnesiac fog, only to find he’s been fired from his job and his latest book withdrawn by the publisher. “Who had he been that he had forgotten who he was? The truth must be terrible, he though, if he had somehow hidden it from himself.”
Though Sheehy, winner of the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, attended the University of Alabama and has taught at Kennesaw University and Georgia State, his stripped-down landscapes — a cornfield, a wildlife reserve, a flooded town, a “neighborhood of slab houses” — don’t add up to any South we recognize.
Fairytale and folkloric elements create a timeless, mythical atmosphere more Grimm than grits, a place where even the most contemporary characters, teens desperate to stand out from the crowd, come across like a gothy Hansel and Gretel: “Dying their hair black, punching steel through their lips and nostrils,” they wear glitter eye makeup, “shirts that pictured corpses” and disappear into the “Black Forest” to smoke “crystal-form cocaine.”
For all the tragedy and horror they encounter, the survivors in Sheehy’s tales maintain a grim humor and a hard-won stoicism at having come this far. The schoolteacher, comforting her young charge after they witness a brutal act of violence, wonders how he’ll cope in the years to come, supposing he’ll turn into “a loner or a drinker” like the other people she knows, herself included. But maybe not. “Maybe he would beat the odds,” she muses, and “materialize triumphant from the cloud bank of the past.”
Like anthropologists sifting through each layer of the past, these invisibles are detached observers, wondering at their own isolation, tracing the curious arcs of their own difficulties. Their solutions raise questions about what happens when we’re left with holes in our lives, asking what we grab hold of to fill the gaps, whether the pursuit of wholeness leaves us feeling more invisible and less connected than before, and finally, who we tell ourselves that we are.
An edited version of this review appeared on Sunday Oct. 14 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.