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2079 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Describing the Indescribable

[In the Garden of Long Shadows by Thomas F. Sheehan]

by Clare MacQueen

Pocol Press (2014)

Cover of In the Garden of Long Shadows, by Thomas F. Sheehan

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Eight decades of writing, and the words just keep pouring from Thomas Sheehan. His muses are generous, or perhaps they simply cannot let him rest. Hundreds of his short stories appear in online and print venues, with nearly 400 of his Western stories alone in Rope and Wire. Twenty-four of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. One of his five collections of short stories, The Westering, was nominated in 2012 for the National Book Award; and one of his five poetry collections, Korean Echoes, was nominated in 2011 for a Distinguished Military Award. A memoir and four of his novels are published. His works are read and appreciated worldwide, not only by fans in the U.S. but also in Canada, China, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Romania, Scotland, and Thailand.

“Not tired yet,” as he says, Sheehan still rises with monkish devotion each morning, often at work at his laptop by four a.m., where he puts in a full day of writing before most of us break for lunch. Poems, essays, stories, mystery novels—you name the genre, he probably writes it, and masterfully so. In his latest collection of short stories, In the Garden of Long Shadows, he makes readers marvel by capturing yet again the often incomprehensible complexities of human behavior and emotion, in prose so lush and exquisite that one might think of these tales as poems in camouflage gear.

This collection overflows with line after wondrous line like this: “I can’t even begin to forget the huge smile you wore like the Earth wears the Equator” (“The Old Man in the Garden of Long Shadows,” 6). These additional excerpts from the lead story are only three of countless examples from throughout the book:

  • Shadows had entity, he vouched, and intensity, and longevity. They were pervasive yet global, submissive but exploitive. They cranked themselves out of mountains and moonscapes and the endless limits of stars. How long he had believed this he did not know, but his bones said so, his mind, and the cool side of his skin. (1)
  • Light refracted someplace within his bodily confines, made angles, caused corners, bounced loose as a kaleidoscope in a child’s hands. The world was full of tangents and whispers. They came unannounced, owning silence and dimness all the way in, from wherever it was they came... (2)
  • When the smallest threat of breeze hurried its hustle he could hear the maize and yellow tassels at their play, the whisper of spider webs, and the silent music of the spheres. On top of it all he swore he could hear the sun’s steam pot, hear it hiss away. (3)

It’s tempting to call certain pieces in this collection “prose poems,” comprised as they are of condensed language and brimming with imagery that dazzles—yet they are indeed stories, narratives ranging from 1200 to 7200 words, rich and orchestrated, fleshed out with deftly defined characters and dialogue a reader can gnaw on, with plots, twists, and motivations tangled enough to puzzle the uninitiated. Or those with fragmented attention spans. One cannot expect to “get” such stories, to understand their subtle and singular essences, by trying to breeze through them with an iPod plugged into one’s ears.

Yet these tales are accessible and entertaining, too, ranging from “The Town Without Butter,” perhaps the most lighthearted of the collection; to “Send Galabicus” with its heroic adventures of a man small enough to go spelunking where no other man can, though one fashionable female spelunker announces, “Whatever the guys call him, he’s definitely not the runt of the litter.” (127)

Then there’s “The Secrets of Sawyer’s Icehouse,” possibly the most sensual of the 24 pieces in the collection, despite Frankie’s ironclad commitment to protect the reputations of the dates who dally with him in the icehouse. He refers to each only as “the lady” to his buddies, and of one of these ladies we learn:

She never knew she climaxed again and again and again in the middle of the Sahara Desert, in the middle, too, of the Panzers and German infantry after sand storms and Egypt’s sun god at his fiercest. Frankie took her on a world tour, right in the ranks with him, and never once said her name, awake or dreaming, the night full of her to an astounding reality; more than one comrade, the observant kind that might be found in some ranks, noticed Frankie’s honeymoon kind of smile on odd mornings. (65)

In “Temporarily Unemployed,” Brenda Beal, “worth a feel,” as she says (60), works two and three jobs to support herself and her two children after being abandoned by their father. Soon, she falls into more creative and mutually satisfying ways to capitalize on her assets—including one that involves her specialty, “spaghetti with the best ever sauce,” and a bottle of red wine. (62)

Five stories are seasoned with the flavor of noir, with its interplay of light and shadow, its sometimes oblique mysteries, its threats of further tragedy ever looming—though Sheehan tempers the edge of hard-boiled drama with lyrical language: a mixture of sour and sweet, vinegar and honey.

Plus, a dash of habanero pepper in “Once by the Short Hairs,” in which an aggrieved protagonist vows, “I’ll show them bastards” (168). And so she does, in three spicy scenes which for this reader exemplify Sheehan’s mastery. It takes a measured and confident touch to balance explicit steaminess and profanity while avoiding the pornographic—and to keep it all real and believable. Which he does so well. To top it off, his tough-and-sexy femme fatale is surprised at story’s end by a twist of a different stripe than expected by this reader.

The noir tastes more pungent in “The Eagle’s Son, Camouflaged Hero,” with its hard-nosed, leathery crime fighters on both sides of the law, though poetry is an undercurrent here as well:

Soon he realized he could see as much in a crowd of people as he saw in the mountains and valleys of a strange land, a land that fought back at him as did its people in the high places. His talents and abilities were in place: The whisper of a breath on a leaf could be heard by his tuned ear. The movement of an insect on a log can be marked by his discerning eye. “Pounce” is part of his talents, as much as it is in scorpions or tarantulas, or the eager young fox leaping for a mouse hidden under snow. (121)

Protagonists in this collection range from the cynics of the noir stories to naïve and idealistic adolescents: In “Almost Insular,” 13-year-old Jasper’s mission involves saving his hometown, and America, from spies and U-boats (11-27). And Nyall is twelve years old when “A Tender Grave” begins, and seventeen when it ends with a final act of love for his uncle (47-59).

In fact, love and war are the large-scale themes of this book, with one or both driving each of its stories, and often delivering an unexpected twist or perspective:

  • “Caught in a Cave” is the unusual tale of a fire-fighter hero kidnapped by a benign jailer he has never seen during the months of his captivity, and for reasons he cannot imagine. (74-84)
  • A lover’s quarrel, a confession, a flashback to a mother peeping at daughter and lover in medias res, an impulsive leap from a bridge—these are among the ingredients of “An Awed Submersion,” yet another tale which threw this reader a curve ball. (95-101)
  • The “Piano Man” performs a kind deed for a little old lady, and yet we may wonder what else happened here, just beyond the rippling edges of comprehension. (185-193)

Indeed, much is hinted at within the majority of these stories, which brings us back to the sensuous interplay of words and meaning: sensuous to mean the pleasures of any sensory experience, from the touch of sunlight and breeze on one’s face, to the taste of lemons, to the sight of words on a page, to the sound of a grandchild’s laughter, and more—and therefore not to be confused with the word, sensual, with its focus on the sexual.

Sheehan’s sensuous style is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s, in his novel, Light in August, which offers the same breath of perplexing mystery that both disturbs and delights. There’s the same complexity of language, the cadence, the occasional adjective taking one aback by trailing its noun rather than leading. It’s this very complexity that inspires two criticisms of Sheehan’s stories: (1) the implications can be so subtle they confound; and (2) the language can be so lush that the reader gets lost amongst the foliage of a Garden which has grown into a jungle.

And yet, lost willingly within the music that words chosen by a discriminating ear can make when read aloud! Though right away one notes differences in degree between these two styles. Sheehan’s writing seems more expansive than Faulkner’s, while simultaneously compressive; and it’s often more generous, more lyrical, even gutsier.

Surely it takes a smidgen of courage to write this way, launching himself full-tilt into his work, family jewels to the wall, so to speak; the man no doubt getting knocked around and bruised while searching for the “words with handles,” as his grandfather Johnny Igoe urged eighty years ago when Sheehan was just a six-year-old boy chasing fireflies in the fields. He couldn’t help but listen when his “spellbinder” grandfather began reading the works of W. B. Yeats aloud to him. Before long, the boy began writing poems himself. (Sheehan in emails, 2014.)

In his early twenties, after 16 years of practicing his vocation, Sheehan was shipped off to serve in the 31st Infantry Regiment in Korea. A significant percentage of his writing since then has been tributes to comrades, those who did not return after their tours of duty, as well as those who did yet still passed away as casualties of war, sometimes many years after their psychic wounds had been inflicted: “Europe, for him, was a horrible little animal with ragged nails that clawed at him for almost thirty years” (“The Secret of Sawyer’s Icehouse,” 66).

Not surprisingly then, this collection includes several “war stories”—yet, thank goodness, the author spares his readers gratuitous, blow-by-blow descriptions of “blood-and-guts” on the battlefield. Of course, even horrors described less graphically can affect us viscerally:

  • The melancholy “Mushawie off the Hill,” whose decorated former pilot has lived for decades in a chicken coop, his Purple Heart hanging on a ribbon tacked to the door. (69-73)
  • The madness caused by solitary confinement: “One Prisoner Too Many,” whose main character is locked in darkness so profound he cannot see his own thumb and forefinger, poised to catch the tiniest of vermin. The man is hungry, in unimaginable pain, and staving off insanity by focusing on the hunt for invisible food. But his memories of being tortured intrude continuously: the steel toe of the shoe, the stick in the captain’s hand. (163-167)
  • The highly resonant “Born to Wear the Rags of War,” whose tragedy fellow writers may find doubly distressing: Vatcher Sexton McKee’s family suspects that the self-encrypted, hieroglyphic-filled letters he has managed to send home from the battlefield are “the scribblings of an insane man.” But the narrator tells us:

    “The beginning of his book was there in the letters, and the middle of it, and the end of it after the hills came into it, the high hills, the falls down, the climbs back, the names of characters, the constant name of his hero, Mack Tribbley, the 31st Infantry Regiment as an entity, heaven and hell and all else deadly.” (111)

    Sheehan amazes here; he’s in top form, almost stream of consciousness, each phrase poetic, with the narrator speaking at last in the voices of three “comrades becoming friends” (115). This story is a heart-rending, spine-shivering, must-read.

The “war stories” are all must-reads, clearly the narratives in which the author’s mastery is most evident. If only each of us could be so blessed, to have our own quiet stories preserved by someone who has been gifted with such compassion and generosity of spirit—and with the ability and desire to describe the indescribable, allowing us, too, to live on in countless memories long after our passing.


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Clare MacQueen

Photo of Clare MacQueen by Gary Gibbons
Photograph by
Gary Gibbons

Founding editor and webmaster of KYSO Flash, who has also served as copy editor and webmaster for Serving House Journal since its inception early in 2010.

Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Firstdraft, Bricolage, and Serving House Journal, as well as the anthologies, Best New Writing 2007 and Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging. Her nonfiction won an Eric Hoffer Best New Writing Editor’s Choice Award and was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.

Ms. MacQueen and her husband Gary Gibbons have designed and built custom websites as a team for nine years. They also share avid interests in sci-fi movies, flower gardens, and urban beekeeping.

KYSO Flash

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury