Exploring the art of prose


A Closer Look: RESTLESS SOULS, Dan Sheehan

A novel that follows a trio of childhood friends from Dublin to northern California, Dan Sheehan’s debut novel, Restless Souls, nicely investigates male friendship as well as the impact of trauma. Strong first-person voices provide a narrative that flows easily, with dark humor used throughout.

Sheehan alternates two first-person points of view throughout the book. It opens with Karl, who’s waiting for his friend Tom to return home, after spending three years in Sarajevo during the siege in the early 1990’s. As Karl and Tom begin their journey to California with their friend Baz, Karl’s chapters alternate with chapters from Tom, and we slowly learn about what happened to Tom in Sarajevo. The trip to California is an attempt by Karl to help Tom deal with his PTSD. We also learn about Gabriel, another childhood friend, who committed suicide two years before the start of the novel. His specter hangs over all the characters: this is the trauma they all share.

Some of the most magical passages in this book include Gabriel. After the men get to California, but before they’ve reached their destination, there’s a marvelous scene in the desert in which Karl dreams about Gabriel. In the dream, Gabriel is there too, in California; the other two friends—Tom and Baz—are asleep in the car. Sheehan writes the scene as realism, not like a typical dream:

It’s the first time I’ve heard Gabriel’s voice in two years. The first time I’ve dreamt about him alive. It’s comforting to know that there’s more of him squirreled away in the vaults of my memory than I thought, but that doesn’t mean I can bring myself to look just yet.

As the scene progresses, the two friends talk and reminisce, with Sheehan using his well-tuned ear for conversation between old friends. As the scene/dream is seen through Karl’s POV, he constantly reminds himself that he is in a dream, and yet we are also very much in the moment of the scene:

I just nod, keep looking forward. I’m half afraid he’ll have that big purple bruise around his neck, or worse. After nearly two years in the ground. Though, if he does, it’ll be by my invention.

This play between the imagined and the real allows the dream to unfold as though it’s not a dream, and it forces us to realize how much Gabriel’s absence haunts Karl. And even while understanding that this is all imagined, Karl desperately wants to know whether Tom’s okay:

“Are you happy though? Really? You’re not just saying that?”

“Does it matter?”

“Oh course it fucking matters.”

“Why? So you can let him go too? Clear your conscience? What if I told you there was nothing at all?”

Later in the novel, when we’re in Tom’s POV in Sarajevo, he has just learned of Gabriel’s death. Sitting at a bar, he begins to see Gabriel everywhere, his guilt of not being home with Gabriel—to take care of him, to go to his funeral—becoming real:

Gabriel talking to a Japanese journalist at the end of the bar. Pulled three cigarettes from the journalist’s pack as he spoke. Gabriel’s hand on the back of his neck. Japanese scribbling notes, Gabriel putting one cigarette behind each ear. Third between his lips. He wore a long brown trench. Stroked a soul patch. Gabriel never had. This can’t be the last time I see him. It’s not fair. I got closer. His face blurred and then it was someone else. I waited for it to turn back. The man with Gabriel’s face was telling a story.

As in the earlier scene with Karl and Gabriel, this is a vision made real. It’s interesting to note how Sheehan moves between past and present tense here, underscoring the way the past and the present are colliding in the moment. The repetition of Gabriel’s name and of seeing a vision of Gabriel is reminiscent of the vision toward the start of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, after Granier has almost killed a man:

Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his hands on arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider.

There’s no doubt here that Gabriel’s death looms large, and even larger still as Tom hovers near the thought of suicide himself. They’ve lost one friend; they certainly can’t lose another, and hence the reason for their journey: to try and save Tom and his life.

This spring, Alexander Chee published his wonderful essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. In “On Becoming an American Writer,” Chee writes:

Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.

Both Tom and Karl speak to Gabriel through dreams and visions. And it is in the way that Sheehan takes these moments at face value, never letting them veer too far from the realism of the story, that makes them work. It is through these interactions with Gabriel that we truly learn about what haunts each of them. They’re listening to and writing for the dead as, one suspects, Sheehan is as well.

by Laura Spence-Ash