Comedy, tragedy and the hidden toll of a selfless deed
Fiction: Restless Souls, Dan Sheehan, Orion, hardback, 304 pages, €18.50
Christopher Hitchens once said that it was literature, not gospels, where real ethical dilemmas are met and dealt with. Such a truism springs to mind often in this flexible and pacey debut from Irish-born New Yorker Dan Sheehan that uses the road trip and the coarse textures of Dublin humour to pull a troubled soul out of a Sarajevo nightmare partly his own making.
Karl, Baz and Tom have been knocking around together since their teenage years but now, in their mid-twenties, they're being forced to look at life in a more serious light. Tom has spent the last four years in Sarajevo, lured there by the "siren's call" of foreign gunfire. He encountered unspeakable horrors, ultimately losing the woman he fell in love with - a doctor at a beleaguered hospital in the middle of the conflict - and an eye, now covered in a makeshift patch.
The man Karl (our narrator for most of the time) and Baz encounter at the airport is not the same person, and the scars of major psychological trauma are immediately, shockingly evident to the pair of them.
They decide that they will escort Tom on a road trip to Restless Souls, a therapeutic facility in sunny California that specialises in treating PTSD. There is much to dwell on and work though on the journey there, including the fate of their childhood comrade Gabriel and Karl's wayward relationship with old sweetheart Clara. The choices we make in youth can have consequences, Sheehan's subtext suggests, when we least expect.
The very jacket of Sheehan's maiden voyage clearly spells out the mixture of genres that have been woven in here - comedy, road trip and tragedy. The back and forth banter of Karl and Baz, often stirred up through exasperation and inadequacy around Tom's stupor, is full of rhythm and zing but always resorts to that old Hibernianism of lacing any punchline with a firm, invigorating expletive. When the humour hits its target, it is charming and pronounced. When it doesn't, it is sub-Roddy Doyle.
The results are much better when Sheehan settles down into the familiar mundanity of friendship, the throwaway resentments and contemptuous comfort that skirt its fringes, especially as a seemingly selfless deed starts to take a hidden toll. Karl and Baz are only really mimicking proper, emotionally developed adults assisting their friend's recovery when the truth is far from it.
Tom himself, meanwhile, tells his tale through the replication of diary extracts written during his time in shell-shocked Sarajevo. Back then, he was eager to help and desperate for a trace of humanity in the hatred and bloodshed.
These interspersed chapters provide a jarring counterpoint to the salt-of-the-earth Dublin carry-on and overcast memories from simpler boyhood times. Sheehan read extensively about what day-to-day life was like during that conflict, rendering the unimaginable somewhat comprehensible for readers all these years later.
Pages turn by without effort under Sheehan's watch, something that will stand to him wherever he decides to go from here. The third act, as the trio negotiate the rehab facility of the title, gets a little schlocky in places, with unnecessary hokum about experimental psycho-pharmacological research and unorthodox methods. Dishing out wads of exposition to the eejits from Dublin is the character of Dr Saunders, who routinely says lines like, "I'm not a mad scientist, gentlemen, believe me. I just want to help… If you'll indulge me…"
The whole passage of the narrative is cartoonish and sits awkwardly between chilling anecdotes of brutal, factually based horrors perpetrated on innocents in Sarajevo. Dr Saunders' facility is the geographic destination for the three men but it is definitely the journey aspect of Sheehan's novel, less constrained by convention, that provides the story with a more sturdy foundation.
Just when the California chapters threaten to round things off on a bit of a bum note, Sheehan gets back to the essence of his tale with a conclusion that erupts with heart and humanity as it examines an ethical question. It is evidence that he certainly has a sensitive ear for those elusive registers of the soul that are perhaps occasionally masked by the burly stoicism of laddish Dublinese. What's more, he is able to make them sing a little when he needs to.