In Dan Sheehan’s debut novel, four Irish friends, Tom, Baz, Gabriel and Karl, exit high school with varying degrees of ambition. Narrator Karl fancies himself a photographer of bleak spaces, while Tom heads off to war-torn Sarajevo as an unqualified correspondent. Baz and Gabriel don’t know what to do with themselves, and it is not long before drugs send Gabriel to the end of a rope. Riven with guilt over Gabriel’s suicide, Karl’s sense of responsibility kicks in when Tom returns home minus an eye and with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Karl resolves to help his friend by dragging him and Baz to a healing retreat in the Californian desert. Cue the comedy/road trip/tragedy crossover the cleverly designed cover promises.
While it might be good form to be generous to first novels, there are multiple immediate issues here that cannot be ignored. The narrative is certainly tragic, but the road trip is vaguely written. Comedy has gone missing entirely. The principal problem, however, is one of voice. These young men have had awful, rough lives. Karl and Gabriel bounced between often abusive foster homes and the four barely completed high school, yet they think and speak like middle-class university graduates. Their repetitive banter is anodyne and there is little sense of them being authentically Irish. This is puzzling, given the author’s heritage, and might be less of an issue if there weren’t so many gifted contemporary Irish writers such as Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride and Lisa McInerney revelling in the inventiveness of the Celtic idiom. Sheehan’s prose is deathly bland in comparison. There is no energy or wit here, only a dour aimlessness.
Other minor issues abound. Small-town nobody Karl has his photos picked up by National Geographic without any explanation; the trio enter the United States without return flights – try doing that; and they become hopelessly lost in a desert five minutes after landing at LAX.
All of which is a shame, as Tom’s short passages in Sarajevo are detailed, complex and possess a gallows humour that is absent elsewhere. Almost qualified, sardonic doctor Jelena provides a welcome relief from the glum Irishmen. Despite the daily horrors in the siege town, the story comes alive here. While well intentioned, the half-baked therapy-driven road trip to a thinly sketched California proves to be a predictable, expository dirge. Whatever bright ideas Restless Souls has peter out rapidly in this lacklustre debut. JD
W&N, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 10, 2018 as "Dan Sheehan, Restless Souls". Subscribe here.