According to one critic, Tom Sheehan is a "national treasure." After reading A Collection of Friends, I agree. This book is also a treasure. Sheehan writes with a kindly intimacy that welcomes readers into his life. His words are rich with cadence and imagery as he remembers the sounds, sights, scents, and ghostly voices from his years in Saugus, Massachusetts. Several stories from his book were nominated for Pushcart Prizes and many more of them deserved to be.
In the Preface, Sheehan says of his friends: "Piecemeal, as entities, in my ear, clapping me on the back, giving me a push when needed, they have caused this book. I am indebted to them, those who have given my life all its savage joys."
From a lovingly tended larder of memories, the author spins camera-clear stories of family, friends, war, town drunks, places and pleasures, long held sorrows. Each is a moving testimony to man's grit and pride or quiet acceptance of adversity. Everything, everyplace, and everyone become objects in Tom Sheehan's social laboratory. His experiences as a lad made him what he is today as writer in his seventh decade. He tells of hunger as if it were a living entity, and the "awful sense of exposure" borne of poverty. Sensory perceptions were absorbed in his youth like a sponge. Tragedies forgotten over time still live fresh in his mind and won't let go.
Each story stands alone and is memorable in distinct ways. I give only a few examples due to space limitations "The Dumpmaster's Boy" is one of several paeans to Sheehan's grandfather, who loved his fellow man, quoted Irish poets, wrote his own lyrical poetry, and longed to see his homeland Ireland one more time.
"Orion's Belt" is an unintended social commentary, a lesson in grace, strength, poverty, and snobbish cruelty with Sheehan's beautiful, dignified mother shining as a central figure.
"The Day Titanic Drowned", the memory of a powerful draft animal that drowned decades ago, is a standout. The day and the animal come alive through Sheehan's telling.
"Parkie, Tanker, Tiger of Tobruk" is a numbing account of desert survival circa WW 2, how one man escaped death in war only to die by inches for decades after his return to Saugus.
And "The Quiet, Empty Bedrooms of Saugus" was so beautifully written, so emotionally overwhelming that it must be read to fully comprehend. Any words I write here are inadequate.
Tom Sheehan treasures his memories. To quote the author, "The clarity stings the memory.... Somehow, inexplicably, it is soul deep, has pine aromas, the acrobatics of light, known temperature touching my face the way I recall the stand on a lone Korean outpost."
I've never been to Massachusetts, know nothing of Saugus or Tom Sheehan, but feel I know them well through A Collection of Friends.