Saugus’ own ‘national treasure’
"Ears I had, and eyes, and I used them well," begins local author Tom Sheehan's story The Dumpmaster’s Boy from his recently published book A Collection of Friends.
He was describing himself as a young boy, alert to the world around him, sensitive to every sight and sound as he made his way along the streets of Malden to bring his grandfather his daily lunch in the City dump where the first generation Irish worked.
Sheehan is too humble a man to tell you he has described himself to a "T", but it is apparent from his work that he did indeed use his eyes and ears well throughout his life. He is a keen observer of life and the human condition and his writing brims with the avid intensity of a life well lived and well observed. It is infused with an overpowering sense of truth and honesty that is almost heartbreaking in its exactitude and ability to draw the reader into his world and make one feel intimate with the sights, sounds and places he describes.
It is the rarest of accomplishments to render so alive and realistic people and places from a distant past or remote world, but Sheehan is endowed with a photographer's eye, a musician's ear and a gourmands sense of taste and smell and he pulls it off with a magician's savvy.
The vividness of his description is perhaps surpassed only but the lyricism of his prose. Listen to the music from the preface of A Collection of Friends. About the people who have inspired him in his life he writes: "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."
Savage joys. Here is a quiet echo of Keats' image of joy from Ode to Melancholy, always poised bidding adieu. A soulful reminder of the fleeting pleasures of life, but more so of the healing and restorative powers of memory and language as a well, comes near the ineffable.
Few can attain that measure of achievement. Sheehan does, though, in his direct, quiet way.
This spry septuagenarian is a first-class storyteller in person, too.
His memory is prodigious and he is gifted with that preternatural ability to have you hanging on every word of every sentence, even if he is just giving you directions to his house.
For example, telling me over the phone how to get to his place for an interview, he gave precise directions, but he littered his conversation with anecdotal sidebars of one of the historic places in town I would pass en route.
In person his eyes radiate a receptive intensity and he is vigorous in appearance. You can tell he is attuned to all around him, still that little boy carrying his grandfather's lunch, taking everything in and processing it all out.
Bursting to tell stories or recite favorite poems, he is more than anything, a self effacing man.
In fact, I left the interview knowing much less about his actual biography than I intended to learn because I was so enthralled with his anecdotes and his love of talking about literature, writing and books, that I neglected to query him in depth about his life.
And it’s not that he is loathe to talk about himself. He is very candid, in fact.
But his incredible penchant for storytelling makes one forget you’re doing an interview.
The anecdotes with which he illustrates his stories lead on to divergent paths and before you know it, you’re lost in a Proustian reverie, island hopping from topic to topic.
In between conversing about his craft and hearing stories about his past, however, I did manage to accrue some essential facts about his life.
Sheehan moved to Saugus with his family from Charlestown in the second grade. He lives in a cozy old colonial house with low ceilings that was built in 1742, which has been the family home since 1954.
We sat down to talk literature and writing and about Saugus at a beautiful, hard wood table that he had built himself.
Like his life and writing, it was solid but unostentatious, or ornamental and, as he said, filled with many memories.
Above the table on the wall is a collage of photos of his family and friends, a story behind every picture, to be sure.
Sheehan was greatly inspired by his grandfather who recognized in early in young Tom’s life a similar passion for language and literature.
To nurture that love he frequently recited poems to Tom, many of which he still remembers by rote today. Sheehan pays moving tribute to his grandfather and paints a lovely portrait of him in the aforementioned The Dumpmaster’s Boy.
Before majoring in English at Boston College, Sheehan was a three-sport star for the Sachems at Saugus High, lettering in baseball, football and hockey.
He served in the Korean War and still maintains regular contact with some of his comrades.
He has also made it a mission of his to track down a fellow with whom he served in the war.
He has gone as far as walking door to door in the man’s hometown near Syracuse looking for traces or clues as to his friend’s whereabouts.
Sheehan is rightly proud of his military experience and he writes movingly about it in his work.
But it is devoid of any jingoistic rhetoric. He treats the subject with the same modicum of humility and artistry as any other subject he tackles.
After 35 years working at Raytheon doing semi-technical writing and writing manuals and sundry other projects, Sheehan retired in 1991 and now devotes all his time to the two things he loves the most: his family which has and will always come first and his writing. But writing is not far behind. Sheehan is clearly a focused and intense man and writer. It shows in the immense output of his work.
For as a writer, he is nothing if not prolific.
The author of three novels, two in print and one serialized on the internet, a book of poetry and countless short stories and poems published in various literary and electronic magazines, Sheehan is certainly dedicated to his craft.
Only the sheer virtuosity and quality of his work match his immense output.
He has won numerous awards for his writing and he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, most recently this year.
Though not a magical realist in the traditional sense, there is a transcendental aspect to Sheehan’s writing that makes the familiar seem excitingly strange and new.
Perhaps even more striking about his work is his ability to make the unfamiliar seem familiar.
As one critic has written of Sheehan’s work, “I’ve never been to Massachusetts, know nothing of Saugus or Tom Sheehan, but I feel I know them well through A Collection of Friends.
Indeed, for this reason, Sheehan’s book is a must read for Saugonians of all ages.
Its appeal, however, is not just in the provincial nature of some of the stories. Simply put, the book is a tour de force for powerful story telling and narrative.
Sheehan’s primary medium is memory, but the collection of stories in Friends is not a solipsistic trip down memory lane.
The achievement of it is to artfully render meaningful and bring into the here and now the people and places of Sheehan’s personal past in a way that the contemporary reader feels intimate with them too and recognizes the awful beauty of life, past, present and future.
It may sound hokey, but the siege-engine that drives the stories is an unabashed love of life.
Apparent on every page are the observations of a man who took nothing for granted in his world and put his heart and soul into everything he did.
There is also an omnipresent, genuine humility in the face of all life throws before us – the good, the bad and the ugly.
And Sheehan writes about all aspects of life – love, war, poverty, place – with, as another critic has noted, “a love of life and people that has no match.”
This humility before humanity and the natural world lends his work a gentle grace that is instructive and reaches right to the soul of the reader.
Real humility strips us of the vanity of thinking we know others and ourselves and teaches us to see the beauty in others and ourselves.
Tom Sheehan’s work, borne of humility, humbles the reader into this same kind of awareness.
His voice is elegiac, but never precious or sentimental. His stories and poems are paeans to family and friends, past and present.
But Sheehan has an uncanny ability to draw the reader in, in an almost subversive way, until you become an intimate, engaged immediately and caring deeply about the people and places you meet and encounter in his stories and poems.
His technique is so subtle that there almost seems to be no artificial barrier distancing the narrator from the reader.
After reading A Collection of Friends, you will indeed feel like you have known Tom Sheehan all your life.
And you will see Saugus through his eyes and probably in ways you never have before.
And that is one of the highest achievements of art: to render the ordinary extraordinary. To make the commonplace or familiar seem new again.
Sheehan does that with great aplomb.
Although much of his work is evocative of a different era, there is nothing anachronistic or sentimentally nostalgic about it.
It is humble but bold, secure in its transmission of a singular memory that it becomes universal.
His experiences become the reader’s.
Sheehan has a unique gift that transports the reader to remote times and places, all the while making them seem familiar. The people and places you meet are not relics of some woe begotten past.
They are rendered alive and present by Sheehan’s keen eye and ear.
The most salient aspect that makes Sheehan’s work so memorable and real is the raw humanity of it all.
Permeating his work is a voice of experience that is deeply attuned to the music of innocence.
Like William Blake, he never loses sight of the nobility of a younger world and way of life.
Unlike Blake, though, there is no guarded cynicism overshadowing his work. No bleak irony or sarcasm.
This is not to say that Sheehan is a wide-eyed optimist.
Rather, he simply tells it like it is, as he would say.
But he does so with a Romantic lyricism that turns the prosaic and quotidian experiences of life into transcendental moments of meditation and memory.
His characters, even those of the past, come alive off the page, vital, breathing entities whose pulses you can feel in the rhythm of their dialogue, whose emotions you experience through a sort of subliminal osmosis, as Sheehan’s words are loaded with an energy that conveys the essence of their being.
And that is the core of Sheehan’s art. He lets his characters come alive on their own.
Even in the stories told in the point of view of an omniscient narrator, the various people we meet speak their own languages in their own voices.
His magic accords to one of the first and most essential rules of good writing – show, don’t tell.
There is nothing didactic or polemic in his work, but there is always something to learn.
For Sheehan writing has gone from being an avocation to a vocation in the years since he has retired.
It is not because the impulse or instinct to write was subdued during his years working.
In fact, he wrote all the time. He was writing, he says, since he could write or remember.
But Sheehan’s first commitment was always to his family.
Now, however, Sheehan has the time to devote himself wholly to his craft and he does so with gusto.
Up before dawn to make coffee and breakfast with his wife, a hospice nurse who leaves for work in the wee hours of the morning whom he describes as the most compassionate person he has ever met. Sheehan accomplishes more between the hours of 3:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. than most of us do in a day.
By noon he has at least eight hours of work under his belt and the day isn’t even half over.
It is obvious that retirement hasn’t slowed him down one bit.
If anything, as his work habits suggest, he has been invigorated.
And it shows in his work, which abounds with the boundless love and energy with which he is endowed.
And that, according to him, is what it all comes down to.
“We come into this world with two things,” he says, “love and energy – and we damn well better use them.”
And use them he does. It is manifest in his life and in his work.
Sheehan has been described as a “national treasure” by one critic. Indeed, he is one of Saugus’ great treasures.
His life and work is inspiring, uplifting and testimony to a life well lived.