THE FIRST TIIME my parents flew from South Africa to see how I was faring in America, the strain of trying to impress them almost undid me. America was like a boyfriend I had chosen to marry and I wanted desperately for them to see what a good match I’d made. There were the museums and glossy shops, the supermarkets with grand displays of polished produce that had my mother reaching for her camera. But then they found restaurant portions unappetizingly large and the waitress’s question — “You still working on that?” — unsavory, as if we were engaged in demolishing a building. They noted that strangers asked “How ya doin’?” but didn’t wait for a reply. In one of his more sweeping pronouncements, my stepfather said Americans suffered from the “hail-fellow-well-met” syndrome. He likened them to a clumsy and overeager Labrador, whose wagging tail knocks the family’s heirloom teapot off the coffee table.
I was reminded of that visit — my parents’ disorientation, my own inability to relax — reading Ethel Rohan’s latest story collection, In the Event of Contact. Throughout the collection she explores the plight of immigrants who find themselves, like I once was, caught between two countries. While most stories are set in Rohan’s childhood city of Dublin, America looms as both a place of escape and a cause of irritation for those left behind. I saw glimmers of my own stepfather in the Irish mother of “Into the West,” who comments during a visit to see her son in San Francisco, “Everything is bigger in America. It’s pitiful.” As in many of Rohan’s stories, both son and mother long for connection, but like the distance between the Pacific Ocean and the Irish Sea, the psychological gap between them is too vast to bridge.
Winner of the Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, this book of 14 finely wrought stories leaves the reader aching for the brave, wounded souls who populate its pages — characters harboring psychic wounds, yearning to attain a sense of belonging, whether in Ireland or America, and who mostly, despite their best efforts, seem destined to fail. Rohan mines most deeply the fraught “inbetween-ness” of the immigrant in the beautifully understated “Rare but not Impossible.” In this story, she follows the owner of a successful New York hair salon who goes home to Ireland for her best friend’s wedding soon after she’s had an abortion. In Ireland, the woman suffers guilt for denying her parents their wish for grandchildren, and experiences her own sense of alienation.
In recent years Dad had taken to calling her “the Yank.” Her whole life, people criticized her voice — too posh for her Northside, working-class neighborhood when she was a girl; not Irish enough in New York City; and too American in Ireland. No matter where she was, she never sounded like she belonged.
But in Rohan’s stories the clash of cultures is not the point. Beneath the superficial friction lies an unrequited need to be fully seen and appreciated, a hunger born out of decades of misunderstandings and slights. Stay or leave, her characters yearn for bigger lives in which they can blossom into their true selves.
For the most part, these are working-class Irish men and women, and their Irish lilt and quick wit infuse the prose. The Ireland they call home is bleak, damp, and claustrophobic. TVs blare in cramped houses and rain rattles the windows “as if trying to get in.” The pubs have wooden counters littered with soggy napkins, and a quaint lane could well be the perfect place for a mugging. Rohan’s protagonists struggle against lean times and mean-spirited family members who sometimes turn violent. In the story “At the Side of the Road,” a young girl trying to make a living selling strawberries assesses her scant options:
The whole country was down on its knees with the recession, and still her mother singled her out for failure. […] Her parents were insisting she attend college (“They let you in, didn’t they?”) but that seemed like another cage. She could emigrate. Only that didn’t feel like a choice, either, but more like her generation’s sentence.
And yet despite Rohan’s portrayal of people trapped in small lives, these are not dark stories. The writing is devoid of handwringing, and even the most thwarted protagonist acts with a grit that feels born of the Irish landscape itself. In describing her main characters, the old-fashioned word “plucky” comes to mind; it seems fitting that Rohan dedicates this collection to “the Survivors.” Resilience buoys the narrative, along with a wry self-awareness in her main characters. They happily and matter-of-factly skewer themselves and dare the reader to disagree.
In the wrenching story “Everywhere She Went,” which spans a mere 10 pages but whose power lingers well after the last word, the narrator recalls her younger self before her best friend went missing: “I’ve never talked about what might have happened to her when she disappeared — thoughts that have hollowed me out over the years and caused my eyes to sit too deep in my head.” And later, “I had a lot more meat on my frame back then, rust-red hair, and chocolate brown eyes that over the years have lightened and turned evasive.”
Rohan is a master of the declarative sentence, the effortless pivot, the disarming confession. We empathize with this unnamed woman, even though she is slightly unhinged, because she bears herself to us unapologetically. Similarly, in the standout story “Before Storms Had Names,” we root for a young man relegated to the role of country bumpkin who must compete with his father for the attention of a glamorous house guest. While he is stuck working on his parents’ farm, this attractive traveler rents a room in their house. She brings with her a whiff of the outside world, a life of shimmering possibility, and he fantasizes that with this encounter his life might change. And yet, he knows she is out of his league and that the divide between them is insurmountable.
Alone with her in the small bedroom, he felt especially self-conscious — his pimples whiter, his cow’s lick taller, and his big toe peeking through his threadbare sock, the nail yellowed. Worse, he smelled of hay, sweat, cigarettes, and cow-shite. If she asked, he’d say he was eighteen.
Violence threatens to break through by this story’s end, as it does elsewhere in this collection. In two other stories, the perpetrators are themselves victims, caught in families where untethered rage is considered an effective means of communication. The bookish, scrappy narrator in “Unwanted” describes his best friend’s father, the dreaded Archie Owens, as a “balding, tight-jawed, and small-toothed” man who “harbored a vampire’s need to break skin and draw blood, especially that of his wife and two sons.” This description is typical of Rohan’s deft prose: compact and startling, with revealing details that are tossed out as casual asides, but land like a slap.
Later in the story, Archie’s son Charlie turns violent, and the narrator realizes that his friend has inherited from his father “that certain hunger.” Just as here the past foments in the present, throughout this collection the past is never over. Characters remember, forget, imagine the future, and lament what has gone, sometimes all in the span of an hour. It is the past, usually, that tugs hardest and threatens to drag them down. This is especially true in “Everywhere She Went,” whose plot turns on the narrator’s discovery that her boyfriend has a colleague by the same name as a friend who disappeared some 16 years before, when on her way to visit the narrator. She latches onto this coincidence, hoping that the woman in her boyfriend’s office may be “her” long-missing Hazel. When she engineers an encounter, she discovers, of course, that she is not, and disappointment cuts deep. Yet despite this, she cannot let go of the memories, nor the lingering guilt she feels for Hazel’s disappearance. For her the past is more real than the present, and when her dull boyfriend complains that he is competing with a ghost, she leaves him.
Rohan’s stories often end with this kind of poignance, with the main character alone, feeling the full weight of what they have endured while imagining a way forward. More often than not, there is hope in their assessment, born of that distinctly Irish grit. They may long for emotional connection, for family and lovers to see them as they truly are; to shake off the past that haunts them and to emerge like Michelangelo’s David from a lump of stone. They may hunger for a different country or a different life. But even if they get none of that, they will still, at least, have themselves, and in the end, that might be enough.