On a warm July night in Ann Arbor, Mich., a homeless man appears at James Dwyer’s door to say that an old woman is lying in the street in front of the building. When James rushes to check, there’s nobody there except the man, who insists he saw her only a few minutes earlier. Certain that the man is lying, but feeling mellow and a bit bored, James invites the messenger, Walter, inside for coffee and conversation.
Like a stone thrown into a pond, this seemingly trivial incident in “The Visitors” sets up an ever-widening ripple in which the past reverberates into the present with surprisingly immediate emotional intensity. For Walter is bearing a second, apparently more innocuous message: An old childhood nemesis from County Limerick, Kevin Lyons, wants James to visit him.
James, an expat who has spent years establishing a new life in the United States, thought he had put his past behind him; this invitation triggers a flood of memories and fragments of mysteries, personal and familial, as he considers the summons. His first impulse is to refuse: He and Kevin never liked each other — in fact, often detested each other — but there’s no denying that their roots are deeply intertwined. Their fathers were best friends; uncles, aunts and siblings were entangled in complicated relationships over many decades. In his first attempt to leave all that behind him, James escapes to Dublin, where he falls in love with Kevin’s sister Una, another would-be escapee.
The novel bounces back and forth in time and place between the present, in which James, his current girlfriend, and Walter perform their own complicated relationship dynamics, and the past: Episodes from the lives of parents and relatives are interwoven with memories of growing up in rural Ireland, tending bar in Dublin and moving to the States. Throughout, family secrets are like subterranean rivers, invisibly destabilizing the present as their currents bubble up in odd places: an inexplicable outburst in the kitchen, a chance remark by a neighbor, an uneasy sense that things were not what they seemed. As successive layers of secrets are revealed, the effect is powerful and moving.
Although this is Patrick O’Keeffe’s first novel, he is already an acclaimed fiction writer, recipient of the Story Prize for “The Hill Road” and a Whiting Award. In “The Visitors” he displays a keen ear for dialogue and detail that somehow, without pushing it or seeming forced, seem to take on elements of myth.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.