All Sorts of Impossible Things

by John McGahern
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

“All Sorts of Impossible Things” is told in the first person, primarily through the point of view of the main character, lonely schoolmaster James Sharkey. The story begins with Sharkey and his friend Tom Lennon spending a Sunday afternoon hunting rabbits with two hounds; one, Coolcarra Queen, is a retired racing dog belonging to Lennon, and the other is a mongrel that Sharkey has borrowed from Charlie’s bar. Though they are unaware of it, this will be their last Sunday spent hunting because of Lennon’s failing health. After an afternoon without seeing any rabbits, the dogs finally raise one, which leads them on an exhausting chase before eventually eluding them.Synopsis: The death of a friend causes a lonely Irish man to reflect on the emptiness of his own life.}

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An agricultural instructor, Tom Lennon is currently employed on a temporary contract and is preparing for exams to determine whether he will be offered a permanent job. His knowledge of his profession is not the problem; rather, he is concerned that his congenital heart defect will cause him to fail the required physical exam. As a husband and father, he needs the security for his family that a permanent position would provide.

After Lennon leaves for home with his dog, whose paws are wounded from running on the hard ground, Sharkey returns the mongrel to Charlie’s bar and observes Charlie’s elaborate way of hiding his drinking from his wife. He also indulges in a moment of resentment and jealousy over Lennon’s apparently successful marriage, followed by an inward expression of concern over the possibility that his friend will lose his job. The narrator makes special reference to the fact that Sharkey has not removed his hat.

The sequence that follows is a flashback that reveals and explains Sharkey’s notable idiosyncrasy: his refusal to remove his hat, even in church. Once, Sharkey was in love with Cathleen O’Neill. In their happiness, they were blissfully unaware of the passage of time. Then Sharkey began to lose his hair, which made him feel the urgency of securing their uncertain relationship while they were still young. His proposal to Cathleen took the form of an ultimatum, as he would prefer rejection to uncertainty. When she refused to be pressured, their relationship was over.

Since that time, Sharkey has refused to remove his hat in public. In conversation with the priest who came to find out why Sharkey did not remove his hat in church, Sharkey compared his hat to the priest’s collar: both are sublimations of timor mortis, the fear of death. As a schoolmaster in the employ of the church, Sharkey was risking not only his standing in the community but also his career. The priest, to avoid conflict, stationed Sharkey at an offering table outside the sanctuary, where he could wear his hat without breaking the rules.

Back in the story’s present, Tom Lennon’s health takes a turn for the worse, and when James Sharkey goes to visit, the reader is introduced to Lennon’s wife and baby. Sharkey feigns optimism even though he detects impending death in Lennon’s sickroom. As the weeks pass, Lennon’s health does not improve. Sharkey takes both dogs hunting again, and this time they catch and maul two rabbits; Sharkey finishes the rabbits off by striking them, giving one to Charlie when he returns the mongrel and taking the other to Lennon.

Lennon’s health has deteriorated further, and Sharkey offers to take care of the hound Coolcarra Queen. Shortly thereafter, in spite of Lennon’s sickness, Sharkey cuts Lennon’s hair in preparation for the exam. Sharkey and Lennon’s wife discuss the hopelessness of the situation, and as he watches Lennon’s shorn hair falling to the towel draped around him, Sharkey feels the impulse to remove his hat, as if he is in the presence of something sacred. Lennon dies the next morning while attempting to crank-start his car.

After the funeral, Sharkey listens to men in the bar debating planting methods the deceased agricultural instructor had advocated and buys Charlie a drink. The story closes with Sharkey returning home to the dog, who welcomes him. He imagines throwing his trademark hat away and finding a girl with whom to go to the beach or training the dog to race again. Finally he dismisses both of these daydreams as impossibilities and turns back to his uneventful—and now lonelier—life.

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