A pointillist master of middle-American disaffection, second-shoe-dropping comic rhythm, pop-cult radiation, and the deceivingly unsimple art of inarticulation, Jim Shepard might be considered a national treasure if he’d show off more—write a Big Novel, say, or manufacture a book that sundered fiction’s beloved rules instead of using them as sniper bullets. As it is, he is a writer best appreciated for the incomprehensible madness that manifests between his laconic lines of narrative, as well as for his refusal to peacock his prose at the expense of his none-too-sharp, painfully honest characters. It’s a matter of voice—you can hear Shepard’s pauses, throat clearings, and patient breath-holdings, as the words drop dry as toast crumbs. Think of it as Raymond Carver’s dour, fastidious no-bullshit-ness nipple-twisted into cosmic comedy.
Shepard’s been honing his weapons for over 20 years now, and the new story collection, Love and Hydrogen, comes off like a wonder cabinet of sympathetically imagined cataclysm, nearly always relayed in matter-of-fact first-person. Thus, “Runway” might be my favorite expression, anywhere, of desperate middle-aged restlessness, while “The Gun Lobby” is a sly marital-apocalypse comedy that begs to be filmed. One of Shepard’s more distinctive tropes is his penchant for straight-facedly inhabiting youth entertainment from the inside out, and some of his best stories revisit The Creature From the Black Lagoon (entirely from the self-glorifyingly homicidal creature’s viewpoint), the Mars Attacks bubble-gum card series (seen, one by one, as childhood stations of the cross, through which the adult narrator attempts to evoke his bipolar brother), and the history of the Who (remembered by a mildly embittered, heartbroken John Entwhistle).
Shepard’s new novel, Project X, is as consistently voiced and as mordantly funny as any of the shorter pieces, but it occupies a more immediately painful patch of blue: teenage freakhood and victimization, leading inexorably to a school shooting. Columbine stands as a kind of historical mystery, a new Golgotha we’re not close to assimilating into our cultural templates yet, and the effort to do just that has already spawned innumerable books—as well as three feature films last year alone. Like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Project X resonates with silent empathy.
Edwin, Shepard’s protagonist, is a butt-ugly eighth-grader yearning to escape from a suburban life defined by prison-yard socialization and overseen by ineffectual authority. Shepard doesn’t overwrite Edwin’s perspective—a common problem among novelists attempting to express a teenager’s interior noise—and the resulting portrait of traumatized, half-comprehended reality sounds like he’d held his ear to a real, acne-maimed 13-year-old’s chest. Edwin is no doormat: He so regularly engages his bullying enemies in rib-kicking combat that the school district has long since cataloged him as a sociopath in the making. But he’s a softhearted pre-schooler in a mutating body compared to his only friend, the perpetually seething Flake. Together, they’re the last, dangling link in their junior high’s food chain: “It’s a big shitpile with everybody shitting downward,” and beyond the higher echelons and middle tiers, there are “the druggies. Behind them, the kids nobody notices. Behind them, the fuckups. Behind them, the geeks. Behind them, the kids from like the sticks, the trailer types. Behind them, the retards and kids with missing jaws and shit. Behind them, us. Our group is a group of two.”
Edwin’s turmoil proves to be an intense experience in anxiety recall: Your most frustrating teen memories will find unholy corroboration. Which makes Shepard’s intimacy with the bleeding psyche of misfitting adolescence all the more discomfiting—we’re so close, we feel the heft of the Kalashnikov.