There is, I think, in every one of us something mineral and unteachable," says an agent of the totalitarian state in Jim Shepard's 1990 novel Lights Out in the Reptile House. "You see it when all evidenceˇall the dictates of logicˇsuggest one course of action, and the individual persists in doing something else. It interests me." He is addressing a recalcitrant prisoner on the verge of torture, but his words aptly describe Shepard's own literary interest and perhaps a majority of his characters as well, so many of whom are tortured souls who act in ways that cut against the grain of expectation, only to stumble into the uncanny or the bizarre.
Shepard is something of a patron saint of the maladapted, both in his previous work and in his two new books, the story collection Love and Hydrogen and the novel Project X. His people tend to hail from torqued-up familiesˇa child who has turned violent, a father exuding sarcasm or meanness, or siblings who wouldn't know brotherly love if it bit them, which, of course, it does. "How much happiness is someone entitled to?" wonders GnŘss, whose same-sex partner has strayed from him in the title story, "Love and Hydrogen," where the volatility of the relationship matches that of their craft's fuel: They are crewmen on the Hindenberg. "What happens when you really hate who you are?" a son asks in another story in the new collection, "Glut Your Soul on My Accursed Ugliness," in which the father is on the verge of deserting the family but has asked the son to lie on his behalf. "It's a problem," replies his mother. Another son, in the story "The Mortality of Parents," laments that "in our family, we're either screaming or breaking things or cleaning up." Stress in the homeˇwhich in Shepard's work is one of America's signal family valuesˇis also the strong background radiation in Project X, which concerns a Columbine-style school shooting.
Shepard's stories don't meander in the way that, say, Alice Munro's do; nor do they rely heavily on the jump-cutting so common to every other American short-story writer. Rather, he takes a few basic elements and focuses on them with intensity. Shepard infuses his stories with texture both original and accurate, sometimes by restructuring and tailoring information to create a new context. In one story from Love and Hydrogen, for example, Shepard draws a portrait of the US attorney general ("John Ashcroft: More Important Things Than Me") that reads like wonderful fiction but is built from Ashcroft's own words, taken from published letters and the Congressional Record. As a literary stunt, it's a howl.
Politics are seldom far from Shepard's mind, although often less overtly than hoisting Ashcroft on his own petard. In "Ajax Is All About Attack," a Yugoslav expatriate soccer player mourns tearfully that his father never got out. "What hadn't he thrown underfoot and sacrificed" for the sake of the state? he wonders. The Eastern bloc "was the world of their imagination, and they'd pictured it falsely to us, and we at first hadn't wanted to believe things to be different." Politics and sports intertwine with dramatic effect as well in "Batting Against Castro," in which a trio of dubbers who've been bounced to the minor leagues go instead to Cuba to play ball. They wind up representing imperialism in the public tug-of-war between Castro and Batista, with Castro eventually taking the mound in a game and even blocking home plate at the end of the storyˇagain, a slide into the uncanny.
The Castro story and others give us the feeling that Shepard is toying with our affections, having fun like Barry Hannah does: Can you believe this? In the opening story of Love and Hydrogen, a disaffected wife has assembled an arsenal and taken her husband hostage. "You're a pig," Stephanie, the wife, says. "You respect nothing. You have the integrity of a grease trap." Her husband, who narrates, asks "whatever happened to divorce in such situations," and does she remember when he used to listen? A mutual friend tells Stephanie, "Sometimes I think he's a good man, and sometimes I'm not so sure." "Exactly," she responds. "Exactly." It's a simple story with a farcical feel, but "The Gun Lobby" digs into the matrimonial grit. When the police attack and the incoming ordnance "sets everything in the kitchen into electric life," the husband, on the floor, reflects, "I think that we failed not because of what we didn't have but because of what we wanted: one more look into those old hearts, the ones we turned our backs on, the ones we owed everything to."
That strategy of coupling an overlay of hyperbole and a serious substratum is a Shepard hallmark. In "Mars Attacks," while the narrator enumerates his series of collector's cards on a Martian invasion and counterattack by Earth, he talks about his brother, who is crisscrossing the country, staying in youth hostels, and at forty-two is still supported by money wired to him by their father. "His calls are monologues of defeat. I fancy myself always busy, and listen for one or two hours at a stretch, aggrieved," we are told. In "Krakatau," Donnie, the foundering older brother, has dropped out of high school because he was "being stared at." He operates in "that maddening middle ground: too disturbed to function and not disturbed enough to be put away," familiar terrain for many Shepard characters. Biddy, an angry young man in the story "Eustace," locks everyone out of his school, pins a nun half in and half out of a bathroom window, and knocks another one down a flight of stairs. His dialogue with counselors afterward is hilariously pat and uninformative. And in Biddy we see some of the seeds of Project X. Project X begins on the first day of FS (Fuckin' School) for two eighth-graders who will be the axis on which the book spins, Edwin Hanratty and his alter ego, Flake. Edwin, who worries periodically about his oversize nose, narrates in a junior highşspeak that may be true to life but quickly becomes grating, and he lacks the imaginative reach of many Shepard narrators. He's Holden Caulfield with his diction updated but his blood drained. In class, Edwin names nurse murderer Richard Speck as someone who "found new ways of addressing society's problems," and we get the home picture shortly thereafter: "They're both just looking at me, because that's how it is: everything's my fault. . . . My dad's giving me his I-may-be-a-cool-dad-but-that-doesn't-mean-I'm-a-pushover face. My mom's giving me her I-try-to-understand-can't-you-meet-me-halfway face." Edwin bolts from the table, leaving his mother saying, "What's the matter with him?" As for Flake, his home life consists of surly answers to his mother's questions and a running argument with his father over Flake's use of his tools.
The two boys are chronically in trouble, Edwin especially, although Flake is the more malevolent, in both thought and behavior. Edwin's dominant emotive trait is sadness, while Flake's is anger, and they cruise the halls at the very bottom of the school's pecking order, amusingly delineated by Shepard. Every day is ignoble. One of the troubling aspects of this bookˇits primary insightˇis that the deadly violence planned by two kids who are bullied and feel like losers arises from the very mundane, everyday stew of adolescent life. It's Lake Wobegon on PCP. Edwin's father tells him that the boy has a "glass head," a transparency of thought, but nothing could be further from the truth. Edwin thinks Kalashnikov and his mother says, "You're thinking, 'Why do I have to eat with them?'" When a plot to poison everyone at school using pesticide fails, the two would-be Klebolds steal Flake's father's guns. I'll leave the denouement between Shepard and you, but note that on the day of the climactic action, a new poster appears in school, reading, THE KEY TO LIFE IS BALANCE.
Of course, if Shepard's characters could actually balance, we wouldn't have the wonderful stories. In "Ajax Is All About Attack," the soccer-playing narrator says, "Wasn't it so that even when we were laughing, we were sad." In "Won't Get Fooled Again," John Entwistle of the Who says, "Rage in the service of self-pity was what we'd always been about." You're working hard "to get some livable part of you across," he adds, "and it's never really perfect, it's never really acceptable, it's never even really right, is it?"
No, it isn't ever really right, which is usually the locus of a Shepard story. Even his characters are amazed to find themselves where they end up, sometimes facing death, sometimes revelation, but always in motion. Stasis is their enemy. William Beebe, inventor of the bathysphere, who appears in the story "Descent into Perpetual Night," says of a voice cabled down to him in the deep that "its breath and its warmth" were "the most durable of illusions." We could say the same of Shepard's, and his stories.
Art Winslow, former literary editor and executive editor of The Nation, writes frequently about books and culture.