Two new books by Jim Shepard
PROJECT X by Jim Shepard. 164 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $20.
LOVE AND HYDROGEN: New and Selected Stories. By Jim Shepard. 340 pp. New York: Vintage Contemporaries. Paper, $13.

Reviewed by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 25, 2004) -- There is possibly no worse time of life than eighth grade. Virtually no one has any good memories of that year, and teachers will attest that teaching 13- and 14-year-olds is perhaps the least desirable posting in school. A transformational age, particularly for boys, eighth grade is fraught with competing forces – biology against emotions, socialization vs. the search for identity, childhood vs. impending adulthood.

Amazingly, the vast majority of eighth graders – along with their teachers – survive that year with little or no incident. They go on to become whoever they will become, trying on different personalities and experimenting with different life paths throughout high school and beyond – in college, in the workplace, throughout their 20s and these days, for many, well into their 30s.

But then of course, in this age of Columbine, there are those few boys with itchy trigger fingers. The ones who through some quirk of internal wiring, brain biochemistry, lack of moral guidance, access to guns, or more likely through a combination of some or all of these, take the drastic step of violently protesting their fate. Not for them the ignominy of getting tripped in the hallway, having their books swept out of their hands, being embarrassed by a teacher’s questions, or getting picked last for the team.

We know the syndrome, or at least we think we do until we read “Project X,” the latest novel by Jim Shepard, a pitch-perfect, cliché-defying, first-person narrative of an all-too-typical eighth grade boy who goes from fretting about his favorite pair of cargo pants to – well, I don’t want to ruin the ending.

In his own mind, at least, Edwin Hanratty hardly registers on the charts. “I’m such a loser and a half,” he says of himself. “I’m the kid you think about when you want to make yourself feel better. If I were me I’d talk about myself behind my back.”

He is a little like Bethany, who Hanratty’s friend Flake claims to spot everywhere lately. Here’s how Shepard tells it in a snatch of dialogue between the two beginning with Hanratty.

“I never see her,” I go.
“You never see her,” he goes.
The first bell rings. They call it the first bell but it’s a buzzer. “We better get in,” I tell him.
He gives me that look. “You didn’t see her. You didn’t see her hanging out with Fischetti and those guys near the thing?”
“Yeah, I saw here there,” I go.
“You saw her there,” he goes.

And on the two of them go, like characters out of David Mamet or Harold Pinter. Like those playwrights, Shepard propels the action forward through snappy dialogue, pointed observation, and the sort of detail that will undoubtedly resonate with anyone who ever attended eighth grade and still has occasional nightmares about forgetting the combination to one’s locker.

We have combination locks for our lockers. Every day I get worried I’m not going to be able to open it. That’s what kind of hopeless feeboid pussy I am – I worry about being able to open my locker.

When things turn ugly, it’s not to make some pious case for the boys that they are abused or misunderstood or driven to their desperate straits by a cruel or violent culture. Rather, it is merely to illuminate the humanity within the inhumanity, one embodying the other. “Project X” is an instant classic, capturing an age and an era with deft wit and poignant emotion recalling Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.”

To call “Love and Hydrogen” an old-fashioned story collection is to offer it the greatest praise. Even while some of Shepard’s nearly two-dozen stories included here evidence hints of post-modern hijinks, taken as a whole, the book reads like an anthology of stories that could have been written at different times over the last hundred years or so.

There is something very 19th century about Shepard as story writer in his embrace of imaginative possibilities, in the delight he takes in invention of characters with distinctive, unique voices (as opposed to intrusive, authorial voices). There is something childlike and fabulous – in its literal sense of fable-like – about his naïve trust in the storytelling art, and in the way he renews our own, lost, childlike appreciation for a well-told story.

Shepard’s palette is bright, his landscape is vast, and his terrain is varied. Some of his stories are constructed as if they began as assignments in the sort of fiction-writing workshops Shepard teaches – tell a story from the point of a view of a non-human character (“The Creature from the Black Lagoon”), tell a story in which the reader isn’t sure until the end what he is reading (“Mars Attacks”). But even these exercises are imbued with the deeply felt humanity that runs through all of his work, setting it apart from the clinical detachment that characterizes similar but less compelling experiments in post-modern meta-fictions.

With the simultaneous publication of “Project X” and “Love and Hydrogen,” Shepard will finally make the leap from being something of an insider’s favorite -- a writer’s writer -- to being recognized for what he indeed always has been -- a populist, a storyteller, a reader’s writer, and one of America’s best.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 25, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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