Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The x-files/misunderstood

I was in ninth grade when Columbine happened. I don't remember whether I heard about it before I went to school the next day (we didn't have a TV, although I read the newspaper, because that's totally normal for a ninth-grader) and I remember seeing pictures of students standing outside the school, but I knew we were really in the shit when I showed up at school and the principal (handlebar moustache, Wranglers, and hubcab-sized belt buckle) was gleefully wanding everyone with a handheld metal detector.

They'd gotten the brilliant idea to borrow a metal detector from the local police department. A metal detector, which meant we all sort of hung around outside underneath the hellish Texas sun waiting to pass through it one by one, which took a few hours.

After that they abandoned the metal detectors, but made us all wear "ID cards" that consisted of a small square of blue paper with your name on it that you wore around your neck. I'm not sure what the purpose was, unless it was to make identifying corpses that much easier in the unlikely event that we did have some sort of mass-casualty event. Also, no Manson T-shirts.

Post-Columbine, the misfits in my school were regarded with a bit more suspicion, but we were relatively lucky in that a fluke of city planning had left one half-completed high school into which they threw all the ninth-graders. Although we did have some of the freakish on the spectrum of adolescent development (that one guy who was barely four feet tall, plus several linebackers who were already shaving and experiencing fits of steroidal rage), everyone was more or less the same. Which is to say, poised on that particularly excruciating cliff of teenagerhood, when you and everyone you know is miserable, awkward, and uncomfortable.

In the wake of Columbine and the school shootings that followed, there has been a rash of books, movies, and songs, and of course, Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, and the image of Klebold walking through the cafeteria, gun poised casually at his hip, is seared into our collective unconscious.

So it is to Shepard's credit that his slim novel, Project X, published five years after Columbine, provokes an unsettling blend of disgust and sympathy.

Project X's main characters are two misfit middle schoolers, Edwin Hanratty and his best friend, Roddy (nicknamed Flake). They're both smart, restless, and have plentiful reserves of anger and rage. Hanratty is the more sympathetic of the two - he has a deadpan wit that's genuinely hilarious, despite his anxiety and depression, and he's devoted to his younger brother. His parents are bewildered by his behavior, but neither one is really equipped to address it. Wisely, Shepard does not give the reader a family with anything particularly wrong with it, but rather with the normal problems of too little time, too much work, and not enough attention. His parents' earnest but bumbling and misdirected efforts to help are little use, and even his teachers dislike him. Their casual cruelty is even more disheartening than that of his classmates. As the famous saying goes, children can be so cruel, but adults are sometimes worse.

Flake and Hanratty begin planning their revenge, although Flake is more deadly earnest. Shepard does a remarkable job of capturing Hanratty's sad, funny voice. Hanratty and Flake are not Dylan and Eric - they don't listen to metal and eschew TV and video games, all the culprits that were blamed in the finger-pointing aftermath of Columbine. So why do Hanratty and Flake think that murder will make them feel better? It's a question that Shepard doesn't really try to answer - or perhaps the answer is just that they do. Readers trying to find the why are going to be disappointed.

Shepard's writing has momentum and heft - as the book progresses, it feels more and more like something careening out of control. And after all, isn't that the heart of adolescence?

Like You'd Understand, Anyway is Shepard's most recent publication, a collection of short stories. I love short stories, but of late have been dissatisfied with most of the collections I've read. Not that they aren't well-written - they are - but that the subject matter is so familiar (dissolving/broken marriages and/or relationships, for the most part).

Shepard's collection is a welcome break, including (but not limited to!) stories about: two explorers on a mission from Himmler in Nepal to find the yeti and prove some of the Third Reich's more boneheaded ethnographic beliefs; a Russian astronaut who becomes the first woman in space; a miserable scribe toiling alongside soldiers at Hadrian's Wall; an executioner in revolutionary France having serious doubts about the nature of his work; a trio of brothers at Chernobyl's ground zero; an ill-fated expedition to the center of Australia, and many more.

There's a lot to love in Shepard's writing, even if it leaves a vague sense of dissatisfaction. A lot of reviewers have commented on the male-centricity of Shepard's stories, and Like You'd is no exception. The only main female character is the aforementioned Russian astronaut, who bears more than a passing resemblance to NASA's Lisa Nowak. It's the weakest story in the collection.

Not that Shepard's stories are not about relationships - they are - but he seems more interested in examining filial relationships between men and how they go wrong, from the absent father in "Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak," the bereaved family in "My Aeschylus," a suburban family dealing with mental illness in "Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian," the deluded old soldier/father in "Hadrian's Wall," the complicated and difficult relationship between three brothers and their father in "The Zero Meter Diving Team," and...well, you get the idea.

The stories are certainly bleak, but readers who are turned off by bleakness are not likely to read Shepard in the first place. Shepard's depth of research certainly shines through in his attention to detail in such wide-ranging settings, but it doesn't seem affected or grating, which is a trick that many authors cannot pull off. Despite the general chill that this collection seems to carry with it, it's a welcome departure from the more common strains of short stories.

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