By Jim Shepard. Alfred A. Knopf, 211 pp, $29.95, hardcover
Love the self-hatred and emotional nausea of adolescence? Can't get enough of that sick, tender pride in your own passivity, where feelings are too big to be named and everything is someone else's fault? Then Jim Shepard's your guy.
Shepard, a writing instructor at Williams College in Massachusetts, has constructed entire novels on the sticky bedrock of boyhood shame (the Columbine-esque Project X, for example), but it's in his stories that he most compellingly cores the male soul.
Like You'd Understand, Anyway is Shepard's third collection of exquisite short fiction. A regular in the pages of Harper's and McSweeney's, Shepard espressos whole lives in his short, sharp, bittersweet prose. Several of the pieces here crease time, folding the centuries to show how our ancestors' lives were no shinier–or grimier–than our own. He ranges across the near past (the explosion at Chernobyl in "The Zero Meter Diving Team"; the space race in "Eros 7") and more distantly, often settling on war as the engine of his imagination. Private lives set against hopeless conflict attract him: the public executioner during the French Revolution ("Sans Farine"), the foot soldier in ancient Rome ("Hadrian's Wall"), Yeti-hunting anthropologists at the time of the Second World War ("Ancestral Legacies").
Battle is a natural leitmotif, given perfect encapsulation in "Hadrian's Wall": "This tactic could also be understood to illuminate the relationship between the core of the empire and its periphery.”¦That's been Rome's genius all along: turning brother against brother and father against son. Since what could be easier than that?"
At heart, his protagonists don't hate; they despair. The executioner muses: "I've often considered what kind of first impression I make. I assume that I initially evoke a measure of intrigue before people get to understand me and become repulsed." What meets these men's eyes falls so far short of the ideal, especially when the gaze is directed into the mirror. No wonder they rage, inchoate and inarticulate. No wonder they surrender.