cover image PROJECT X


Jim Shepard, . . Knopf, $20 (176pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-4071-1

This engrossing novel gives the overworked subject of Columbine-style school massacres an unusually subtle and affecting treatment. Shepard (Nosferatu ; Battling Against Castro ; etc.) follows the travails of Edwin Hanratty, a misfit stuck at the bottom of the ruthless eighth-grade pecking order ("It's a big shitpile with everybody shitting downward so you want to be as high as possible"). Beaten up and mocked by bullies, disliked by his teachers and at loggerheads with his exasperated parents, he lives a nightmare of loneliness and anxiety with only his even more isolated friend, Flake, to cling to. Together, the two boys feed each other's wounded, sullen disgruntlement and edge toward vengeance as the only salve for their overwhelming sense of impotence and humiliation. Shepard makes these miserable characters sympathetic and even funny (" 'Suck my dog's chew toy, how's that?' he goes. 'Your mother's still busy with it,' I tell him"), but avoids easy sociological explanations for their predicament. The two boys, who have only their alienation to cling to, are often snotty and off-putting, and bat away all helping hands; there are also hints of deeper pathologies. With a pitch-perfect feel for the flat, sardonic, "I-go-then-he-goes" language of disaffected teens, Shepard explores how, in two disturbed minds, the normal adolescent obsessions with competence, mastery and status take on disastrous proportions, and the search for social belonging becomes a life-or-death matter. (Jan. 30)

FYI: Vintage is publishing Shepard's Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories (which includes only one new story) simultaneously in paperback .