Ask a writer who their favorite living writer is. There's a good chance they'll throw out the name Jim Shepard. (The other correct answers are Alice Munro and/or Charles Baxter.) If you're a regular New Yorker or Harper's reader you've probably encountered him. If you've attended an MFA program or a summer writer's conference, you may have taken a class from him. If you have had the good fortune to see him read, perhaps as an "opening act" for a more famous friend, you most likely roared with laughter, applauded loudly, and then lined up to buy his book, thinking, "why haven't I heard of this guy before?"
If you're anyone else (and "anyone else" here constitutes probably 98% of the American populace) you have no clue who he is, other than maybe a vague but erroneous notion. "Oh yeah, he's Sam Shepard's son, right?" is a common response. (Unless Sam became a father around age eight -- no.) Jim Shepard has a small but vocal cohort of rabid fans, all of whom wait with bated breath as each book is released, saying "maybe this will be the one." Maybe this will be the book that finally pushes him over into the fame-and-fortune, celebrated-author column, where he can win National Book Awards and hang out in a special secret room to smoke cigars with Don DeLillo and William T. Vollmann and Cormac McCarthy. Actually, he might do that already. And if he does, Don and Bill and Cormac probably say to him, "Hell, Shepard, why aren't you more famous? Maybe this next book will be the one."
Like You'd Understand, Anyway is Shepard's ninth book. Yes, NINTH. Six novels and two story collections precede this one. The last story collection was Love and Hydrogen, and its title story appeared in the Best American Short Stories collection for 2002. That story was about a deeply felt love affair between two men, Gnuss and Meinert, crew members on the Hindenberg's final voyage. It demonstrated Shepard's trademark ability to set up a scene that is incredibly historically specific and emotionally universal at the same time. "...Gnuss was a child during the absolute worst years of the inflation... [his]most cherished toy for a year and a half was a clothespin on which his father hand painted a face." We may not all be German, or zeppelin crew members, or World War I survivors, or even gay; but we can all understand how a forbidden passion might lead two people to tryst feverishly on a ladder up against a giant balloon of flammable gas. Shepard's most recent novel was Project X, a brutally accurate portrayal of what it's like to be a bottom-of-the barrel outcast in junior high school. The two boys at the center of that book plot a terrible revenge, and up until the last second it's still impossible to tell if it's all a little boy fantasy or horribly real. Mark my words, Project X will wreck you, it'll make you do that thing where you laugh out loud and sob at the same time. But this new collection? This WILL be the one. It has to be.
I almost don't want to tell you about the stories in the book, so as not to spoil your experience. As I read each of them I sat openmouthed, like I was watching a tightrope walker or magician do something that should be impossible. The backdrops for the action are dizzyingly different. "The First South Central Australian Expedition" is the diary of men dragging a whaleboat across a bone-dry and deadly expanse of desert. Disasters, disappointment, hunger, thirst, and mutiny are rendered in heartbreakingly understated Victorian prose by their deluded captain: "We are now fifteen weeks out and for the last six have continued to wait for some kind of happy transformation in the path ahead." The first story, "The Zero Meter Diving Team" is narrated by Boris Yakovlevich Prushinsky, Soviet chief nuclear engineer during the Chernobyl disaster. His hour-by-hour account of the chain of missteps leading up to the reactor meltdown, and the relationship between him and his two brothers, both of whom are hideously wounded by the radiation, is unforgettable. "Here's what it's like to bear up under so much guilt: everywhere you drag yourself you leave a trail. Late at night, you gaze back and view an upsetting record of where you've been."
"Trample The Dead, Hurdle the Weak" is a peek inside the training regimen of an elite high school football team. "We're talking summer practice, two-a-days, guys keeling over in the heat. When more than one guy has the dry heaves we call it Hee Haw because of the sound." The narrator has come to believe, through Google research, that the star of a rival school's team might also be his half-brother, another son of the father he never knew. He pours all of his energy in training into the thought of meeting his double on the field, in hopes of kicking his ass.
That's just a tiny taste. You may have noticed some of the running themes here: men, manliness. Relationships between brothers who love each other, but can't express it in any way except fierce competition. Sons who will do absolutely anything in pursuit of acceptance by fathers who are continually disappointed. There are practically no women in the whole book. Normally something like that would irk me, but in this case it works, since most of the stories are set in high-testosterone, all-male environments: battlefields, summer camps, nuclear reactors, expeditions to dangerous and remote locales. This is the only short story collection I've ever seen that had a two-page bibliography of historical sources. Not only does Shepard take us inside Chernobyl and high school football, but we also meet a young Roman soldier guarding a lonely outpost in "Hadrian's Wall," an executioner punctiliously manning his guillotine during the Reign Of Terror in "Sans Farine" (a story tapped by Stephen King for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2007), and in "Ancestral Legacies," Nazi mountain climbers yeti-hunting in Tibet. Just for starters.
Shepard's fame problem is demographic. He's a middle-aged, married white guy with kids. He's a college professor by day. Nine books deep in a long career you can't call him a "debut" anything. The publishing machine loves nothing more than hype. Unproven, talentless knuckleheads like Kaavya Visnawathan or James Frey or, ye gods, JT "Laura Albert" LeRoy have big checks thrown at them and then publishers have to dissemble and apologize when they turn out to be frauds. Shepard's personal life doesn't have any obvious edgy elements on which hype can be built. But here's all the hype you need: Jim Shepard is one of America's greatest underrecognized literary giants, and if you run out and buy a copy of Like You'd Understand, Anyway tomorrow, this will be your chance to tell all your friends you liked him before it became cool to say so.