“Boys Town” by Jim Shepard from the collection You Think That’s Bad
I’ve always come across Jim Shepard’s work, he pops up every other year or so, sometimes I find myself reading his stories, other times I completely miss them. When I miss his collections I feel horrible, but this time around the nice people at Knopf sent me an early copy of his new collection, You Think That’s Bad, which will be published in March of next year. Books are rarely sent to me unsolicited, Harper Perennial and Knopf are the exceptions, I like what they publish, they know what I like to read, and both houses recognize the power of early buzz from the blogsphere. That being said, when I do get something sent to me, I usually tear right through it. With this collection I read a few stories and then more things got sent my way, and before I knew it, this book was sitting in a pile.
Then the New Yorker published “Boys Town by Jim Shepard”, one of the finest stories I’ve ever read, in last week’s issue. It’s nice to see someone who is not on the “chosen list” of writers getting his due in those pages. They also ran a great profile on Elvis Costello, and I toggled back and forth between the two, while I worked my second job at the gas station. “Boys Town” will take your breath away, it’s quick tongue, fast and nasty conversations will keep you wondering when things will break open. The narrator has just returned from the war, the only war that matters to anyone anymore, Iraq. Something is wrong with him, as his days are spent at home with his mother who is fed up with his bullshit, and has only a few nice things to say to him when she’s not tearing him a new asshole for being a lazy bastard. You’ll be drawn to this man’s point of view, he’s not someone you can like, but without a doubt he’s someone you can fear, and I suspect you’d cross the street to avoid him. He’s become a survivalist, or at least brags that he can live in the wild, and tells stories about his cache of weapons he keeps stashed in the woods. From the outside world our narrator gets calls from his ex-wife who is looking for child support, and heartbreaking messages from his son who is trying to connect with his father. I was instantly drawn to this man, even though it seemed he was on a path of destruction, or self isolation. He has returned from battle to a world that’s forgotten all about him, and hasn’t really changed since he left, but certainly, something has changed inside him.
There is a scary turn of events that unfolds so fast you’ll have to go back and read the story again. As things quickly fall apart for our war hero, he begins to use his gun to gain the attention of everyone around him. There are very few stories in The New Yorker that hold on as tight as this one did, and kept me hoping that things would work out for the best, but like life, things sometimes end badly. I was looking ahead to see if he died, or was beaten to a pulp, and wished he’d be able to disappear in the woods like he planned. The last time I felt this good about a story, or a collection of stories, was Sam Shepard’s collection Day Out of Days, and the story that made the pages of the New Yorker, which I talk about here. Wait I lied, of course, there was Vanishing and Other Stories, which I also loved, but ultimately unless you’re on a star map, you don’t get a shot at The New Yorker.