“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.

-JR


JR: I’m all for a guy getting a story published in the New Yorker, and James P. Othmer, (FOB), is a fan of Ben Loory (he told me that he’s been reading these Loory stories aloud to his kids at night. Me? I read ‘Monster Trucks’ to my son, I make all the sounds, and this makes my son happy), but to be perfectly honest with you, I felt a little threatened by the story “TV”.  I’d been hearing things, you know, chatter on Facebook, and some people had mentioned this story to me, and that Ben Loory doesn’t have this book of short stories under contract. Like I said, it’s great this got published in a place that only publishes 52 stories a year, and when you publish Jonathan Lethem’s talking dog story, you’re running out of ideas.  Talking dog stories, do you see what I mean, how is that even possible? A dog that talks? It’s not even funny to pretend that dogs can talk. So, stories like TV should be published more often in the New Yorker, but since that’s the only place to get a story published, really, the only place that matters, then I guess it’s important.

So there’s this guy, he is at home, late for work, watching TV, and he can’t get up, because he sees himself on the TV, going to work. Now this could be a comment on our society, how we are defined by our public personas, or it could by mystical, or magical realism (see, I can’t tell the difference, just call it magic, or realism, don’t put them together, it confuses me), but immediately I’m thrown off by the fact that a guy, any guy, can see himself on the television set while he eats his morning cereal and not flip the fuck out.  He watches his TV self go to work and talk to his boss, and do his job, he sees himself doing it, and the self at home is happy because the TV self has gotten all the work done that the guy sitting at home is supposed to do.

Let’s look at this from birds eye view. Who is this guy? And why is he at home, and not at work? We don’t know. But he is really freaked out, and happy about the fact that there is someone out there doing what he does, while he sits at home. The guy at home even says, I’m trying to figure this out, and I can’t. He then, (later in the story) realizes that his mind is like a fist, and he’s afraid to look at it because it might fly away, okay, why? But, then the man who has been watching himself on TV finally hears someone coming home, and it’s the guy on TV, there are now two guys, the same guy, occupying the same space, and guess what, it’s totally tossed on it’s head. This story is like a snow globe, you shake it, the snow falls, and it falls in the same place, but it looks really great when it falls, because it’s beautiful, so you do it again, and again, and again.  But the snow never changes, and it always falls to the bottom of the snow globe.  Then the room gets filled with more guys who all look the same, running around, like it all matters so much that they are in the same room.  What? Then Loory has the guy imagine he’s a doctor performing surgery, and the surgery goes well, and he gets to screw the hottest nurse, because all nurses are hot, right? At this point, I read to the end of the story, and really got worried, that maybe I was slipping off the earth, you know, because somewhere out there, there is an edge to the world, right? Read the story and decide for yourself. I like Loory’s writing and I’ll bet this collection has already been scooped up, probably by FSG, but man, am I confused.