So varied in tone, theme, voice and setting are these stories that they might’ve been written by a hydra. A hydra, that is, surfeited with remarkable wit, compassion and the gift of gab.
The Great Australian Desert, Chernobyl, Beaumont, Texas, the plain of Marathon and “the roof of the world,” Tibet’s Kunlun Mountains and the Trans-Himalayas—Shepard (Project X, 2004, etc.) seems to have been everywhere. Readers will feel that they have too after a saturation in his terrific third collection. As Boris Yakovlevich Prushinsky, engineer of the Depatment of Nuclear Energy in “The Zero Meter Diving Team,” with the head-in-the-sand finesse of a Soviet functionary, oversees a boo-boo that wastes Mother Russia (kids getting mouth cancer, deaths in the untold thousands), we’re given a stern, black-humor lesson: “Science requires victims.” In “Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian,” a seventh grader, home sick from school, watching “Jonathan Winters on Merv Griffin, doing his improv thing with a stick,” learns another kind of heartbreak, playing with his brother stricken with a strange disease and hair “falling out because of the medication.” Felicius Victor, son of the centurion Annius Equestor, guards Hadrian’s Wall in the province of Britannia and has a jeweler’s squint for detail, telling us about everything from his “small shrine erected to Viradecthis” to his diet (hare, broadbeans, coriander). He’s also clear-eyed about conquest: “We make a desolation and we call it peace.” In “Sans Farine,” Charles-Henri Sanson, aka “the Keystone of the Revolution,” wrestles with his conscience during the Reign of Terror as well as “the emptied bran sacks [that] hold the severed heads.” Freakishly erudite, Shepard writes fiction that glories in the sheer too-muchness of life—its superabundance of emotion, incident and sensory delight.