A HANDBOOK FOR DROWNING: Stories by David Shields


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Uneven but often alluring stories, though many of them read like outtakes from Dead Languages, Shields's ambitious 1989 novel of a son's growing up under the stressful nurturing of eccentric parents who were also passionately liberal intellectuals. The names here are changed, but the progressive parents reappear--the mother an unflaggingly committed journalist (who, again, will face death by cancer), the father a more rumpled kind of idealist who covers local sports for neighborhood papers and is undyingly fixated on the injustice of the Rosenberg case. As for son Walt Jaffe, the parental combination of high ideals with the vagaries of human misjudgment and weakness has the same confusing impact it had on the son in Dead Languages--and here are 24 elegantly rendered, frequently tormented, and often amusing glimpses of the hypersensitive and thoughtful Walt's early initiations into sex (""Gookus Explains the Eternal Mysteries""; ""A Brief Summary of Ideal Desire""); of his growing awareness of political complexities and failures (""The War on Poverty""; ""The Sixties""; ""War Wounds""); the moral imperatives of pacifism and of death (""The Gun in the Grass as Your Feet""; ""The Sheer Joy of Amoral Creation""); and even of his rather youthful and fictionally somewhat self-consciously belabored marriage (""The Imaginary Dead Baby Sea Gull""; ""The Moon, Falling""). There's no doubt of Shields's richness, energies, and talent, but there's none, either, of his debts here to others--from Leonard Michaels (to whom in fact one piece is dedicated) on through the entropic fictions and satires of Beattie, Barthelme, Salinger, even Hemingway. An offering of compellingly skilled stories, then, but not the wished-for staking out of new terrain. As to the estimable achievement of Dead Languages, what's here is a little bit like finding a plate of hors d'oeuvres after the dinner is already eaten.

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1992
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Knopf