In a first-rate gathering of 22 stories, bizarre premises drawn from history and popular culture share space with moving examinations of deranged family dynamics.
Of those reprints from Shepard’s first collection, Batting Against Castro (1996), the standouts are the title story’s elliptical view of pre-Castro Cuba as experienced by a jaded former major leaguer, a chilling picture of a violently sexist football superstar (“Messiah”), and a tale of fraternal rivalry and misunderstanding that makes deft use of a science-fiction boys’ game played with trading cards. The eight newer pieces likewise range widely and well, from a disturbing “ripping yarn” about a Tasmanian scientist’s compulsive pursuit of a monstrous prehistoric shark (“Astounding Stories”) to a (really quite ingenious) explanation of the human technical failings that caused the explosion of the Hindenburg (“Love and Hydrogen”). Elsewhere, a marriage burdened and strengthened by the presence of a sick child is thrown into relief by a couple’s participation in the making of a historical film epic (“Alicia and Emmett with the 17th Lancers at Balaclava”); “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” offers his version of the story told by the popular B-movie; and “John Ashcroft: More Important Things Than Me” finds a complex humanity in the much-maligned Attorney General’s stoical conservatism. Even better are such unconventional domestically oriented stories as that of a suburban husband held hostage by his armed and resentful wife (“The Gun Lobby”), a teenaged narrator’s revelation of how his emotionally combative family is held together by his irrepressibly vital father (“The Mortality of Parents”), and a high-achieving volcanologist’s guilty confession of distancing himself from his troubled older sibling, a misfit “too disturbed to function and not disturbed enough to be put away.” The latter in particular is a classic example of a story informed and energized by a brilliant central metaphor.
Adventurous and enthralling work from one of the most interesting of all contemporary American writers. (See below.)