The recent school shootings that have lodged in the American consciousness as a recurring dark nightmare inspire a powerful fictional counterpart in Shepard’s vivid, frightening sixth novel.
The narrator is 14-year-old Edwin Hanratty, an underachieving eighth-grader whose studied disrespect for all things adult and eloquent foul mouth instantly remind us of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. “I’m the kid you think about when you want to make yourself feel better,” he ruefully confides. Indeed, everything in his life is either irritant or disappointment. Teachers and older classmates are out to get him; girls simultaneously attract and annoy him. Five-year-old brother Gus asks too many questions. His mom smothers him with understanding, while his college-teacher dad affects the sangfroid of a sarcastic disciplinarian. An elderly “pervert” in a car is stalking Edwin and his best (make that only) friend Roddy (a.k.a. “Flake”); worse, a pushy sixth-grader, Hermie, wants to hang with them. Shepard’s grasp of the roiling, unstable psychology of adolescence couldn’t be sharper, and he leads us skillfully through his protagonists’ embattled days, until the one when Flake shows Edwin his father’s guns, and begins to hatch the plan that Edwin (a dreamy kid whose random drawings express fantasies of theoretical violence) comes to think of as their “Project X.” This spare narrative is fleshed out with deft foreshadowings (e.g., a lamebrained plot to infect their school’s ventilation system with toxic “bug powder”) and mordantly amusing vignettes, such as a confrontation with Hermie’s “enemy” during which Flake and Edwin identify themselves as Ed Gein and Richard Speck. The climax is a swift, stunning chaos of uncoordinated actions and responses, in which Flake fulfills his sociopathic dreams appallingly, and Edwin—eternally the kid who never finishes what he starts—silently despairs “I’m a joke . . . a house burning down from the inside out.”
A story “ripped from the headlines” and transformed into a bitter, gemlike work of art. (See above.)