Death and the afterlife are predominant themes in these seven tales from Shepard (Valentine, 2002, etc.).
“Only Partly Here,” set during the cleanup at ground zero after 9/11, features a ghost searching for—closure? In “A Walk in the Garden,” a bomb blows open a cavern in an Iraqi hillside, revealing a vast field of strange yellow flowers; the locals see it as the Islamic Paradise, but to the American soldiers ordered to advance into its demon-haunted immensities, calling it Hell seems more appropriate. Still, Islam, unlike Christianity, offers the chance to escape from Hell, or so Specialist Charles N. Wilson will learn. And in the title piece, a Mephistophelean Muscovite nightclub owner has built his own private afterlife—so gumshoe Viktor Chemayev discovers as he attempts to buy the freedom of the woman he loves, while fending off an Irish assassin and the paradoxical advice of his boss. Elsewhere, an African dictator’s toxic curse seeps into the rivers, turning humans into half-crocodiles. A Central American war hero helps an American journalist who has proof of a powerful secret policeman’s horrific proclivities in “The Drive-In Puerto Rico,” a story that includes one of the all-time oddest death scenes, a suffocation by lizards. Central to “Jailwise” is Diamond Bar, an existential prison where concrete walls turn into dazzling art works, cell bars metamorphose into gold and both inmates and guards seek punishment or redemption as they choose. And a rich, ageless, sex-obsessed FBI woman—maybe she’s an alien, or an abductee—and her two weird sidekicks mesmerize a violent ex-con and his needy girlfriend.
Shepard’s mastery of technique, surrealism and sheer spectacle blazes forth, but beneath the razzle-dazzle lies—nothing much.