Facts of Life
Jim Shepard casts his characters in the rising tide of history
You Think That's Bad:
by Jim Shepard
$24.95 List Price
There are a few constants in Jim Shepard's fiction. The first is disaster: war, divorce, scientific catastrophes, murder, acts of God. The second is primary-source research. Shepard is the only short-story writer I have ever read whose collections come with bibliographies as a matter of course. Along with your hearty helping of human drama, a Shepard story serves up all sorts of facts: about handgun specs, the Cenozoic Era, how it feels to be John Entwistle (bassist for the Who) or serve in a Roman-legion detachment to the British frontier. In "The Track of the Assassins," the legendary female explorer and travel writer Freya Stark treks across parts of Persia that at the time (1930) had hardly been seen by Western eyes: "The plain opened out before us, dotted every so often with far-off low mounds that I assumed to be buried cities. For three full days we encountered no trace of human beings save the occasional heap of stones arranged days or decades ago. While we rode Ismail sang a Kurdish song whose chorus was 'Because of my love / my liver is like a kabob.'"
In a few vivid sentences we are taken from the vastness of the desert to the coziness of the guide's goofy tune. Humor is Shepard's third constant: It humanizes his larger-than-life protagonists and helps keep his stories from becoming research papers. Though he has an obvious camaraderie with George Saunders, Karen Russell, and other leading lights of the absurdist-fabulist school, he is ineluctably a realist writer. The occasional mythical creature or rock band notwithstanding, his work is always in pursuit of