The beginner's guide to author Jim Shepard 

About 10 years ago, I sat down at the Union Club to interview Jim Shepard, UM's Engelhard Writer in Residence at the time and, in my view, the greatest living American fiction writer (short story division), and over two or three rounds of whiskey, I did my very best to get an answer to a question that puzzled me then and puzzles me still.

Why isn't this man famous? Why doesn't he have a vast and loyal readership? How can someone be such a brilliant writer and not be a more commercially successful one? How had I made it through four years of college as an English major without ever once hearing his name? Why weren't people going door to door handing out copies of his books as a public service?

Reading his most recent collection of stories, The World to Come, I found myself asking the same questions, in part because I didn't get any satisfying answers when I put them to the man in person. In graduate writing programs, they speak of Shepard like he's a messiah. In strip mall bookstores, they ask you to spell his name before they offer to order you a copy. As much as I prodded him on this awareness gap and the possible explanations for it, he just didn't seem to care.

"The world leaves me alone and I get to do whatever I want," Shepard said, "which is pretty great."

His latest collection finds him doing what he's always done, namely, ranging all over the map of human experience with a blend of empathy and imagination that somehow makes you forget you're reading fiction and not peering directly into the thoughts of another living person.

This is Shepard's great magic trick. He writes as easily and naturally about a modern-day public relations executive as he does about a budding feminist on the 19th-century Australian frontier. He reminds you that the freight train conductor who worries about lax government regulations and his relationship with his estranged brother is not so different from the sailor on a British Royal Navy submarine in World War II who worries about carbon monoxide poisoning and the fickle affections of his cousin back home in London.

They're all just people, dragging around their little cargoes of failure and triumph, trying to find room inside themselves for those they've loved and disappointed. They're like us, so why shouldn't we be able to understand them, at least as much as we think we understand anyone?

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What makes reading Shepard such a pleasure is how well he knows and loves human beings, and how fully he can render them in only a few brush strokes.

In a story about two New England farm wives, a character remarks about a peer that "the woman's few ideas were like marbles on a level floor: they had no power to move themselves but rolled equally well in whichever direction you pushed them."

In another, Shepard lapses into the second person to transport us to the scene of a volcanic eruption, circa 1600 B.C., where the Bronze Age residents of Crete watch helplessly as the sea recedes before them, gathering itself into a deadly tsunami:

"Your boy finds you, since you've done so little to find him. He asks what's happening. He asks what you're going to do. He asks as if the very extent of your love and responsibility might carry with it sufficient power to avert even something like this. He reminds you that you have to run, and you understand him to mean that though you won't reach safety, you could maybe reach your home, his mother and your wife."

If there's any weakness at all here, it's that some of these stories fall into a structure familiar to longtime readers of Shepard's work. Five story collections and seven novels in, the blueprint for a Jim Shepard story begins to emerge. In this collection as in others, we see the same obsessive types whirling down the drain of some calamity they can't quite avoid, whether it's domestic or historic, reaching out for insight or closure just as forces much greater than themselves assert a final superiority.

The irony is that Shepard's lack of commercial success has sometimes been attributed to his lack of a signature style or focus. You try to recommend him to people and they ask, "Well, what kind of stuff does he write?" With some other, more conventionally successful author, you could say, "crime stuff" or "vampire stuff" or "multi-generational mother-daughter stuff."

With Shepard, all you can really say is "good stuff." Stuff about people and how they live, now and then and forever. Stuff crafted with such loving detail that in the span of 20 pages, he can create a world that feels as rich and full as the one we know. Amazing stuff.

The problem is, who's going to believe you when you say that? Are they supposed to take your word for it? How good could this guy really be if they haven't even heard of him?

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