Jim Shepard does a bold and subversive thing in his new novel, Project X. Infiltrating the mind and burrowing beneath the skin of an eighth-grade outsider plotting a Columbine-type school shooting, he not only makes this potential marksman likeable and funny, but a wholly sympathetic character as well. Herein lies the power of this short, compelling book the fundamental understanding that the children who carry out these heinous crimes are nothing if not victims themselves.
Shepard is an accomplished, versatile novelist and short story writer, widely admired by other writers. He has written five previous novels, with such far-flung subjects as World War II and silent screen director F.W. Murnau, as well as a slew of short stories published in The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire and all the other places writers dream of being published (a collection of those stories, Love and Hydrogen, is just out from Vintage). So why has a wider readership eluded him? It just may be that Shepard's versatility has worked against him in a world where everything is neatly packaged and "branded."Project X, though, should gain Shepard new readers, despite its disturbing underpinnings. This timely story of two misguided kids bent on vengeance almost dares you to keep reading. And you do, wishing that the outcome were not inevitable, yet knowing that it is. Edwin, the diffident main character and narrator of the novel, approaches school each day with that hollow dread that many will remember from their own days in junior high. He's a smart kid not living up to his potential, but smart doesn't register on the adolescent social radar. Edwin's not popular, he's not an athlete, and his greatest talent art is channeled into satanic drawings in his notebook.
Whereas Edwin would probably sleepwalk through school rather than confront all who exclude him, his friend, Flake, is fanning a more burning hatred. It is Flake who comes up with the plan for a shooting rampage. Though he harbors doubts, Edwin agrees to the plan, largely to mollify Flake, whom he sees as his single ally in a heartless world.
The intense, if haphazard, scheme is what catapults the story toward its inescapable climax, but it is the reader's connection with Edwin that gives the novel its haunting resonance. Edwin is a kid who we have all known at one time or another, maybe even have been ourselves. He's not innately bad, his parents are not bad people, and for the most part his intentions are not malevolent. Indeed, his tenderness toward his preschool-aged brother belies any predisposition toward violence. And while he closes out his parents and other authority figures, there are moments when he visibly clings to their meager expressions of approval.
Edwin can never get his locker combination to work, never has anyone to sit with in the cafeteria, wants nothing more than a family trip to the beach. Not so different, really, from any 12-year-old. But, of course, he doesn't realize this, in part because the system that excludes him has drained him of self-reliance and replaced it with self-loathing. His eighth-grade world is far more daunting than it needs to be simply because everyone his parents, his teachers, his counselors, his peers fails to recognize the little boy within crying out for understanding. Shepard beautifully captures the way that teenagers talk, but more remarkably, he reminds those of us who are decades removed from that demographic, how they think. Too often when we hear about this kind of school violence, we find ourselves shaking our heads, lamenting that things have gotten so out of hand. But really, these desperate adolescent emotions have been around forever Hamlet, anyone? it's just the means of expression that have changed. That's a bigger issue than a 160-page novel can tackle, but Jim Shepard has provided some chilling insight into the root cause of this emotional turbulence. That he accomplishes this with so much compassion is the mark of a talented and wise writer. Robert Weibezahl's new book, A Second Helping of Murder: More Diabolically Delicious Recipes from Contemporary Mystery Writers, was recently published by Poisoned Pen Press.