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A novel by Jim Shepard
A Non-review by
J. Stefan-Cole

I haven't followed the story aftermath, so I don't know what conclusions, if any, have been drawn from the Columbine High School shootings of a few years ago, or for any of the other teenage shootings that preceded or copied that horrific event. High school goth cliques, bullying, free-floating teenage angst and high rates of teen suicide, yeah, but does anyone know why kids execute murderous rages against their teachers and other kids? Jim Shepard has written a book, PROJECT X; Knopf, 2004, about a pair of junior high students who cook up just such a rampage and the first thing about the book that struck me was the planning.

It is one thing to fly off in a deadly rage and kill someone; jealously, fear, a moment's insanity where the emotions temporarily knock out reason, and quite another to plan a murder spree. Only warfare allows for premeditated murder in society. Think of it, a planned group-killing requires the weaponry, but also sufficient motive to last over time because you have to choose a setting to maximize advantage: assembly, gym, maybe study hall, someplace where kids and teachers are gathered in larger numbers than the classroom. You have to be very, very angry or very distraught, and way out of touch with something essential to stick to such a plan. Jim Shepard paints his protagonist, Edwin Hanratty (I'm sensing motive right there against parents who would give a kid a name like Edwin Hanratty to grow up with) as a smart but awkward boy who can't seem to make his intelligence felt in the world around him. He's fairly sensitive and good at art, and aside from an almost prepared obnoxiousness, he's sweet inside. He can't get the sweetness of his nature out either so he turns nasty and gets into fights. There is not much description offered but he's not a looker, not a kid the girls are going to go for at a time, puberty, when the self-image is guaranteed to take a bruising on a daily basis from the opposite sex. And Hanratty is a prince compared to his one friend in misery, Flake.

Flake brings out the worst in Hanratty, and he lacks a core that Hanratty has in spite of himself. Flake's parents are presented, much like the teachers at school, pretty much as cardboard figures that can't seem to hide their animosity toward these two losers. Flake lacks the visual talent of Hanratty, but it's a talent Hanratty doesn't sufficiently recognize so it can't pull him up. Flake has managed to acquire a little bit of cool, like an angry outsider anarchist in the making, but its second hand anarchism and coolness that does not make up for all that is missing. Hanratty, on the other hand, is kind to his three- year old brother. He liked watching Gus sleep when he was a tiny baby. He doesn't sleep much himself and quietly wanders that house at night like a lonely ghoul in the wee hours. I wondered how his parents missed that. Hanratty's mother seems okay. She asks him impossible questions, like why he can't get along with the other boys at school, but at least she asks and doesn't give up. More or less from the other kids to the teachers everyone reacts to Hanratty and Flake, and hardly anyone tries to interact. With Hanratty there are some art types, girls mostly, that appreciate his talent and they pull off a class project with him that gains some recognition, but too late to disrupt the plan he has somewhat haphazardly signed onto with Flake for just before Thanksgiving recess.

Other Book Reviews:

The Boy's Crusade
- Paul Fussell

Project X
- Jim Shepard

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
- Mark Haddon

A Company of Three
- Varley O'Connor
Come Closer
- Sara Gran

Morningside Heights
- Cheryl Mendelson

- Michel Houellebecq
The Usual Rules
- Joyce Maynard

Bangkok 8
- John Burdett

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

Being America
- Jebediah Purdy

Fresh Milk
- Fiona Gile

The Man with the Dancing Eyes
- Sophie Dahl

The Stone Virgins
- Yvonne Vera

The Murdering
of My Years

- Mickey Z

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

"'So you wanna check out my dad's guns?' he goes."
That's how Flake brings up the topic, out of the blue, after he and Haratty have been whooped once again, this time by ninth graders defending a friend Hanratty had insulted in detention. Hanratty was kicked in the tailbone, and he's sitting on a cushion in Flake's room after school the next day. I have to stop right here and wonder about the guns. Yes, it happens, especially outside of the city, parents keep guns in places they think their children are not going to look. But who doesn't know that kids eventually snoop into everything? How else are they supposed to grow up? Harder to believe maybe in the suburbs, but the guns are there, there's no book without them. I have to stop again here because I think there could have been a book without them. This is a very short novel, much of it in the form of dialogue (and dialogue takes up a lot of space), but I thought Edwin Hanratty had enough going as a character to take the book in a slightly different direction. To that point, I think the ending may lack a little. Jim Shepard wanted to write a Columbine, an inside the heads of kids that could do a "Columbine" story, and that goal cancelled out some other interesting possibilities. Which is not to say the book is bad; the dialogue zings and is often painfully funny. I don't know how the writer got into Hanratty and Flake so fully but his ear is pitch perfect, and there is truth to these characters.

"'What kind's he got?' I go. It's not like I've never seen a gun.
'Guns,' Flake goes. 'More than one.'' Okay,' I go. 'What kinds?'
[They go to Flake's parent's room, to his father's closet.]
'This one's a carbine,' he tells me. 'It's from WW Two.'
'WW Two?' I go. I can't get comfortable on my butt so end up on my hands and knees.
'Shut up,' he says.
'And what's this?' I ask him.
'That's a Kalishnikov,' he goes.
I get off the bed to pick it up, and swing it around with the butt on my shoulder, aiming at the ceiling. It feels like a parking meter.
'Russian,' he says.
'Duh,' I go.
[Flake tells Hanratty guns are a new hobby for his dad who has gone to a gun show the week before. Hanratty asks if there are any bullets. Of course there are, in another hiding place.]
The next night he calls when I'm brushing my teeth. My butt's still killing me. I think it might be broken. 'You thinking what I'm thinking,' he asks.
'What are you thinking?' I ask. The mint in the toothpaste stings the scabs in my lip.
'I think you are thinking what I'm thinking,' he goes.
I get sweaty for a minute and then it stops. 'That is like those kids at that Colorado school,' I tell him.
'Not the way we're gonna do it,' he goes.
'What was that school called?' I go.
'What're you, the evening news?' he goes. 'You want to do this thing or not?'"

And that's it, a nightmare is born. Casually. A moment to get caught up in, a loss of future, unfocussed resentment, no perspective, gonna live forever, might as well die now adolescent angst. Flake and Hanratty knew about Columbine and that failed to put on the breaks. It's believable, the casualness, and the reader naturally thinks, no way they are going through with it. I asked myself while reading POJECT X what were Lee Malvo and John Muhammad thinking between deadly snipes at people they did not know? How did that get started? What were their conversations like? Those killings went on for weeks. Did they go to the movies in between? Did they say things like, nice shot, to each other? Lee Malvo was not much older than Hanratty and Flake, three or four years. Life went on at the junior high. Hanratty is late for class all the time because he can never get the combination lock on his locker to work. A brilliant touch, like a running joke, and the teachers never believe him, think he makes it up about his lock. He's so uncomfortable in his skin he can't even get his locker open. "We have combination locks for our lockers. Every day I get worried I'm not going to be able to open it. That's what kind of hopeless feeboid pussy I am-I worry about being able to open my locker." Sometimes he has to go to class without his books. He mostly tells the truth, but no one seems to know how to believe him.

Junior High and High School, they can be like rings in Dante's hell, all the stuff that goes on, the confusion, the petty injustices, and the sheer awkwardness of molting out of childhood. Difficult enough without weapons. PROJECT X will not tell you why kids do Columbines, but the picture Jim Shepard paints of Hanratty and his friend Flake could serve as a wake up call to some seriously oblivious teachers and parents to try harder. A lot harder.

©February 2004 J. Stefan-Cole


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