A novel by Jim Shepard
A Non-review by
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
"'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
[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
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