'You Think That's Bad': Fiction Of The Unfamiliar

You Think That's Bad: Stories
You Think That's Bad: Stories
By Jim Shepard
Hardcover, 240 pages
Knopf
List Price: $24.95

Author Jim Shepard writes what he knows, but he also likes to write what he doesn't know. His novel Project X was about a Columbine-like school shooting from the perspective of one of the kids involved. His story Love and Hydrogen concerns a clandestine gay romance between two crew members of the Hindenburg.

In You Think That's Bad, his newest collection of short stories, Shepard examines an array of typically diverse subjects and characters. There are an African-American operations specialist from the military, a British woman who goes exploring in Iran in the 1930s, a Japanese filmmaker from the 1950s, and a 15th century French nobleman who happens to be a serial killer.

"I think literature is, in some ways, about the exercise of the empathetic imagination," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "I'm always interested in stretching that capacity. ... I'm interested in engaging the world and trying to enlarge my own experience. So I'm not only looking to reflect my own inner turmoil — which I'm certainly doing — but I'm also looking to teach myself about the world — and teach the reader as I do it."

To make sure his prose accurately reflects his subject matter, Shepard immerses himself in primary documents and consults with scholars on the campus of Williams College, where he teaches. But sometimes — as in the story "The Netherlands Lives With Water," which is set in 2030 — he simply uses background research to help further his imagination. In that particular story, Shepard writes about a civil engineer who is dealing with two major disasters: a massive flood threatening the country's future and a split with his wife.

Jim Shepard is a professor of creative writing and film at Williams College. i i

Jim Shepard is a professor of creative writing and film at Williams College. Michael Lionstar/Knopf hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Lionstar/Knopf
Jim Shepard is a professor of creative writing and film at Williams College.

Jim Shepard is a professor of creative writing and film at Williams College.

Michael Lionstar/Knopf

"I knew that I was interested in the challenges facing cities with climate change ... and I was quite moved with how proactive and energetic the Dutch [are]," he says. "They're doing all of the right things in order to prepare for what's coming and I was quite moved by the likelihood that all of those things aren't going to work anyway. So the tension of doing everything but refusing to face what's coming down the road seemed quite powerful — and also like the sort of thing that I could embody in the man's personal life as well."

Imminent catastrophes, both in personal lives and the outside world, are present in many of Shepard's stories as well as his collection's title, You Think That's Bad. The pessimistic outlook, he says, was fully intentional.

"[The title] does seem to embody some of the characters' worldviews," he says. "[It's like saying,] 'Wait until you see what's coming.' "

Excerpt: 'You Think That's Bad: Stories'

You Think That's Bad: Stories
You Think That's Bad: Stories
By Jim Shepard
Hardcover, 240 pages
Knopf
List Price: $24.95
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some readers might find offensive.

Happy with Crocodiles

Her envelope had hearts where the o's in my name should have been and I tore it open and read her letter right there in the sun. The V-Mail was like onionskin and in the humidity you spent all your time peeling sheets apart and flapping them dry. Two guys who'd been waiting behind me for their mail passed out and fell over. Our CO had orders to keep everyone under some sort of shade until further notice. That was it in terms of his responsibilities for the day. But the mail hadn't caught up to us since Port Moresby so even this one load pulled most of us out around the truck.

The guy next to me spat on the back fender just to watch it sizzle. As far as we could tell, we were the only four companies not getting any beach breezes, and we'd been sitting through this for two weeks and were pretty much wiped out to a man. Guys just lay in the bush with their feet sticking out onto the trail. The Bren gun carrier already looked like a planter, it was so overgrown. Almost nothing was running because the lubricating oils ran off or evaporated. We'd lost half our water when the heat dissolved the jerry cans' enamel lining. Two unshaded shells farther down the trail had exploded. The tents accumulated heat like furnaces. The midday sun raised blisters on an arm in ten minutes. One of the medics timed it. Everybody lost so much fluid and salt that we had ice-pick headaches or down-on-all-fours dry heaves and cramping. Turning your head wasn't worth the effort. Pickets got confused and shot at anything. A few facing the afternoon sun on the water went snowblind from the glare and didn't bother to report it until relieved.

At least the Japs were lying low, too. I had a palm-frond bush hat but even through that the sun beat on my head like a mallet.

The first paragraph was all about how good it was to hear I was okay. It made her whole day easier, apparently. The second said "To answer your question, no, I didn't see your brother when he was home on leave." But he'd already written that she had. And then he'd left it at that.

"Get out of the sun, Foss," the CO called.

One of the guys who'd passed out came to and staggered back to his tent. The other guy just lay there. The guy behind me got handed a Christmas package, but whatever was in it was smashed flat and melted besides. He picked over it standing in the truck cab's shadow.

The PFC dishing out the mail was clearly hacked off that he had to do it right there on the trail. There was one good patch of shade from a clump of coconut palms and no one was budging out of it to let him park his truck. He called a name and if someone didn't answer right away he pitched the letter or package over the side and went on to the next one. He was wearing a bush helmet and on the back of it someone had drawn a woman with her legs spread and written "Your Mother Says Hi" across the brim.

The third paragraph went on to something else as though that was the end of it. So-and-so said such-and-such about a friend of hers, could I believe that?

"What do you need, a road map?" my friend Leo said when I asked him about it.

"What?" I asked, like I already knew. "What do you think you think is going on?"

"What do I think I think is going on?" he asked, and the rest of Dog Company, a little ways farther off the trail, laughed. We'd heard that Baker and Fox Companies had been bombed with daisy cutters the night before, so we were working on two-man slit trenches, and in the close quarters entrenching tools kept whipping by people's ears. "I think the two of them spend a lot of time agreeing on what a great guy you are. I think it makes them sad for you and they cry together in their beer. And then I think he's sticking his dick in her."

"What's wrong with him?" our staff sergeant asked Leo while we redug our slit trenches the next morning. As if everybody else was the picture of contentment. If it rained at all during the night we lost like a foot and a half of depth to the mud.

"He's jealous of his brother," Leo told him.

"His brother better-lookin' than him?" the staff sergeant asked, amused.

"I've seen knotholes better-lookin' than him," Leo told him.

"Why would he think it was about looks?" I asked him later.

"Why wouldn't he think I was jealous of something else?"

"Where the heck is chow?" Leo wondered. Guys were milling around the bivouac, waiting. You could always tell when a hot meal was late, because everybody started acting like zoo animals.

We were the Second Battalion, 126th Infantry, 32nd Division, Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard, here in New Guinea all of fourteen days and — leave it to the Army — apparently the spearhead of General MacArthur's upcoming drive to dislodge what everyone agreed were two divisions of the world's most fearsome jungle fighters from one of the world's most impenetrable jungles.

Two of us hadn't hit puberty yet. Three of us couldn't see without our glasses, and our hygiene officer couldn't see with them. Before this, only one of the Wisconsin guys had been out of the state. We were fifteen miles from the nearest hut and a hundred and fifty from the nearest civilization, in the form of the mostly uninhabited northeastern Australian coast. We were ten thousand miles from home.

We'd trained in South Carolina, which didn't prepare us much for jungle fighting but did its bit in getting us ready for the humidity. Any number of us couldn't keep up during the double-time drills, which meant we had to run around the entire battalion area three times with knapsacks full of grenades. At one point our unit was first in the entire camp in hospitalizations.

We just weren't crackerjack soldiers. Guys who panicked every morning about climbing into full field dress and getting their beds made in time for reveille and inspection started sleeping already dressed and under their beds. We were each scored on particular skills and then all classified as riflemen anyway and herded onto transports and shipped out. Once we got through the Panama Canal the ships were under orders to never stop moving, so anybody who fell overboard would have to take care of himself. We slept in the holds in canvas hammocks slung in tiers of four from the support beams. The top slot was so close to the metal ceiling that if you tried to see your feet you cracked your head. Everything smelled of socks or farts or armpit. Weapons were stowed in baggage racks and anything else got dumped on the floor. In the exact middle of the trip everyone was issued five dollars, a huge morale builder with the dice and card players. Some guys slept on deck because of the smell or because they figured they'd have a better shot of getting off if the boat was torpedoed. Like that would've mattered: all the cargo was high explosives. The whole stern hold was mostly gasoline in seventy-gallon drums.

We had one fifty-caliber mounted aft for protection. If we'd been attacked by three guys in a motor launch, we would've been A-OK.

We were only in Australia a week when we were told to pack up for New Guinea. We were playing baseball with some Kiwis when we heard. Leo was in the batter's box when they called the game. He dropped his bat in the dirt and said, "Shit. I can hit this guy."

When we got within range of the coast, the smell of everything rotting was so strong that we could pick it up before the shore was even in sight. "What is that?" Leo asked. We were all hanging on the cable railings. "That's the jungle," one of the LCT pilots told him. "What's wrong with it?" Leo asked, and the guy laughed. It was like you could taste the germs in the air. Nobody on deck wanted to open his mouth.

It took our pathfinders an hour just to locate the trailhead that supposedly led inland. If you stepped five yards into the wall of leaves, you disappeared completely. All the barracks bags had to be left behind for the hump, so we carried only our weapons and ammo, knives, quinine tablets, mosquito lotion, canteens, and canvas water buckets. Everything else was left to the bearers. Our first night was spent in an old Aussie camp that was mostly a supply dump, camouflaged. Since Leo and I couldn't sleep we watched the natives file in carrying everything on poles on their shoulders. They looked scrawny, but judging by the loads they were plenty strong. I tried out some sign language on one. "You need something?" the guy asked when I finished.

They made their own pile and then went off the trail to sleep by themselves. Fifteen of them took like three steps and disappeared. Leo fell asleep too, finally. Then it was just me, listening to the bugs.

Excerpted from You Think That's Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard. Copyright 2011 by Jim Shepard. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved.

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