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Shepard's postcards from the edge

Glimpses of the extreme, and the all-too-human

Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and two other story collections. Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and two other story collections. (BARRY GOLDSTEIN)

Like You'd Understand, Anyway
By Jim Shepard
Knopf, 211 pp., $23

Jim Shepard's work has always felt a bit like a brief and terrifying roller-coaster that spits you out the other end thrilled and breathless, yet wondering why you wanted to be shot into such a dark cave of tracks in the first place. "Project X," his anxious 2004 novel, told the story of a Columbine-like school shooting. His short stories have wormed their way aboard the Hindenburg, beneath Communist revolutions, and into the mind of John Ashcroft, even.

Shepard's latest collection, "Like You'd Understand, Anyway," recently nominated for the National Book Award, has an even wider range of field, its title practically daring readers to object to how far outside our world Shepard has gone this time. Indeed, he can now count Aeschylus, the first female cosmonaut, and the willing executioner of the French Revolution among his narrators. Read the book slowly enough, and you will believe every one of them.

"Like You'd Understand, Anyway" is made up almost entirely of fictional testimonies from situations that quickly disintegrate - and it's not hard to keep reading out of simple rubbernecking. "The Zero Meter Diving Team" tells the story of the Chernobyl disaster, diary-style; "The First South Central Australian Expedition" recounts an explorer's ill-fated march into the aboriginal desert and the spiritual desolation that befalls him when it begins to fail.

Even the stories that don't feel like dispatches from a definitely dangerous or unusual front are exactly that in disguise. "Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak" high-steps through a high schooler's football season, while "Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay" plots the trajectory of a marriage's coming rupture against the backdrop of a natural disaster, which ruined the coast of Alaska.

Shepherd is a terrific mimic, and manages to give each one of his narrators a slightly different voice, wrinkling some stories with subtle irony, lending others the pomp and swagger of a professional boxer before a bouquet of journalist's microphones. When a team's opposing center says, "You boys don't tackle all that well," to the narrator of "Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak," he and his teammate pay the kid back with a rough tackle. "We stayed over him while the trainers worked on him. 'You boys don't stay conscious all that well,' Wainright told him when he came to."

The story transcends mere ventriloquism because Shepard finds a crack in this macho edifice and fingers it until his scared and deeply hurt young narrator comes apart. In fact, each one of these stories illustrates how much characters reveal when they begin speaking, be it to themselves or to an off-stage listener.

The inner life, in Shepard's view, is by nature always at odds with the world. That is the reason, after all, for a diary - not simply to record the world, but to record the tumult one feels in observing it. This also explains why fictional diaries can be so riveting. One has to intuit or anticipate what the diarist is responding to, how much gloss he or she is applying, since we haven't the same frame of register.

As clever as this form is, perform it well too many times in a row and it comes dangerously close to a routine. Even after the best story in this collection - the haunting and quietly majestic "The First South Central Australian Expedition" - it's hard to move on to the next story without marveling a little wearily: another fictional first-person testimony?

The best way to mitigate this reaction with "Like You'd Understand, Anyway" is to read the book very slowly, one story a week or perhaps even less. The characters Shepard has brought to life contain multitudes, incredible contradictions; it would be a shame to not give them their space to tell their stories, to take in their moments of wry humor or lyric fancy. "This coma of riding," says one of them after a long day's journey; "when she speaks to me, she holds the family before us like a pleasing little stove," says another.

What's most remarkable about these stories, in the end, is how gently Shepard wraps the most extremely foreign and obscure events around emotional dilemmas common to all of us. A soldier guarding Hadrian's Wall worries about his father's legacy; an ornithologist sent on a mission to prove the Führer's connection to Nordic races is blinded by opportunistic careerism. The truth is we should understand this entire menagerie of characters. Scrape away the singular, perfectly detailed lives Shepard has given them and one thing is clear: They are us.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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