BY ERIC MARKOWSKY

Author: Jim Shepard

2011, Knopf

Filed Under: Short Stories, Historical, Horror, Literary.

You Think That’s Bad offers 11 stories inspired by a diverse array of subjects, from flood control and avalanche research to World War II and the Japanese film industry. Each one is thoroughly researched, tightly written, and full of compelling, hopeless characters. As a collection, though, You Think That’s Bad strikes the same emotional chord a little too often to make the whole something greater than its best parts.

One story is about a Black World operative who can’t talk to his wife. One is about a Dutch hydraulics engineer who can’t talk to his wife. There’s a particle physicist who can’t talk to his wife; there’s a Japanese special effects designer who can’t talk to his wife; there’s a Polish mountaineer who does a better job talking to his wife, but not nearly good enough to save either of them from himself. It’s tragic watching these obsessed men ruin their lives one after the other, but some things start to feel repetitive.

Each of the emotionally damaged specialists at the heart of these stories offers a distinct portrait of the unavailable husband. The Black World operative seems to thrive on keeping secrets for their own sake, while the Dutch hydraulics engineer just can’t seem to stop himself. At one point, he starts a secret bank account using an inheritance that he never tells his wife about. “What am I up to?” he asks the reader. “Your guess is as good as mine.” In different ways, they’re all likeable and infuriating.

But eventually—mostly after it’s too late for them or their spouses—they all come to some version of the same conclusion: that they should have said something; that they should have risked more; that they were hurting themselves as much as everyone else. All fair conclusions to draw from their mistakes, but each iteration decreases the tension from one story to the next. Is it going to work out this time? No. Somehow, it won’t.

On their own, each one of these stories is successful and compelling, mesmerizing in their expertise and deftly balanced with action and insight. “The Netherlands Lives with Water” appears in Best American Short Stories 2010, and “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” is an O’Henry Prize story for 2011, both with good reason. It’s just that once I started seeing a pattern, I found myself more drawn in by stories that broke it, like “Boys Town” and “Classical Scenes of Farewell.”

In “Boys Town,” Martin is back living with his mother after a middling military career and a botched marriage. He’d be more deserving of the reader’s sympathy if he weren’t so eager to ask for it. Almost everything he says contains a plea for someone to take his side. This is how he relates the time he pushed his wife down the stairs:

She was all like “You coulda killed me,” and I was like, “Hey: you shoved me first, and there was a railing, and there was carpet.” She said, “You don’t shove somebody at the top of the stairs,” and I said, “Well what did you do to me?”

You don’t have to read past the italics in the passage above to know what matters most to Martin. He stands out from the other emotionally damaged narrators in You Think That’s Bad by being far more fucked up and unrepentant. He’d be easier to dismiss if he didn’t have a point some of the time, and if he didn’t have a survivalist’s kit and a rifle.

“Classical Scenes of Farewell” is simply one of the most chilling stories I’ve ever read. It’s the story of Gilles de Rais, a homicidal fifteenth-century French noble, as told by one of his closest servants. It beats most horror movies for gore, but it’s the subtle indictments hidden in the language that keep me thinking back on it now. I won’t say anymore except that you should try to read it in one sitting. Preferably during the day.

For me, these two stories were the best in the collection, and not just because they stood apart from some of the other tales of obsession and personal loss. Every story here offers something to recommend it, but these stories took me to the greatest extremes, to places I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, and brought me back to a room that looked almost like the one I was in when I started reading them. They make me glad I have my own copy of You Think That’s Bad so I can go back to them someday when I get up the nerve.

Similar reads: Like You’d Understand, Anyway (Shepard), Werewolves in Their Youth: Stories (Chabon), Jesus’ Son (Johnson).

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