Book Review: Like You’d Understand Anyway by Jim Shephard

I don’t often read short story collections. My rhythms, I guess, are more geared towards the novel. And most of the short stories I read are in magazines or journals, not in collections where one follows the other. But I did pick up and read Jim Shepherd’s  Like You’d Understand, Anyway.

Someone once explained a short-story to me like this: imagine a brick wall is a person’s life. A short-story is just one of the bricks removed. We have little real knowledge of the bricks surrounding this one brick, just the one. solitary brick. Just this moment in a person’s life.  I don’t how accurate this is for all stories (it’s very Joycean) but I refer to it often.

Well, Jim Shephard’s stories are pieces not of a brick wall but from an extraordinary mural. The stories are all over the place and all over time.

There is a general fatalistic theme running through them, a feeling of being unprepared, unsuited, or even uninterested in facing the battles of life. And if that sounds like a very modern view of the world, it is.  Except Shepards’s characters are from all over history.

“Eros 7,” my particular favorite, is a sweet love story taken from the diary of a female cosmonaut in 1963, the early days of the  Russian-US space race.

“Hadrian’s Wall” is a sensitive look at young soldier in the Roman legion–lacking confidence and skill–as he is stationed in 2nd-century Britain.

There are stories that take place during the Chernobyl accident, during the French Reign of Terror, during an early ascent of the Himalayan peaks, during the 19th-century days of Australian exploration.

But there are also simple domestic stories. “Proto Scorpions of the Silurian” depicts a young man trying to deal with his overwrought parents who, in turn, are trying to cope with his mentally unbalanced brother. Another story,  “Courtesy for Beginnings,” shows a young boy who is terribly miserable at a horrible summer camp but who is forced to console his parents by phone who are also struggling with an unbalanced sibling.

But whether in Ancient Greece or modern Connecticut, each of these stories brings a modern sensibility of doubt, isolation and struggle. Each is a sensitive portrayal of a character far different than most of us, but very similar all the same.