"You Think That's Bad: Stories" (Alfred A. Knopf), by Jim Shepard: There is a type of man who populates Jim Shepard's latest collection of short stories. He is sensitive, educated, perceptive, empathic and deeply grateful to his wife or girlfriend for sex.
He seems to be an enlightened soul, except he lives happily never after. His relationships unravel, or he ends up dying in the most horrific way. Something _ an unexamined attachment to work, ambition, danger, money, a memory of the past _ sabotages his good intentions and leads him inexorably into dark alleys of despair.
The women in Shepard's stories, on the other hand, are exemplars of moral and emotional intelligence. Like the men, they are very smart, empathic and not incidentally, sexy in an impossibly frank and uninhibited way. Once these women decide to have children with these damaged men, the usual ambivalence that everyone has about life, relationships and choices disappears. The children _ their needs, their wants, their emotional and physical well-being _ come first.
If this sounds formulaic, it is, a bit. And the formula doesn't apply in every story. It also doesn't diminish in any way the thrill of reading this eclectic and eccentric collection of stories, whose subjects range from an engineer who does "black ops" for a U.S. spy agency to the special-effects director who created Godzilla.
Shepard has a gift for creating entirely believable plots and characters in realms that are alien to most readers. The worlds he constructs usually require detailed knowledge of historical events or scientific disciplines. One story, "The Netherlands Lives With Water," is set in the near future, when global warming has unleashed flooding and storms of biblical proportion, and Europe is looking to the Dutch _ whose flat, low-lying country has been trying to hold back the North Sea for centuries _ for the technology to keep the continent dry.
Another story is set on the frigid slopes of the Swiss Alps, where a team of four men is studying how to defend against avalanches. Yet another is about a group of Polish mountaineers trying to scale the ninth highest mountain in the world in winter. Why winter? "Soviet restrictions on travel throughout the postwar period ensured that Poles missed out on the first ascents of all the highest peaks but we solved the problem by resorting to the unthinkable: climbing in winter," the narrator tells us.
These stories are chock-full of recondite facts like that one, and I, perhaps naively, never doubted they were true. That's not what keeps you reading, however. What keeps you reading this beautifully written collection of stories is the emotional truth of the characters, and their doomed efforts to connect to the people in their lives they love most.