Courtesy for Beginners
by Jim Shepard
I first met Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writers workshop, last July. I had no idea who he was, though his name sounded vaguely familiar. On the day that he gave his craft seminar, I was tempted to skip and explore Portland, but I went because he was doing a close reading of "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love" by Raymond Carver, one of my favorite writers. Jim's lesson was about leaving out and dialogue. The power of not saying or talking around an issue. It was one of the best craft seminars I've attended.
In the instant when he began his lecture I felt a longing to have been in one of his classes. He is that kind of a teacher.
Later on in the week he gave a reading of a story from his new short story collection Like You'd Understand, Anyway. And then I couldn't believe that I hadn't heard of him. I couldn't understand why he wasn't hugely famous.
A few months later I saw him at a reading in the City and he joked that, and it went something like this, "Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers, had both said to their audience, if you listen to me about one thing it should be this: go out and buy Jim Shepard's new book. And that was the only thing that the audience decided not to listen to."
Courtesy for Beginners is a story in Like You'd Understand, Anyway. It's about a 12-year-old boy's miserable experience at summer camp. The unnamed narrator begins, "Summer camp. Here' s how bad summer camp was."
There are all the things you would expect: the fat boy, the horny boy, the skinny boy, the nasty counselors of whom he says, "the kind of guys who seem like nice boys to moms." (And doesn't that really tell you exactly what kind of boys they are, without having to spell out?) There is bullying, there is sexual tension, there is a piece of metal in the meat and so on.
But what makes this story different is that every incident in summer camp reveals something from the home life of the narrator which is falling apart, due to his younger brother's anger issues and emotional deterioration, and his parents' struggle with sending him away.
What makes this story so powerful is that it's neither a straight forward camp story, nor a straight forward, hard-times-at-home story. The reader quickly finds out that the narrator is depressed, he has a list of the deadliest poisons that he updates regularly, his friends no longer come around to his home, he barely notices anyone or anything at camp, he can't sleep at night.
What the camp story tells us is that many of the other boys experience some variation of this misery. Life is hard from the beginning and some people move on and survive and some don't. There are also many moments of guilt--hidden and revealed, of whys and why nots, of the things we think and the things we say, the things we should do and the things we do.
When the narrator loses his father's flashlight, to Chris the counselor, he's worried. He talks himself out of it by saying that maybe it was a good thing. That his parents will notice his failure to comply with what they expected. But then he says, "But I also wanted to be the kid who stayed up when everybody else went under."
In the beginning, Chris "he looked dangerously bored," kicks the fat boy in the face. "The sound was like when I whacked the sheet on our line with my wiffle bat."
Shepard's observations are astute. His voice is strong. His descriptions are vivid and refreshing. I found myself underlining so may passages and lines in this story that the entire thing has pencil marks over it.