A Little Summer Reading
It’s a beautiful sunny day in August, just before London turns overbaked and blowsy in the protracted death of summer. I’ve been wandering in Regent’s Park, and am now sitting in a chest-high lavender field in King’s Cross, London, where armchairs have thoughtfully been provided for passers-by. I’m reading another book by Jim Shepard.
I was thinking of putting him into my ‘Forgotten Authors’ book, except that he’s not dead. He’s not unknown or out of print in his native USA, either. In fact he’s greatly admired, but unrepresented on these shores. While UK publishers reprint the most minor Nordic crime novels, we’re denied an astonishing American voice.
Shepard was born in 1956 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and to some extent has conducted his writing career in reverse, starting with six novels and moving on to collections of short stories. He’s the master of the in medias res ending, halting at the heart of the plot, and often uses carefully researched real events to drive his fables forward, allowing action to define character instead of opting for psychological epiphanies.
‘Lights Out in the Reptile House’ tells the story of 15 year-old Karel in a brutal dystopian state where fascist infiltration reaches into the quietest backwaters. It’s compassionate, consummate storytelling that haunts long after the book has been closed. His volumes of short stories are, if anything, even better.
Shepard has the rare ability to step chameleon-like inside minds. He lacks the ostentation of US modernists, yet takes a vaulting leap of imagination in every new short story. These allow him a greater range of voices and situations, and have recently become popular in Italy. Did somebody choose to publish them there because he deals with universal themes? If so, why has nobody done the same here? The only available copies are US reprints.
One assumption must be that Shepard represents everything the current British market does not support; the almost clairvoyant ability to provide insight through action, a background interest in popular culture that translates itself into global concerns, a filmic intensity that does not fall back on ironic movie references but repeatedly offers masterclasses in observational writing. In short, literature.
Plus, Shepard sometimes writes about sport – the kiss of death in the UK, although he’s equally happy writing about Aeschylus, Chernobyl or the engineers on the Hindenburg falling in love. A less charitable thought comes to mind; that perhaps he’s the American David Mitchell, and somebody thinks that one Mitchell is enough. Confound the market and track down his books.
As for the rest of my summer reading, I’m enjoying Lissa Evans, Norman Collins, Kate Atkinson, Christopher Priest, Paul Auster and JB Priestley. I’m not watching TV or looking for Pokémon, I’m reading like a son of a bitch and loving it.
And I’m off for a pint, here.