Below the sign welcoming the new eighth-grade class to school is one that promises to leave no child unsuccessful and a handout that offers eight ways of being smart. For Edwin Hanratty, at times as hilarious as he is miserable, this is part of what makes junior high pretty much a relentless nightmare. And so, with Flake, his only friend, he contends with clique upon clique--the jocks who pummel them, the girls who ignore or taunt them--as well as the dogged and disconcerting attentions of a sixth-grader who's even more ferociously disaffected than they are. And while Edwin's parents work hard to understand him, they face without fully realizing it a demoralization so systemic that he and Flake have no recourse other than their own bitter and smart remarks, until they gradually begin flirting with the most horrible revenge of all.
This lethal impulse, which has touched communities across America, has never been given such shocking credibility as it has in Project X, which suggests that these boys' central predicament is not their hatred of the world but their agonized and enduring love of it. Never before has Jim Shepard's compassionate virtuosity been on such conspicuous, unsettling, and haunting display.
This engrossing novel gives the overworked subject of Columbine-style school massacres an unusually subtle and affecting treatment. Shepard (Nosferatu; Battling Against Castro; etc.) follows the travails of Edwin Hanratty, a misfit stuck at the bottom of the ruthless eighth-grade pecking order ("It's a big shitpile with everybody shitting downward so you want to be as high as possible"). Beaten up and mocked by bullies, disliked by his teachers and at loggerheads with his exasperated parents, he lives a nightmare of loneliness and anxiety with only his even more isolated friend, Flake, to cling to. Together, the two boys feed each other's wounded, sullen disgruntlement and edge toward vengeance as the only salve for their overwhelming sense of impotence and humiliation. Shepard makes these miserable characters sympathetic and even funny (" `Suck my dog's chew toy, how's that?' he goes. `Your mother's still busy with it,' I tell him"), but avoids easy sociological explanations for their predicament. The two boys, who have only their alienation to cling to, are often snotty and off-putting, and bat away all helping hands; there are also hints of deeper pathologies. With a pitch-perfect feel for the flat, sardonic, "I-go-then-he-goes" language of disaffected teens, Shepard explores how, in two disturbed minds, the normal adolescent obsessions with competence, mastery and status take on disastrous proportions, and the search for social belonging becomes a life-or-death matter.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 11, 2005
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Excerpt from Project X by Jim Shepard
First day of FS and where are my good green pants? In the wash. I have one pair of pants that aren't clown pants and they're in the wash. They haven't been washed all summer but today, this morning, they're in the wash. It's too cold for cargoes and everything else in my drawer is Queer Nation, and sure enough I'm the only one on the bus in shorts. "Scorcher, isn't it?" a ninth-grader asks when he goes by my locker. I'm standing there like I'm modeling beachwear. Kids across the hall chuckle and point. I almost head home right then.
"FS, man," Flake says when he sees my face.
"I can't take it," I tell him. "It's like, twenty minutes, and I can't take it."
"Look at your face," he says, and he has to laugh. He doesn't mean it in a bad way.
I put my head on my hands in my locker and try to tear the shelf off the wall.
"FS," he says. At least our first period classes are near each other.
"FS," I tell him back. We don't even have homeroom together, though they told us over the summer we would. FS is fuckin' school. We argue over who thought of it.
My homeroom teacher has a big banner up on the bulletin board that says welcome to eighth grade! Underneath it there's a sign that says leave no child unsuccessful and a handout for "eight ways of being smart."
In the doorway of first-period English my feet like freeze. I can't even get into the room. I will not fucking do this, I think to myself. "What?" the English teacher says.
We're not in the same gym class, either. And his is fourth period and the first day stuff runs long, so there I am in the cafeteria without him. C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, I go to myself, like some god'll say, "Oh sorry, Hanratty, you want your only friend? I'll send him along."
And who's there: Hogan, Weensie, and all the other buttwipes who are always after me. The kid from Darien we call Dickhead who beat me with a plank last spring. He pulled it from his tree house, and his friends held me down. Flake said when he saw my back that I was lucky there were no nails in it.
"Look who's watching his figure," the kid goes. I have like one milk pint on my tray.
"Eat me," I tell him. My eyes are tearing up and I want to pull them out and pound each of them flat on the tray.
"You're not sittin' on this side," the kid says.
"I'll sit where I want," I tell him. But I stand there and then head across the room away from him. I want to set fire to every single fixture and chair and window and crappy water-stained ceiling tile in this cafeteria. I can never eat anything here. Just taking a sip of water makes me want to hurl.
I'd fight if it was just him. But he's got eight thousand friends. Every asshole in the school is his friend.
I'm standing there with my tray. Pint of milk and a Rice Krispies Treat in a little dish. Every table's worse than the one next to it. It's the worst feeling in the world.
When you're standing there in the middle of the floor with no one to eat with, there are about four kids who don't look at you. The cafeteria holds three hundred.
"Nice shorts," somebody says.
Even if you don't eat, you have to just stay until lunch is over anyway. There's a spot next to a kid from Latvia or Lithuania or something who smells. She has her hair moussed and smashed onto one side of her head like she fell asleep in tree sap. She showed up last year. She has fewer friends than Flake and me. And we only have each other.
"Is this seat taken?" I go.
"I yev a fren coming," she says.
I end up next to a girl who has to be the most beautiful person in her zip code. The rest of the table is all her friends. One of them I know from grammar school.
"This is a S.M.I.L.E. meeting," the one I know tells me. She shows me her folder: Students Making an Impact Locally and Everywhere. I eat my Rice Krispies Treat.
"We could sponsor a child," one girl goes.
"For a year?" somebody says. "Well, what would you do?" the first girl goes. "Sponsor one for a week?"
They talk about a car wash. After a while they quiet down and I realize they're looking at me.
"You know who Kel Mitchell is?" the beautiful girl asks me.
"What?" I go. I switch my milk and Rice Krispies Treat on the tray. I never know what to do with my hands.
"You heard of Kel Mitchell?" she says.
When I keep looking at her, she says about me to her friends, "He's not a random guy."
"He's a random guy," one of them says. "He counts."
It's some kind of bet. "Yeah, I know who he is," I go. "He's the guy on that thing."
They're looking at me like they found a little lizard asleep on the table. "What thing?" one of them says.
"That thing," I go. My Krispies Treat's all sticky. I can't think of anything, but I'm not giving them the satisfaction. "You know, that thing on cable."
Their faces look like I may have hit it. The beautiful girl goes, "You are so bluffing."
"Mr. Hanratty," my fifth period social studies teacher says in front of the whole class. I haven't even sat down yet. "You going to be favoring us with more of your particular brand of sullenness this year?"