The World to Come

Jim Shepard

Riverrun, £16.99

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Reviewed by Alan Taylor

JIM Shepard is the kind of writer who likes to drip feed his readers information. Take, for instance, his story Safety Tips for Living Alone, which opens this collection, his first to be published in the UK. It concerns Texas Tower no.4, one of the US Air Force’s “most unlikely achievements and most lethal peacetime disasters”.

We are in the 1960s, during the brief and anxiety-ridden presidency of JFK. The tower, one of five, resembled an oil rig and was situated offshore in the Atlantic. Its purpose was to provide an early warning against attack from Russia. The only problem was its suspect durability.

As Shepard notes: “Tower no.4 in particular had presented a much greater challenge than the others since its footing would stand in 185 feet of water, more than three times as deep as the others.”

Hence its nicknames, “Old Shaky” and “the Tiltin’ Hilton”.

The story focuses on several of tower’s personnel and their wives. The men spend 30 days offshore and 30 days on. The narrator’s voice is as reassuring as a pilot’s telling passengers to fasten their seat belts because they’re just about to experience extreme turbulence. A hurricane is on the way but rather than immediately evacuate the top brass tell Gordon, its captain, to stay put. All the while he maintains contact by phone with his wife, Ellie.

The tower, he tells her, is “gyrating” and when she asks if it will float if it topples over, he says that it won’t and that no one will be saved.

Retelling ‘real’ stories is Shepard’s forte. He is a dramatist with a reporter’s dispassion. The measured tone is pitch perfect. There is no sense of sensationalism, no over-emoting, no embellishment. He lets his facts do the talking and in several of the stories in The World to Come the effect is devastating and affecting.

The past is his preferred period. The Ocean of Air dwells on the 19th-century Montogolfier brothers who dreamed of becoming the first people to fly. “I often have fancied that man in his relation to the sky resembled marine organisms confined to the ocean’s floor,” writes Jacques-Etienne, the elder of the two.

HMS Terror, told in diary form, a favourite of Shepard’s, relives the ill-fated Franklin Expedition which between 1845 and 1848 sought to find the Northwest Passage. Its “author” is Lieutenant Edward Little who after being rejected by “an old schoolmate” was persuaded to sign on.

Unlike his chum Tom he is not a cheery soul. For months on end the men live surrounded by ice, not going anywhere. Some succumb while others too ill to carry on are shipped home. They’re the lucky ones. Eventually, even their portly leader, Franklin, dies, his demise dealt with in a sentence: “Belowdecks there is as awful a silence as can be heard among men aboard ship.”

A few pages and months later the once-plentiful rations have run out and cannibalism is embraced. “Nothing was wasted,” records Lieutenant Little. “The longer bones were split and the marrow scraped with a woodcarver’s gouge. The head was covered in a canvas bag and crushed with a mallet and its contents emptied into the pot as well.”

Not all of Shepard’s stories have such grisly potency. Cretan Love Song, for one, made little impact on me. Wall-to-Wall Counseling, however, in which a PR working for a health insurance company attempts to manage her domestic menagerie while her bosses refuse to pay for a transplant that will save a young girl’s life is at turns hilarious and outrageous. The scene in which her nine-year-old son brushes his penis (named Nolan for some reason) with her toothbrush will live long in the memory.

Positive Train Control is another disaster-waiting-to-happen tale, this time involving a mile-long train carrying thousands of gallons of crude oil. Again, authority, in the form of the private company which owns the railroad, is culpable, safety being the least of its concerns.

The World to Come concludes as it began with a storm in the form of a cyclone which hit northeastern Australia in the 1890s. Titled Intimacy, it shows men and women – mainly women – grappling with an apocalyptic force. Here as elsewhere Shepard occasionally tells us more than we need to know, a result perhaps of his enthusiasm for research reflected in his copious acknowledgements. Overall, though, he is a terrific writer whose arrival on these shores is long overdue.