In Jim Shepard’s short-story collection You Think That’s Bad, characters are pitted against a natural world positively Herzogian in its animosity to man, but the global-warming-abetted flooding, skier-swallowing avalanches, and flesh-rotting heat and humidity are just stand-ins for impending emotional catastrophes whose visibility doesn’t make them any more surmountable.
At the far opposite end of the spectrum from the small-epiphany school of short-story writing, Shepard’s tales are laden with research and incident, and are embedded in matrices of scientific and historical data, though there isn’t anything stuffy about them. “The Netherlands Lives With Water” (which was first published in McSweeney’s and was included in 2010’s Best American Short Stories) is set in a world that’s failed to meet the challenges of collapsing ice sheets and 100-year floods that now occur every two. A Dutch engineer in a relationship strained from within and without comes into an inheritance but keeps it from his wife, even when their son needs the money to enter a music conservatory. “What am I up to?” he asks the reader. “Your guess is as good as mine.” He’s inscrutable, but still sympathetic, and as in a few of the pieces here, crises both environmental and marital will come to a head before he gets a chance to fully process why he does what he does.
Shepard’s male protagonists aren’t emotionally closed off, exactly, but the job—whether it’s scaling Nanga Parbat in winter in “Poland Is Watching” or pioneering the man-in-a-suit destruction of Godzilla in “Gojira: King Of The Monsters”—always takes precedent over family. The pining-wife dynamic occasionally threatens to become tiresome, but Shepard distracts from any redundancies in character with a bracing variety of exotic settings and with agile prose that incorporates a million and one facts without coming off as academic.
It’s true that sometimes Shepard has plenty of story, but doesn’t seem sure how to wrap it up. “Happy With Crocodiles” chronicles an army grunt’s battles with enemy troops, insect life, and the creeping anxiety that his girlfriend is cheating on him with his brother. Appropriately hellish descriptions and well-rendered dialogue generate a tension that the story finally can’t bear out, and when one of its two narrative threads tugs much harder than the other, the result is a lopsided ending that’s harrowing but unsatisfying.
Considering the scope of You Think That’s Bad, it’s impressive how nearly everything here works. These aren’t “write what you know” stories, and Shepard gets credit for a wide-ranging collection that wrings poignancy out of every subject it touches, from the search for subatomic particles to the construction of Mothra.