David Shields Essay - Critical Essays

Shields, David

Introduction

David Shields 1956–

American novelist, short story writer, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Shields's life and career through 1996.

Shields is best known for fiction that focuses on the coming-of-age theme. In Dead Languages (1989), a young stutterer experiences the failure of language as a means of communicating with parents, first loves, and society at large. A Handbook for Drowning (1992) focuses on coming-of-age issues but presents them in a series of interconnected short stories around a central character. Shields's most recent work, the autobiographical Remote (1996), is an idiosyncratic study of pop culture.

Biographical Information

Shields, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, received a bachelors degree from Brown University in 1978 and a masters degree from the University of Iowa in 1980, where he also began a teaching career. Later, while a researcher and writer for California governor Pat Brown, he published his first novel, Heroes (1984). Shields continues to write and teach at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Major Works

In his first novel, Heroes, Shields writes about lost innocence and sports. Biederman, a middle-aged sportswriter for a small-town Iowa newspaper, meets Belvyn Menkus, a transfer student and basketball phenomenon. Aware that Menkus has been illegally recruited from an Iowa college, Biederman is torn between exposing the wrongdoing—and getting a post on a big-city newspaper—or turning away and sacrificing his journalistic dreams for the sake of Menkus and the game of basketball. Shields's next novel, Dead Languages, focuses on Jeremy Zorn and his family; the Zorn family and Jeremy's stuttering, in particular, mirror the author's real-life situation. As Jeremy struggles to overcome his disfluency and find his place in life, he must deal with his domineering, career-minded mother and his apathetic, manic-depressive father while teaching in a summer school program and managing a romance with a drug-addicted school drop-out. A Handbook for Drowning retains the coming-of-age theme in a random collection of short stories that provide a glimpse into young Walt Jaffe's life. Like Jeremy, Walt too must contend with a strong activist mother, an ineffectual father (who obsesses about the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg trial), the joys and sorrows of first love, and relationships won and lost. Remote is a loosely structured postmodern memoir about contemporary American life and culture that incorporates essays, photographs, footnotes, and remembrances. As one critic observes, Remote "channel-surfs" through modern society, with Shields offering his personal assessment of pop-culture topics including Oprah Winfrey, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, autographed baseball cards, and character actor Bob Balaban.

Critical Reception

Shields's work has generally been favorably received by critics. Although most critics have focused on Shields's success at developing the coming-of-age theme in new and engaging ways, others have mentioned his lyrical and rhythmic language and taut, observant style. Shields's ability to present the ordinary events of life with wit and candor, such as Jeremy Zorn's stuttering attempts to educate children in Dead Languages, has also won praise. Critics have noted the postmodernist style and autobiographical characteristics of Shields's loosely structured A Handbook for Drowning and Remote's collage of autobiography, essay, footnotes, and photographs as well. While some critics have suggested that Shields's most recent works are uninspiring and lack originality, most agree that his literary style and creative use of language are substantial and contribute to the overall appeal of his books.

Principal Works

Heroes (novel) 1984
Dead Languages (novel) 1989
A Handbook for Drowning (short stories) 1992
Remote (autobiography) 1996

Criticism

Diana L. Smith (review date 16 December 1984)

SOURCE: "A Novel Neat as a Slamdunk," in Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 16, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Smith favorably assesses the style, plot, and characters of Heroes.]

Al Biederman's goal at the tender age of 10 was to perfect the double-push jump shot. In two years he achieved it. "Practice makes perfect" could easily have been this child's motto. He practiced every day and night to the exclusion of friends and family to refine a nearly impossible maneuver on—and in the air above—a basketball court.

Al had an early love of basketball and a desire to see things through to completion. These two things conflict with one another in Al's adult life and form the core of Heroes.

The reader is introduced to Al in the present tense. He is past 30 and previously fouled out in a basketball career while still in college: a knee injury put him on the sidelines for life. On the rebound he has taken a sportswriting job with a small newspaper in River City, Iowa, the home of River City College.

Al is in the competition for a much better job with a large newspaper in Milwaukee. He and two other applicants have made the cut. One of the three will be the high scorer and land the job. What Al needs is a scoop. Milwaukee is pressing him for a hot story that will ensure him the job.

Al is smitten with the prospects for a college...

(The entire section is 557 words.)

Arthur Krystal (review date 3 February 1985)

SOURCE: A review of Heroes, in The New York Times Book Review, February 3, 1985, p. 22.

[In the following review, Krystal presents a mixed assessment of Heroes.]

"What thou lovest well remains / the rest is dross." This would seem to be the wisdom granted to a middle-aged sports reporter, Al Biederman, in David Shields's first novel, Heroes. Stuck in a small Midwestern college town, Biederman loves his wife but is unfaithful to her, loves his diabetic son but isn't always there for him, loves basketball but (to land a job on The Milwaukee Journal) may have to expose recruiting violations in the case of Belvyn Menkus, a white transfer student who plays the game "like he just invented jazz." I say "white" because Belvyn (a name that bounces into the heart) learned to play among Chicago blacks who demanded that he constantly feed them the ball. So Belvyn becomes a great give-and-go man with a feel for the game that drives Biederman to fits of weepy, ecstatic, almost sexual love for this otherwise boorish student. Will Biederman write that investigative piece, even though his wife, friends and boss are all bending the rules for Belvyn? Can he bear to see Belvyn benched? Like a good point guard, Mr. Shields knows how to control the flow of a game. The story moves along nicely, although he also commits some outstanding fouls: "beds that had wheels the size of my headache," "beneath their cool exterior beats the brute heart of a block of ice." To be fair, he also has his moments. Explaining why he prefers basketball to football, Biederman says, "The ball is round. It bounces true. You can perform magic with it, but not by force. By touch." Unfortunately, Mr. Shields's touch is not always as fine as it could be.

Eva Hoffman (review date 26 April 1989)

SOURCE: "Mother Casts Her Shadow on Her Young Son's Life," in The New York Times, April 26, 1989, p. C20.

[Hoffman is a Polish educator, autobiographer, and editor of The New York Times Book Review. In the following mixed review of Dead Languages, she examines Shields's portrayal of Jeremy Zorn, the protagonist of the novel.]

Of course, language has been the obsession and the true subject of many writers; of course, it has been their hard block of Carrara marble as well as their fine chisel, their Protean deceiver as well as the deep well of truth. But rarely has language been as much of a prison house, antagonist and a poison weapon as it is in David Shields's original but unsettling, and finally unsettled, novel [Dead Languages].

Jeremy Zorn, the protagonist and narrator of Dead Languages, is a stutterer, a person sick of language and ill with it, and much of the novel—Mr. Shields's second—consists of inventive, often lyrical reflections on how language can become a diversion from communication rather than a means to it. Jeremy, a child of the 1960's, grows up in one of those hyper-verbal radical-chic families in which the relentlessness of articulation corresponds to the unspoken drive of ambition.

Father, for a while, writes a tennis column for the West Bay Sun (the Zorns live in Los Angeles, then in San Francisco), exercises his talent for telling Yiddish jokes and quotes maxims on the innocence of the Rosenbergs. He's also a manic-depressive, who requires periodic infusions of "juice," or electroshock therapy, and his career gradually slides down toward dismalness.

It's Mother, though, who is Jeremy's problem. Mother isn't exactly a monster. She's just, to invert a psychoanalytic category, a bad-enough mother—bad enough to force Jeremy into a continual and mostly losing struggle against her. She is the authority in the family, a successful writer of undeviatingly right-minded articles, whose advocacy of every progressive cause to come down the pike is part sincerity, part self-congratulatory righteousness. The fervor of her principles, however, isn't matched by her sensitivity to those close around her. She's prone to comparing her husband, unfavorably, with her father.

And as for her son, she calls one of his first attempts at writing "a tissue of sportswriting platitudes." Language, for her, is "a call to arms," rather than...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

Matthew Gilbert (review date 24 May 1989)

SOURCE: "The Bittersweet Story of a Young Stutterer," in The Boston Globe, May 24, 1989.

[In the following mixed review of Dead Languages, Gilbert applauds Shields's ability to use Jeremy's stuttering as a metaphor for the contemporary problems of communication but charges that the plot lacks cohesiveness and believability.]

You'd think the coming-of-age novel would have knocked itself out by now. But when the ancient theme of young blood is infused with adrenaline, it's easy to see why it's so popular among younger writers. Dead Languages, the second novel by David Shields, is a fresh, humorous growing-up tale with a bitter twist: The hero, Jeremy Zorn,...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Evelyn Toynton (review date 18 June 1989)

SOURCE: "Truth Stutters," in The New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1989, p. 22.

[In the following mixed review, Toynton compliments the literary style and characters of Dead Languages but charges that the author fails to clarify "what Jeremy's quest has been for or his indignation about."]

If language itself can't be trusted, as the deconstructionists would have it, and if all our fumbling attempts at connection are doomed, as much of modern fiction suggests, what more appropriate metaphor can there be for our condition than a speech defect? "Stutterers are truth-tellers," says Jeremy Zorn, the protagonist of David Shields's new novel [Dead Languages];...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

Thomas Cahill (review date 25 June 1989)

SOURCE: "Boy Talk," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 25, 1989, p. 5.

[Cahill is an American educator and literary critic. In the following review, he unfavorably assesses Dead Languages, claiming that the story is neither "comedy [nor] tragedy," and that it gets lost in metaphors and in the self-indulgence of the protagonist.]

It is hard work nowadays to write what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, an autobiographical novel of growing up. Though it is a form that most first novelists find inescapable, the great challenge is to make something new, something that cannot be labeled merely an also-ran to Joyce or Hesse or Spark or Salinger. Each year...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Robert Towers (review date 20 July 1989)

SOURCE: "The Raw and the Cooked," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVI, No. 12, July 20, 1989, pp. 30-1.

[In the following excerpt, Towers applauds Shields's literary style and ability to "stage scenes" but charges that Dead Languages concentrates too narrowly on Jeremy's preoccupations.]

During the past decade in particular, the line separating fiction from autobiography has frequently seemed on the point of being almost erased. Novel after novel has appeared in which not only the background and chronology but also the major events of the first-person narrator's life closely parallel what is publicly known of the author's. The material is offered up...

(The entire section is 1486 words.)

Pagan Kennedy (review date August 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Dead Languages, in Boston Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, August, 1989, p. 26.

[Kennedy, also known as Pamela Kennedy, is an American writer, critic, and host of a Boston-based cable TV show. In the following review, she favorably assesses the literary style, themes, and autobiographical elements of Dead Languages.]

There's an old fiction workshop maxim: Never write about writing. But, in Dead Languages, David Shields has done just that. Not only is every major character a writer, the narrator is a stutterer who's obsessed with language. It's a risky premise and, in less capable hands, this novel might die of self-consciousness.

...

(The entire section is 962 words.)

Jack Byrne (review date Summer 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Dead Languages, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 276-77.

[In the following review, Byrne examines the theme of survival in Dead Languages.]

David Shields's Dead Languages is about survival—as a stutterer—in an overly articulate family, "a family in which language is seen as the magic key to success. Both parents are journalists…. Both are determined to make their mark upon the world with words," Jeremy Zorn's story, it would seem, begins at age four ("My family was only a family. It wasn't a nightmare. It wasn't a concentration camp. Each of us isn't the sum total of all the faults of his...

(The entire section is 675 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 27 December 1991)

SOURCE: "Tales of a Man Young and Old, Snapshots of a Life," in The New York Times, December 27, 1991, p. C24.

[Kakutani is an American critic who writes regularly for The New York Times. In the following review of A Handbook for Drowning, Kakutani claims that Shields's plot takes the "seemingly mundane" and "invests it with layers of psychological resonance."]

In his last novel, the critically acclaimed Dead Languages (1989), David Shields turned the story of Jeremy Zorn, an adolescent boy with a bad stutter, into a kind of metaphor for the difficulties of communication and the limitations of language itself. Though the book occasionally...

(The entire section is 853 words.)

Joseph Coates (review date 12 January 1992)

SOURCE: "Shields' 'First Novel' Comes Now, after Several Others," in The Hartford Courant, January 12, 1992.

[In the following review, Coates discusses the themes and arrangement of the interconnected stories in A Handbook for Drowning.]

Time was when a writer published his first novel first. In a kinder, gentler time, publishers often went out on a limb financially to print a youngster's obligatorily autobiographical coming-of-age fiction. It is the kind of thing one has to write early to get the self out of the way, as Nabokov said, concluding with the protagonist producing (voilà!) the very book the reader was holding.

Since the first novel has...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Suzanne Berne (review date 19 January 1992)

SOURCE: "Hey, Wait! Nobody's Perfect!," in The New York Times Book Review, January 19, 1992, p. 14.

[In the following mixed review, Berne examines the theme of obsession and how it drives the narrative in the stories of A Handbook for Drowning.]

What's both interesting and disappointing about obsessions is that eventually everybody has the same ones: We're afraid of death, hungry for love, anxious for approval, spooked by the past—only the variations differ. So it's no surprise that authors write out of their own obsessions; the surprise is when they transform the banal into something significant, when they present an obsession we instinctively recognize but feel we...

(The entire section is 858 words.)

Dan Cryer (review date 20 January 1992)

SOURCE: "Striking Snapshots of a Drowning Family," in Newsday, January 20, 1992.

[In the following favorable review of A Handbook for Drowning, Cryer asserts that "Shields's strength lies in setting up ironic play between expectations and reality," which results in "tautly constructed, tautly observant stories."]

Readers of David Shields' book of interrelated stories, A Handbook for Drowning, may wonder why the author chose not to work his material into a novel. After all, the story of Walt Jaffe's coming-of-age in California during the '50s and '60s has all the makings of an intriguing novel—initiation into sex and manhood, parents forever on the brink...

(The entire section is 736 words.)

Robert Taylor (review date 22 January 1992)

SOURCE: "Shields' Fresh Stories of an American Coming of Age," in The Boston Globe, January 22, 1992.

[Taylor is an American novelist as well as an art, music, film, and theater critic. In the following review, he discusses how the coming-of-age theme is advanced by Shields's literary style and the arrangement of the interconnected stories in A Handbook for Drowning.]

David Shields brings fresh insights to an old theme, the shame and tenderness of an American coming of age. A Handbook for Drowning consists of 24 loosely linked stories about a young man named Walter Jaffe, a Holden Caulfield for the 1990s, whose self-absorbed blunders, painful as they are,...

(The entire section is 703 words.)

Craig Seligman (review date February 1992)

SOURCE: A review of A Handbook for Drowning, in VLS, No. 102, February, 1992, p. 7.

[In the following unfavorable review, Seligman charges that Shields's literary technique detracts from the plots, themes, and potential "warmth" of the stories in A Handbook for Drowning.]

The David Shields whose first book, Heroes, appeared in 1984 barely resembles the novelist who brought out Dead Languages five years later. The earlier Shields was uncertain, a little windy, and ordinary; by 1989 he had become an artist, spare and astringent. Dead Languages concerns a stutterer. Shields had researched disfluency, understood its devastations, and knew how to...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Lance Olsen (review date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: A review of A Handbook for Drowning, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 12, Spring, 1992, pp. 157-58.

[Below, Olsen offers a favorable assessment of A Handbook for Drowning.]

In his third book of fiction and first finely crafted collection of twenty-four short stories [A Handbook for Drowning], David Shields weaves a crazy quilt of psychologically haunting tales that explore drowning as a metaphor for obsession. Lots of people go under here, figuratively and literally, from the man who while scratching his girlfriend's back imagines penetrating right down to her vertebrae, to the university student who's unable to stop reading...

(The entire section is 387 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 5 February 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Remote, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 6, February 5, 1996, p. 75.

[In the following review, the critic presents a mixed assessment of Remote.]

Mixing journalism, cultural criticism and autobiography, the 52 original short pieces collected [in Remote] document novelist Shields's obsession with celebrity, images and the general ephemera of popular culture. He joins a test audience viewing potential sitcoms, follows A Current Affair reporter Mike Watkiss on assignment, muses on stuttering Howard Stern sidekick John Melendez and collects people's dreams about late rocker Kurt Cobain. What makes Shields's perspective on popular...

(The entire section is 178 words.)

Janice Braun (review date 15 February 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Remote, in Library Journal, Vol. 121, No. 3, February 15, 1996, p. 158.

[In the following review, Braun presents a positive assessment of Remote.]

Shields, a novelist (A Handbook for Drowning) and professor at the University of Washington, presents "a self-portrait given over to a single subject and splintered into fifty-two pieces." His post-modern autobiography [Remote], complete with childhood photo opportunities, is quirky and filled with topical allusions to the infamous (O.J. Simpson) and the not so famous (Bob Balaban, a character actor). His work consists of an assortment of off-the-wall observations and digressions (on...

(The entire section is 160 words.)

Jeff Giles (review date 26 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Change the Channel," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXVII, No. 9, February 26, 1996, p. 68.

[Giles is an American novelist and critic. In the following mixed review, he characterizes Remote as a "weird collection of essays and remembrances," and "a book for a society sick of books."]

Literary fiction tends to be a sleepy dominion—so few people read it that publishers seem to consider it pro bono work—and every so often a writer bolts for where the action is. Here goes David Shields. The author, 39, previously made a tiny name for himself as a writer of artful coming-of-age fiction. Now he has delivered Remote, a determinedly weird collection of essays...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 3 March 1996)

SOURCE: "Holy Hypochondria, Batman!," in The New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1996, p. 11.

[Mars-Jones is an English fiction writer and critic. In the following unfavorable review, he examines Shields's treatment of pop culture in Remote.]

As a boy addicted to television, especially Batman, David Shields made a list of Robin's alliterative "Holy" exclamations—Holy Homicide, Holy Hurricane and so on—partly because they represented an enviable fluency to someone who, like Mr. Shields, had a stutter. Finally, he sent his only copy of the list to the producers, hoping somehow to attach himself to the show he spent all week thinking about. When he received a...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Walter Kirn (review date 4 March 1996)

SOURCE: "The Media and Me," in New York Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 9, March 4, 1996, pp. 68-9.

[Kirn is an American journalist, short story writer, novelist, and critic. In the following mixed review of Remote, he applauds the use of autobiographical "quick-take musings on the media" but claims that Shields's "comedy schlock references" are shallow and old.]

Assuming that books are food for thought, we should be able to sort them into groups. There are the virtuous vegetables (poetry and essays). The sustaining meats and cheeses (literary novels, biographies, histories). The energizing grains and cereals (detective and romance novels, Hollywood memoirs). But there...

(The entire section is 1033 words.)