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.
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.
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.
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.