David Shields

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Diana L. Smith (review date 16 December 1984)

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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 basketball recruit named Belvyn Menkus whom he sees as the perfect player. Menkus performs the double-push jump shot without batting an eye. The community, however, soon tires of the saturative coverage given Menkus; only Al Biederman rates him as such a hot shot. Then, intrigue: Al receives a tip that River State is possibly guilty of a recruiting violation in the matter of Menkus….

Interrupting, antagonizing and blocking Al along his search for the truth are his wife, Deborah, who is Menkus' college counselor as well as a candidate for tenure; Barry, Al's son, only interested in farming; and Vicki, a journalism student and stringer for the newspaper who sees Al as a combination of Ernie Pyle and Rudolph Valentino. All these characters spin in their own spheres, each interested only in his or her success.

The clarity of the people—and the scenes in this book—is excellent. The reader not only sees the gymnasium but also hears the cheering of the crowd. Only true-blue basketball fans may understand the terminology, but it is secondary to the story and does not detract from it. David Shields has an engaging way of incorporating important events into the story with a pleasant mix of hilarity and pathos. And aphorisms abound: "You never know what you've got cooking on the back burner until you're hungry"; "It's no failure to find out where you belong and where you want to be."

Heroes is light reading. The plot and characterizations are presented with mystery, slapstick and true human nature. It is a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Will Al submit the recruiting violation story and move upward to Milwaukee or will he ignore the story and stay on in River City? I won't give away the ending. Let me just say that Heroes is thoroughly enjoyable light reading, and that the ball game is tied until almost the last minute.

Arthur Krystal (review date 3 February 1985)

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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...

(This entire section contains 299 words.)

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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)

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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 a means of noticing another person, and in this atmosphere of self-deception, small cruelties and the dead verbiage of inauthentic emotions, Jeremy begins to have trouble speaking. His brilliant sister, Beth, grows fat and becomes a devotee of Meher Baba.

Jeremy tries out or is given a lot of explanations for what he calls his disfluency: Mr. Shields has clearly done his research, and part of the interest of the novel is simply that one learns so much about this intriguing—and apparently overwhelmingly male—impediment. There is Jeremy's own memory of trauma—a scene of his mother flipping flashcards in front of him, which under the pressure of her supposed encouragement and real disapproval he suddenly can't name. There are the mechanistic explanations offered by his sympathetic and knowing speech therapist, Sandra, who wants him to divorce speech from emotion, and who talks about "subglottal air pressure" and "upper articulators."

But none of the rationales or the proposed panaceas work, and Mr. Shields is effective in conveying the endlessness of stuttering, its maddening, defeating repetitiousness. Jeremy's refusal to be fluent, or promiscuous, with his speech, becomes for him a form of truth—a protest against the facile and hurtful hypocrisies of his parents. But stuttering in Dead Languages also becomes an analogue for all the collected vulnerability, loneliness and anguish of childhood and adolescence.

As he recedes further into isolation, Jeremy develops an array of compensatory measures: he becomes the fastest 12-year-old runner in San Francisco, the only white boy on an all-black basketball team and a member of the debating team. But every attempt to fly in the face of his malady—a small walk-on role in Othello or a bid to run for class president on an integrationist platform—turns, one way or another, into a humiliating fiasco. Language may be a flight from life, but there seems to be no full life without it. His sexual performance begins to suffer at a precociously young age. At one point, he tries suicide.

Jeremy is an angry young man, and, indeed, perhaps the central explanation of his "disfluency" is not so much proffered as enacted in the novel: what chokes up his young vocal cords is rage. In part, the violence of the protagonist's voice is quite deliberate; Mr. Shields is well aware of the intricacies of his theme—the connections between speech, intimacy, sexuality and anger—and most of the time he orchestrates them well and disciplines resentment into a wry wit.

But occasionally the emotions seem unresolved, the tonal control slips. The style in this novel is rich, often beautifully lyrical and unashamedly elaborate, but at times its alternate solemnity and rancor bespeak a lack of perspective. The Jeremy in his 20's who is narrating understands more than his adolescent self about the intertwined conflicts of hate and love. But he still recounts his prepubescent flirtation or a visit to a pornographic boutique with a too-somber gravity as a painful challenge and commentary on his manhood.

We're not surprised that Jeremy wants to become a writer, to turn his wound into the bow of art, but we are startled by a story he produces, characterized by his girlfriend as a "rape fantasy" and venomous beyond the necessity of demonstrating Jeremy's vengefulness.

The narrator of Dead Languages never stops seeing himself as a victim, particularly of women—sometimes knowingly masochistic, sometimes just disturbingly self-indulgent and prone to tantrums. At the end, his mother dies of cancer; there's a suggestion that some liberation may be on the way. But the novel as a whole doesn't quite uncurl from its fetal position, doesn't open out from self-consciousness toward reconciliation. Mr. Shields is a talented writer, and in Dead Languages he explores fertile themes with intelligence and verbal energy. One has confidence that a wider vision will follow.

Matthew Gilbert (review date 24 May 1989)

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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, is a tortured stutterer, a soulful, obsessive boy struggling in a daily battle to communicate clearly. As he narrates his history, with a wry good humor that belies his constant pain, Jeremy transforms his lifelong antagonism with language into a universal plight: the failure to be understood. Coincidentally, the time is the 1960s, the place is San Francisco, and an army of freedom-minded Americans are screaming to be heard amid peace rallies in Golden Gate Park and the towering trees of Muir Woods.

Though Dead Languages is far from a textbook examination of chronic stuttering, there is a light touch of philosophical analysis that nicely opens up Jeremy's private hell. The "disfluency" that plagues his adolescence may remind you of any frustrations you felt at that spikey age—especially as he blunders through a number of classroom embarrassments. His self-consciousness imprisons him—the more he tries not to stutter, of course, the more he stutters—and he yearns for the unconditional love from which he is excluded at home. "What's valuable about love," he says, "is that you at last get to talk to someone. You at last get to be heard and the words hardly matter any more, only the reassurance of their sound."

While Jeremy's private pain is classic, his parents are one-of-a-kind. Annette and Teddy Zorn are intellectual, politically-minded spiritual descendants of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. As journalists, they are preoccupied with social justice and public expression. "My family was living in language," Jeremy tells us, "whereas I was dying in it." While he resists accusing his parents of driving him to use "the repeater gun in my mouth," he makes it clear that there is enough evidence to commit the whole Zorn clan of more than just aiding and abetting—especially his mother. Moody and preoccupied with her job at The Nation to the exclusion of her family life, Annette criticizes Jeremy because—even before he reaches his teens—he does not measure up to the great leaders of the Free World. She has no patience for his tongue-tied confidences. In her political fervor, she is noble, reminiscent of Barbara Hershey in the movie A World Apart: in her neglect of and cruelty to her son she is nearly unforgivable.

One of the knockout insights in Dead Languages is that, precisely because speech, or his inability to master speech, has become the bane of Jeremy's days, Jeremy has become obsessed with the beauties of language. He is locked in an embrace with his enemy. "My sister—so shy, so sincere—once wanted to be an actress. The best jazz drummer I've ever heard had only one arm. We all choose a calling that's the most radical contradiction of ourselves." This provocative line, and many others like it, make the novel a rich occasion for personal reflection. They also call attention to our narrator's role as narrator: He is smoothly unravelling his story, bravely using the very language that has stricken him.

Shields has cleverly, but naturally, given Jeremy a speech pattern loaded with alliteration and assonance. "The last thing I would want to do," he tells us in a fit of consonants, "would be to ascribe this fascinating phenomenon to mere class conflict—titubation as the burden of the bourgeoisie—but I do want to acknowledge the cultural conflict of my disfluency." Because the sounds that Jeremy utters are so jarring, he is in love with such euphonics. On the page, they are his retaliation against his tripping tongue.

There are problems with Dead Languages, not least of which is its episodic form. The narrative hops from one tale of trauma to the next, cohesive in its commentary on stuttering but jumpy in its overall plot revelation. And while Jeremy's retrospective wisdom adds depth, humor and edge to his remembrances, it also paints with a thick brush. Many of his childhood experiences are simply unbelievable, and too symbolically convenient. (It is a literary version of television's nostalgic The Wonder Years, and often too precious for a novel, especially in its occasional bouts of psychobabble.) Still and all, Dead Languages communicates its thorny messages with a youthful and passionate grace.

Evelyn Toynton (review date 18 June 1989)

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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]; "everyone else is lying." Yet Jeremy, a stutterer in a family of people for whom language, if nothing else, comes easily, wants desperately to be rid of his stammer, badge of honor though it may be. Much of the book is taken up with his anguish over the problem and his various attempts to correct it—even though "only in broken speech is the form of disfluency consonant with the chaos of the world's content."

Mr. Shields's own language is wonderfully fluent—colloquial and elegiac by turns—and when his sense of the ridiculous comes to the fore, as it does in deadpan descriptions of Jeremy's stint as a teacher's aide in a summer school program for black children and his romance with a cheerfully illiterate druggy, his character's dilemma seems both touching and wryly comic. But at other times, Jeremy's endless fretting about his stutter and endless speculation about its cause and meaning can try the reader's patience. And it is difficult to take his inability to read a prize-winning first-grade essay aloud, or his defeat in a high school debate, quite as seriously as he does. In fact, sometimes Mr. Shields, whose first novel was called Heroes, seems to have captured the self-absorption and self-aggrandizement of the adolescent all too well: one would like to sit Jeremy down and tell him, kindly but firmly, that neither his brilliance nor his suffering is as great as he supposes.

Part of the problem is that the villain of his private psychodrama just doesn't seem all that monstrous. Jeremy's mother, a zealous liberal journalist with decided opinions on all subjects, can certainly be tactless and insensitive (as when Jeremy writes a scathing editorial for the high school paper and she tells him blithely that "there might be a 'decent four-inch filler of a factual story' buried somewhere in the satire"), but after long stretches of Jeremy's self-pitying sensitivity, her very rudeness can be refreshing. His perpetual outrage at her, never quite exaggerated enough to seem funny, becomes monotonous. One begins to wish that the relationship between these two would arrive at some resolution, or at least escalate to a dramatic climax, instead of remaining at the same level of quasi warfare.

For all that, Jeremy and his mother are satisfyingly coherent characters, as vivid as the language they employ in their arguments. The others in the novel, however—the manic-depressive father, the overweight, intellectual sister, the super-literary college girlfriend—sometimes seem to be mere collections of quirks. Here, too, one feels the reality of adolescent solipsism: other people are merely sketchy reflections of himself, reminders of his own inadequacy, hoped-for supporters who let him down. What they never become is separate but equal, with their own painful struggles for dignity.

Toward the end, when Mrs. Zorn is dying of cancer, quirkiness takes over completely. The family's grief is all conveyed elliptically, through various odd tics of behavior, until the reader longs for some honest grappling with sorrow, or at least a deepening of perception. Even the breakdown the father undergoes as his wife's death approaches is depicted in a curiously hurried, slapdash fashion.

"Where did my family and their friends ever get the idea language could eclipse life?" Jeremy asks at the end of the book, as though his whole struggle had been to overthrow that notion, to hold out for Life Itself against their facile talk. But, relentless brooder and self-examiner that he is, it is hard to see him in the role of life-affirmer. In fact, Mr. Shields, for all his considerable talent, never makes it quite clear what Jeremy's quest has been for or his indignation about. If the plight of the stutterer is to take on real poignancy in fiction, we have got to be convinced there is something marvelous he is trying to say.

Thomas Cahill (review date 25 June 1989)

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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 competition grows fiercer as the unexplored portions of this particular literary rain forest shrink in size. One must find either a new way to say the old things (in a time when new ways seem to have been exhausted in the frenzies of modernism and post-modernism) or, even more difficult, something new to say.

Basically, there appear to be three solutions. One is charm. Even if you are only saying the old things in the old way, the charm of your youthful self, the fresh and tender haplessness of your own true exploits, just slightly exaggerated, can carry the day and delight everyone but the purse-lipped purist. Another, less common solution is to offer new subject matter. But this usually depends on the author having grown up illiterate or a white slave or suckled by wolves—though, I can hear the weary voice at the editorial conference, wolves have been done. The third route is to resist the temptation to begin with your own childhood—or, barring that, to write the damn thing and lock it in a drawer. Then having got the rite-of-passage business out of your system, you can go on to explore your real subject matter.

David Shields nearly chose the third route. He wrote the first draft of Dead Languages while a student in creative writing at Iowa but could not get it published. His second novel (and first to be published) is called Heroes. It concerns the moral dilemma of a middle-aged sportswriter (hardly Bildungsroman material), and it received excellent notices. But Shields could not resist the temptation to take Dead Languages out of its drawer and rework it.

The result is not charming. Shield's protagonist is Jeremy Zorn, a lifelong stutterer in a family of female overachievers. Mother, articulate to a fault, is a leftish political journalist, whom the boy both idolizes and dreads. Sister Beth, "too fat to have fun," wins all the medals, gets her thesis published, and plays classical guitar. Father, an underemployed manic-depressive, must occasionally be put away and "juiced." Out of such material one could of course make anything. But Shields cannot make of it either comedy or tragedy, just 200-odd pages of low-grade pain. Pain may be too noble a word. Irritation is closer to the mark.

I wish Shields could enjoy his characters more—they are so obviously up for it. I could imagine Mother played by an imperious Bette Midler with lines written for her by Geoffrey Chaucer. But Shields seems not to have heard that characters can be both outrageous and lovable. His protagonist keeps saying such things as: "I have always had too many anxieties of my own to have much patience with other people's problems." Sigh.

The stuttering is supposed to provide us with a post-modern metaphor for the inadequacy of all language and the impossibility of genuine communion ("Between me and life that can be touched there has always been a fence"), but it does nothing of the sort. Despite Mother's black swimsuit, which is "ugly," and the sand dunes, which are "hideous," and the "slime mold" that clings to the dock, and many similar touches, it is not possible to believe that privileged little Jeremy is really a character out of Camus.

Sometimes the Angst-striking seems so relished that one can't help howl (with laughter). I am reminded of Chesterton's lines:

     Now you mention it      Of course, the sky      is like a large mouth      shown to a dentist,      and I never noticed      a little thing      like that.

Jeremy's problem, after all, is that he stutters a little. He too achieves in class, on the playing field, in his chosen work. He has nothing of his poor father's affliction—which the reader has more sympathy for than Jeremy ever exhibits. No, he doesn't connect awfully well with the opposite sex (none of the extra-familial females are anything but transient vapors), but the problem is not sexual dysfunction. Jeremy has no trouble masturbating. Jeremy just loves Jeremy.

In a book in which language is portrayed as "eclips[ing] life," it would be nice to report that the language is overpowering. Instead, it makes the reader feel like "mixed pickles," as the English say. Here is a young writer straining for Irving's facility or even Updike's airy grace but, for all his bench pressing, just giving himself a literary hernia. Toward the end, he makes a terrible mistake. After scores of cutesy hommages to great modernists ("rain was general all over Los Angeles"), he gives us an extended quotation from To the Lighthouse—and the passage rises like a mesa in a desert and thrills us with the mysterious power of real creativity.

Robert Towers (review date 20 July 1989)

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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 uncooked, so to speak, without the subtlety and depth derived from imaginative transmuting of personal experience into fiction. The gains in journalistic immediacy are generally offset by the absence of the play of novelistic invention (a very different matter from autobiographical fibbing in the manner of Ford Madox Ford or Lillian Hellman).

Conversely, certain novels by writers of whom we know nothing except what is revealed on the dust jacket can have an autobiographical tone that at once distinguishes them from other realistically grounded stories in the first person that we unhesitatingly accept as fiction. One is not tempted to read The Catcher in the Rye as a largely factual account of an episode in J.D. Salinger's adolescence. On the other hand, David Shields's new novel, Dead Languages, which also deals with the experiences of a precocious, lively, but seriously troubled boy growing up in the Fifties, has the ring of experienced, autobiographical "truth." The difference resides, I think, not so much in the voice of the narrators as in the books' narrative shape. "All I've ever had are memories," Jeremy Zorn, the narrator of Dead Languages, declares on the first page of the book. "No imagination, only memory." The shape imposed by the dominance of memory over imagination (i.e., invention) affects the very sound and feel of Shields's remarkable novel. (Of course every character and every event in Dead Languages may, for all I know, be entirely Shields's invention; what counts is that the novel is written so as to make us feel we are in the presence of literal memory.)

Jeremy Zorn is a stutterer with the misfortune of having been born into an exceptionally articulate family. His mother, Annette, dominates the household. She is a journalist, a West Coast correspondent for The Nation and other left-liberal papers, a woman passionately concerned with the fate of the Hollywood Ten and causes supported by the ACLU, a tireless opponent of inquisitorial congressional committees, a crusading advocate of racial equality. But she is also a "Cossack" where her pathetic Jewish husband, Teddy, is concerned.

It was just not her way to rush to Father's defense. She didn't do that sort of thing. Father was so helpless he would have needed the Russian Army as a defense and, although Mother was the Russian Army, she was never especially prone to eliminating the enemy for him. Or, rather, she was the enemy for him. Why was she always so sweet to strangers and so tough on Father? I wish I knew.

Toward her son, she is superficially affectionate and subtly undermining. In later life, at the prodding of his speech therapist, Jeremy manages to evoke a scene from early childhood that may (or may not) represent the transition from slight to severe stuttering. Annette corners the little boy on the living room couch, pushes his hair off his forehead, blows smoke in his face, and attempts to have a heart-to-heart talk about his tendency to talk too fast and consequently to trip over certain words. ("Actually," interjects the grown-up Jeremy, "studies show it's not stutterers who talk too fast but the mothers of stutterers; it's their fault.") She tries to get him to say "Philadelphia" very slowly and carefully.

I tried. God knows I tried. But "Philadelphia" lay like dead weight on my chest, like helium in my head, neither light nor heavy, and yet with definite gravity to it: with downward pull…. Teeth on lips forever, and all I could come up with was an infinitely extended, infinitely painful Ffffffff. That's all. Only that. Ffffffff. Nothing more.

"I don't feel like saying that word right now," I said.

"What word?" Mother asked.

"That word."

"What word?"

"You know."

"Give it a try."

"No," I said. "Not now. Maybe later."

Mother shook her head in sadness and disgust.

Persistent, Annette produces stacks of flash cards and tries to get Jeremy to say what each picture depicts. He finds himself unable to call a single card.

Jeremy's father is a highly emotional man, obsessed by the fate of the Rosenbergs and ever on the lookout for latent anti-Semitism. He jogs, plays tennis badly, umpires "industrial league" ball games in Golden Gate Park, and is much in demand for his ability to tell stories and Yiddish jokes. He is also a manic-depressive who is periodically driven off to a sanitarium for electroshock therapy. These parental figures, together with Jeremy's precocious, fat, and unhappy sister, Beth, are portrayed with a brilliant mixture of pitiless observation, excoriation, humor, love, and forgiveness.

Dead Languages erratically follows the course of Jeremy's growing up, from early childhood to approximately the age of twenty-one, when the young man, now a student at UCLA, must cope with his mother's agonizing death. There is no episode in all of this time that does not reflect, in one way or another, his desperate need to escape the terrible sense of isolation induced by his stutter. "We all find some place we are powerful, though; we all go somewhere to be strong." That is how Jeremy accounts for his father's escape into sports, and how he would account for his own compensatory involvement in running and basketball, in editorial writing and school politics, and in his prepubescent and adolescent pursuit of unlikely girls. "Sometimes," he reflects,

my childhood seems to me nothing more than an endless series of obsessions, overwrought attempts to get beyond a voice that bothered me and, like any saint in the grip of a metaphor, I desired either to vanish forever or to emerge triumphant.

Among the therapies he tries (designed to punish his mother as well as to mortify his own flesh) are total silence and fasting—both of which come to farcical conclusions. The comedy of Dead Languages equals (but never quite surpasses) its pain.

At one point, made frantic not only by his stutter but by the additional humiliation of acute acne, the boy makes an almost suicidal leap from a cliff to a sandy beach thirty feet below.

Right around the middle of good Aristotelian books, there's supposed to be an action that reveals the protagonist's harnartia—in this case … excessive self-absorption as a function of disfluency—and also transforms the rising action into falling action. But the cause of the falling action isn't supposed to be quite so literally A FALL. It's supposed to be a little more metaphorical than that. Still, I can't alter the story of my life to conform to some archaic theory of dramatic structure.

Jeremy's literal fall results in a broken thigh, but his comment applies to the non-Aristotelian structure of the novel as a whole. Not only is there no rising action; there is really nothing in the way of plot. Remembered episode succeeds remembered episode, and the reader for the most part is carried along by the vivacity of the language and moved by the unsparing, often hilarious, honesty with which Jeremy confronts himself and his family. We watch as the boy reaches for words, plays with them, achieves a non-oral mastery over them, and becomes a writer—a writer with an ineradicable sense of the inadequacy of his medium:

It's an ancient story, beginning before Demosthenes, and it has a simple moral: we try to but cannot construct reality out of words. Catullus has nothing to say to the cab driver. A poem isn't a person. Latin's only a language. Stuttering's only wasted sound. It can't become communication.

Sandra [the speech therapist] strongly disagrees concerning the next point. She says personality disorders arise from stuttering whereas I seem to want to feel only the stutterer is faithful to human tension every time he talks, only in broken speech is the form of disfluency consonant with the chaos of the world's content. Stutterers are truth-tellers; everyone else is lying. I know it's insane but I believe that.

The book is wonderfully quotable. David Shields is an enviably talented writer, a stylist with a strong metaphoric gift and the ability to stage scenes of almost excruciating intensity. But I was sometimes exasperated by the obsessive, even repetitious quality of Jeremy's preoccupations, and in the end I missed the pleasure of a fully imagined work in which the impulse to shape experience seems as strong as the impulse to reveal it….

Pagan Kennedy (review date August 1989)

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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.

In fact, Shields is at his best when writing about writing. He dazzles us with literary fireworks—plot twists, complicated puns that sum up a situation, and hairpin turns of phrase. Perhaps the most striking example is the novel's climax, a cliff-hanger in which the main character, Jeremy, literally falls from a cliff. Leaving Jeremy hanging in the air, the narrator (an older Jeremy) comments on the structure of fiction as expounded in Aristotle's Poetics, and the critical point at which, right around the middle of good Aristotelian books, rising action transforms into falling action. "But," says Jeremy, "the cause of the falling action isn't supposed to be quite so literally A FALL. It's supposed to be a little more metaphorical than that. Still, I can't alter the story of my life to conform to some archaic theory of dramatic structure."

Actually, the book conforms to perhaps the most archaic dramatic structure: a young man's attempts to woo his mother. In this case, the mother is a correspondent for The Nation—a woman not so much to be wooed as weathered. "Mother was, above all else, a woman of moods. If she'd been escorted out of the San Francisco Press Club for wearing slacks,… dinner would be a long silent affair," but if, during the day, "an important politician invited her to ask the first question at a press conference, she was capable, I think, of divine love." With a mother who rules the family like an autocratic editor, it is no wonder that Jeremy—always trying to make his way into her "Friday edition, her heart of hearts"—stutters.

Though the plot revolves around Jeremy's mother, it's his father who steals the show. He's one of those characters so tragic it's hard to read about him without wincing. A manic-depressive who can't hold a job and regularly begs for shock treatment, he collects books arguing the innocence of the Rosenbergs—as if himself seeking some kind of absolution. When he's carted off to the bin, he can only repeat one evocative sentence: "On June 19, 1953, two people charged with having transmitted the secrets of the split atom to a foreign power were executed after a judgment by a jury of their peers." Jeremy and his father make interesting characters precisely because they lack the mother's lingual ease; for both of them, words are not tools, but totems of failures.

For instance, in order to avoid a consonant on which he is likely to stutter, Jeremy takes complicated detours of language, using ten words instead of the threatening one. He applies the same circumlocution to life. Instead of attacking his stuttering head on, he seeks salvation through basketball, the debate team, politics, Latin. "Sometimes my childhood seems to me nothing more than an endless series of obsessions, overwrought attempts to get beyond a voice that bothered me and, like any saint in the grip of a metaphor, I desired either to vanish forever or to emerge triumphant."

It is only toward the end of the book that he settles on the obvious cure—speech therapy. His therapist's bizarre prescription is that Jeremy must try to stutter. But, once able to give up his impediment, he is reluctant to do so. It has become for him not just a verbal tic, but an existential position: "[O]nly the stutterer is faithful to human tension every time he talks, only in broken speech is the form of disfluency consonant with the chaos of the world's content. Stutterers are truthtellers; everyone else is lying."

Most of us sail through speech barely aware of the language we use. But Jeremy—at times terrified of fs and ss, at times of bs and ds—is most conscious of himself when he is speaking, or failing to. The book's language mirrors Jeremy's speech, what he describes as "my allegiance to long, and anxiety about short, sentences; my consistent substitution of any approximate synonym for a feared word."

Dead Languages is a novel-long stutter, hemming and hesitating, titillating with its titubation. The language of the book is not just decoration, it is part of the plot. And Jeremy's string of childhood failures reads like a repeated consonant, the prelude to a difficult adulthood. What saves Jeremy is not so much speech therapy as writing; his way of coming to terms with his mother's death is to fictionalize it. The last sentences of the book are from Jeremy's novel—in which he and his mother know a closeness they did not enjoy in real life.

It should come as no surprise that Shields is himself a recovering stutterer. Of this, his second novel, he has commented, "I was overwhelmed by the paradox that as a writer I could manipulate words but that as a stutterer I was to a large degree at the mercy of them." However, it is not the first half of this paradox, his facility with language, that makes Dead Languages so absolutely dead-on. Rather, the book gains its strength from Shields's willingness to discuss his weaknesses: his ability to expose his secrets to the harshest light, to enumerate and name the hidden shames of the stutterer.

Jack Byrne (review date Summer 1990)

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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 family. That's impossible. That can't be who we are…. My family was living in a language whereas I was dying in it …") and ends with the death of his mother ("Just a party, as Mother's will specified, 'to celebrate life rather than mourn death.' Some celebration. A folk guitarist upon whom Mother had always had a crush played poorly. Father wept in the den. She'd been carried out of the bedroom in a plastic bag. Her body was burned. The ashes were scattered at sea. Whenever I cross the Golden Gate Bridge, I think not of suicide, as Father does, but of Mother, swimming").

But it's not that simple. A more important incident is described regarding Jeremy's father, who, after hearing about his father's death, tells Jeremy's mother, who is pregnant with Jeremy, about "his fear that I was going to be too much of a burden for him because he had a history of depression." "Who knows what damage that did to my diction? I don't think their marriage ever really recovered its equilibrium after that."

A manic-depressive for a father, a father who is very good at Yiddish jokes, a mother who, when she isn't working as West Coast correspondent for the Nation, is using flash cards to "unstutter" her son, and a fat sister who writes a Ph.D. dissertation that is a revisionist view of the Levellers. Shouldn't that do it? Shouldn't that put the old tin lid on Jeremy's hopes to "Speak the speech I pray you, as I pronounced it to you trippingly on the tongue"? Not that it ever stopped Demosthenes, Moses, Hippocrates, Virgil, Aristotle, Aesop, Kenneth Tynan, Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, Charles I, Erasmus, George VI, even Marilyn and John Updike!

His father has periodic shock therapy which extends beyond the novel's end. Yet the narrator's concern with his stuttering is almost exclusively with his Mary McCarthy-like mother who spends her time trying to convince her son that he can overcome his speech difficulties if only he will try, try, try again. But since there is no easy solution for stuttering, the novel has no happy, or, for that matter, no tragic ending. At its end, the novel leaves us at rest, having seen Jeremy through his most traumatic experience—his mother's death and the beginning of his life without her. But isn't that true of most of us, whether we stutter or not? Death changes the angle of perception regardless of impediments. Jeremy writes on the penultimate page, "I talk the way I talk, I write the way I write, I live the way I die because of Mother. Everything I've ever done I did to win her admiration. She always used to say, 'You may not love me, but you must respect me.' We loved her from afar." A more lovable stutterer puts it nearer the heart's core: in a letter to Coleridge, Charles Lamb expresses his frustration with his affliction: "For God's sake (I never was more serious) don't make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentlehearted in print … substitute drunken dog, ragged head, seld-shaven, odd-eyed, stuttering, or any other epithet which truly and properly belongs to the gentleman in question." Didn't Popeye say it best? "I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam, I'm Popeye the sailor man." Come on board, Jeremy. You're among friends.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 27 December 1991)

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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 threatened to buckle under the weight of its philosophical implications, its youthful hero and his family emerged as memorable and finely observed characters, people with the power to insinuate themselves into the reader's own imagination.

Now, in his latest book—a collection of interlinked stories titled A Handbook for Drowning—Mr. Shields works a variation on the material in Dead Languages, stripping away the more symbolic aspects of the story to focus on the coming of age of a young man. The hero of Handbook, one Walter Jaffe, is Jeremy Zorn without the stutter, a sensitive, introspective boy attempting to come to terms with his family, and to sort out his own sexual, artistic and intellectual impulses.

Like Jeremy, Walter has a self-absorbed mother, who is well known as a liberal journalist, and who develops cancer. And like Jeremy, he has an ineffectual father, who covers sports for a suburban California newspaper and obsessively rehashes details of the Rosenberg trial in his free time. The other subsidiary characters—a precocious sister and a college girlfriend with literary inclinations—also bear a decided resemblance to the supporting cast of Dead Languages.

Instead of writing a straightforward narrative, Mr. Shields has chosen to relate his hero's story through a series of interconnected tales that jump around in time, from Walter's college years to his childhood in the 60's and back again to his adulthood. This is a technique employed to powerful effect in such recent books as Tim O'Brien's Things They Carried, and Stephanie Vaughn's Sweet Talk, and Mr. Shields uses it here to create an elliptical portrait of Walter. The effect is similar to that of seeing a selection of snapshots from a stranger's life, arranged in seemingly random order. The reader is given a series of glimpses of Walter interacting with assorted family members and friends, and then is implicitly asked to connect these glimpses into an overall impression.

We see grown-up Walter taking his aging father to a baseball game for Father's Day, young Walter refusing his grandfather's demand that he grow up and take over the family's secondhand junk shop, grown-up Walter going through his dead mother's papers in search of something that might reveal the secrets of her heart. One story examines Walter's family's attitudes toward race and revolution in the 60's: his mother's embarrassing attempts to ingratiate herself with her black housekeeper, his father's efforts to discuss W. E. B. DuBois with a young man from Watts. Another story chronicles Walter's sexual explorations: his earliest experiments with masturbation, his adolescent visit to a massage parlor. Subsequent tales take up this theme and develop it further. We see Walter with a variety of girlfriends, trying to learn how to love, trying to learn how to rid himself of the emotional detachment he acquired in the wake of his mother's illness, and at the same time learn how to protect himself from further hurt.

"He danced, but alone and away from her, with his back turned toward her," Mr. Shields writes of one youthful romance.

The record repeated the sentiment that, if he couldn't love her, he didn't want to love nobody, and Walter, given his family history—his parents were in the middle of a trial separation; his sister's engagement to someone at school had just been broken off—distrusted the sentiment. He desired every gorgeous girl who walked past him on the street, but he thought he was uninterested in or incapable of loving any one of them in particular, even Leanne, although perhaps this was because he'd never loved any woman other than his mother, and about her he was feeling fairly ambivalent right now.

Although the prose in this volume is a bit more relaxed than that in Dead Languages, Mr. Shields again demonstrates his ability to conjure up the past by using lyrical, rhythmic language to relate ordinary domestic events. He possesses a gift for taking a seemingly mundane moment—an argument over a sweater, a nap on the beach, a hike in the woods—and investing it with layers of psychological resonance.

Indeed, these qualities seem more apparent in Handbook than in Dead Language, where the heavy metaphorical superstructure obscured the novel's more plebeian pleasures. All in all, this is a more fluent and engaging, if decidedly less ambitious, book than its predecessor. The reader only hopes that the author moves on to new material and characters in his subsequent work, discovering fresh territory on which to exercise his already abundant talents.

Joseph Coates (review date 12 January 1992)

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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 become a cliché relegated to roundup reviews, savvy fiction writers now usually open with something more accomplished, as David Shields did with his actual first novel, Heroes, in 1984, which was that rare thing, a really good sports novel that did with basketball what Mark Harris or Bernard Malamud did with baseball: Make the passion, pull and mythological grace of the game integral to the characters.

After last year's novel, the linguistic tour de force Dead Languages, Shields in these 24 short stories [A Handbook for Drowning] now gives us his first novel, the writer learning to write, here named Walt Jaffe. Jaffe is the recurrent hero of a recently revived old form, the series of linked stories with a common hero. Here they are transformed into something newer and psychologically truer to the fragmentary rites of passage that are more often fleeting stabs of pain and insight that afflict us anytime between our birth and our parents' deaths in our middle age.

Faithful to the discordant shards of such comings-to-terms, A Handbook for Drowning is jumbled in chronology, showing us in the first story a man in his 20s named Walt who comes close to sadism in pushing his intimacy with Nina to the point where she passes his test of her love. Who is this needy, apparently unlovable man who makes similarly extravagant and fanciful demands of Nina in a much later story, "The Moon, Falling"?

In the second, he's a teenage Walt whose radical journalist mother is already dying of cancer, who listens as his fat friend Gookus explains the eternal mysteries of love—though at the end "Gookus had sex, but I had death; I'd capped him." Gradually there emerges a painful childhood in the "numb little hell" of his emotionally with drawn and politically fixated parents. In "The War on Poverty," a black maid treated with punctilious "equality" by the Jaffes hides in a closet to scare Walt: "Oh my," says Virginia, "such a treat to get a real response out of you folks."

At the same time, in one of the book's crowning stories, "The Sheer Joy of Amoral Creation," we see Walt in his 30s at last finding among his dead mother's effects "a piece of paper that attacked his heart," a bad poem that reveals the undreamt-of "possibility that his mother could harbor such helpless, primitive, irrational feelings" and the idea "that it would be permissible for himself to feel such feelings"—and wishing that his parents had forgotten about the Rosenbergs and "communicated to each other (and thus to him) not that the body is moral, which it wasn't, but that it was mortal,… and that the act of love wasn't one more good deed but a riot of feelings."

And not only do we get Walt's first short story about his family, and his father's critique of it in the following story-letter, "Comp Lit 101: Walt Grows Up," but the book ends, as it should, at a beginning: with his tender mother coaxing Walt at 7, in spite of his feeling like a coward "compared to the Rosenbergs (especially Ethel)," into "swimming in open water."

Suzanne Berne (review date 19 January 1992)

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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 have never met before.

David Shields' third work of fiction, A Handbook for Drowning, introduces a character driven by familiar obsessions. Walter Jaffe, the hero of this collection of related stories, is also preoccupied with defects—everything from his girlfriend's deformed toe to his parents' self-conscious political idealism. Sometimes this fixation can be funny, as in the story called "The War on Poverty," in which Walt describes his mother's earnest attempt to befriend Darryl, "a young man from Watts." To make Darryl feel welcome, she "prepared dishes such as black-eyed peas, grits, and Southern fried steak, which she thought might appeal especially to him but which neither he nor anyone else was able to swallow." Many of these stories take place in the 1960's and early 70's, an era Mr. Shields finds compelling precisely because the noble was so often hobbled by the silly (as in "The Sixties," when a high-school ecology club retaliates to Walt's satire of one of its demonstrations by "toilet-papering my house").

But mostly the stories are submerged in unhappiness, the side effect of an imperfect world. "War Wounds" lists a barrage of horrors, those caused by the war in Vietnam as well as the everyday atrocities we read about in the newspaper, as the prelude for a story about becoming a conscientious objector. Walt objects to so much suffering, yet at the same time he's drawn to it. Like Prometheus, one of his heroes, he gets a certain kick out of torment. When his girlfriend nearly drowns in "The Moon, Falling," Walt finds the experience of resuscitating her erotic; in another story, he enjoys reading unflattering descriptions of himself in her journal. Even his mother's cancer seems to fascinate as much as grieve him. His conscience overwhelmed by neurotic fears and desires, Walt's real obsession surfaces—it is his own defective self.

An obsession with imperfection also runs through Mr. Shields' second novel, Dead Languages. In that book, he explored "disfluency" by creating a brilliant, articulate narrator who stutters. This defect reveals the painful inadequacies of speech—a familiar frustration, and yet surprising to encounter so dramatically. The struggle for self-expression may be universal, but it's rare to see that struggle enacted between such a lyrical interior life and its clumsy, halting exterior. However, the link between Mr. Shields' previous book and this one goes beyond a common obsession. Even details in Dead Languages reappear in A Handbook for Drowning: the mothers in both works are successful journalists who die of cancer; both fathers are devoted to the cause of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; the families even take the same vacations.

In other words, the circumstances within this third book often seem convenient rather than purposely selected; reading this material sometimes feels like leafing through an artist's sketch pad. The stories flip restlessly between Walt's childhood and adulthood, seen from different perspectives, as if a range of angles can substitute for new subject matter. Walt's fixations stay too undeveloped to become truly involving; he is certainly drowning in his obsessions, but we never really find out why. Alas, we all have our neuroses. What we may not have is insight into the reasons for them. Everyone knows how to drown; perhaps what we could use is a handbook for staying afloat.

Dan Cryer (review date 20 January 1992)

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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 of divorce, making peace with the age of flower power.

Yet freed from the conventional novel's linear progression, Shields has the latitude not to flesh out a character's background or fill in plot lines or aim toward an identifiable climax. The short-story format permits, even luxuriates in, a pointillist mysteriousness regarding all these elements. Given enough fictional sleight-of-hand, the slice of life, the single moment of revelation, is enough.

In A Handbook for Drowning, Shields offers a handful of snapshots of Walt and the Jaffes that is quite enough indeed. Even if some of the stories by themselves are rather slight, their cumulative effect is powerful. Collectively, these short, vaguely experimental fictions (many of which appeared in little magazines such as The Quarterly and Between C & D) deliver traditional satisfaction.

Shields' strength lies in setting up ironic play between expectations and reality. Sometimes, as in "The War on Poverty," the contrasts are fairly straightforward. When the ardently liberal Jaffes—Walt's mother is a civil-rights advocate, his father a zealot for the martyred Rosenbergs—hire a black maid, she doesn't care about being treated like family, just about being well-paid. As for the pieties of "The Sixties," Shields has Walt recall with a smile an era of supreme silliness: "I broke up with my girlfriend when one day she decided she couldn't stand it any longer and went ahead and shaved her legs."

More tellingly, Shields juxtaposes a Walt growing up uneasily while his mother dies of cancer. In "Oaxaca," a girl has sneaked into Walt's bedroom and is instructing this awkward teenager in the intricacies of dancing. With his mother sleeping nearby, Walt senses that the girl is "trying to teach him how to live … [But] he wanted to remember who he had always been: a nervous little boy cowering in the corner."

Meanwhile, Walt's parents engage in a nervous dance of their own, with both partners beyond each other's reach. On a trip to Salt Lake City ("The Fourth Wonder of the World"), Sylvia Jaffe "wanted to like [her husband] Leonard, the children to float forever, and the lake to wash away a few wounds, but it hadn't." After his mother's death ("The Sheer Joy of Amoral Creation"), Walt sifts through her belongings, searching in vain for evidence that his parents understood that "the act of love wasn't one more good deed but a riot of feelings."

At college in Rhode Island, however, Walt's relationship with his girlfriend, Nina, too often recapitulates his parents' unhappiness. They quarrel ceaselessly. Afraid to face his own pain, he projects a false machismo learned from his father. Nina's diary in "The Imaginary Dead Baby Sea Gull" pleads with him to stop "laughing at misery."

A Handbook for Drowning is wiser by far than its jaded title implies, not to mention devoid of the protagonist-as-victim self-pity of the author's previous coming-of-age novel Dead Languages. Yes, Walt's mother almost drowns, but not in an attempted suicide. And he is forced to rescue Nina from drowning on another occasion. Walt, though, has to save himself through writing.

For Walt the act of writing is cathartic, an indirect way of gaining access to his blocked emotions. "Heart of a Dybbuk," which Walt has written for a college class, shows him as a young man named Tannenbaum arriving at Grand Central Station from Rhode Island with Nina. They strike up a conversation with an elderly Jew named Levy. His death a few weeks later prompts Walt to express his long-buried grief for his mother: "His eyes were aimed at the ground; he was bowing with maniacal rapidity; and he was speaking loud, elliptical Hebrew in perfect concert with Levy."

David Shields' tautly constructed, tartly observant stories present Walt as a survivor of family drowning, now free to grow up.

Robert Taylor (review date 22 January 1992)

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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, represent stages of his growth.

Drowning, of course, is the operative image, and the stories make adroit use of beach, swimming pool, riverside and lake settings. The significance of the title, however, resides in ideology as well as in fears that one may cease to be.

Walter's parents are Jewish progressives consumed by dogooder political causes. His father, Leonard, is fixated on the Rosenbergs and their execution; Sylvia, the mother, explains to little Walt "that there were two McCarthys: one was a man with a red nose and a jowly chin who, occasionally in old television footage and all the time in his father's fury, asked 'Are you now or have you ever been?' The other McCarthy wrote marvelous little poems to himself and had the most compassionate eyes she'd ever seen."

Walter's relationship with his girlfriend Nina is also important. In the opening story they are at the beach and Walter invents a story about a baby sea gull nose-diving into the water to cover up the fact that he has been reading her diary while she's asleep. Compelled to know everything about Nina, he demands an impossible intimacy. She adorns other contexts, along with Walter's sister Ellen and vociferous pal Gookus. But, near the close, Nina is an ex-fiancee in a California scene where "a former girlfriend's former boyfriend's new girlfriend, cries, cries."

The repetition of the verb indicates Shields' stylistic verve and ironic detachment. The mood and the tone of the writing is quite different from similar coming-of-age cycles such as, say, Hemingway's Nick Adams stories. A structure of connecting though nonchronological stories dispenses with the yoke of time. It also abolishes the drudgery of detailed exposition and character development in a conventional cause-and-effect manner; instead, juxtaposition provides contrast and sudden flashes of insight reveal an extensive landscape of feeling. Chapters are spare, a succinct two or three pages, seldom more than 10, yet avoid the minimalistic or anecdotal.

Walter is mature in one story, a child in the next. After his mother dies of cancer, he discovers a mawkish Thomas Moore poem that she has saved and wonders if the poem shows that she did not always sacrifice herself to sweet reason but also harbored primitive, irrational feelings. In the next story, his father is 79 and they attend a Mariners baseball game in the Seattle Kingdome; then, in the following tale, about a visit to his grandparents, Walt is a small boy again, his mother snapping the seat belt around his waist as he squirms in a car's back seat. The changing perspectives chart the process of Walter's growth—he competes in his dreams, with his father for example, but not while awake—from a different angle.

His puzzlement over his parents and his fumbling courtship of Nina reiterate the theme of intimacy sounded in the opening story—the need for intimacy and the turning away from it. Walter is about 15 or so in the story called "Oaxaca," and has attracted a girl who teaches him to dance. It's early in the morning, his mother is trying to sleep upstairs, and he avoids dancing. "She wanted Walter to stop being a boy, but all he did was say, 'We should probably turn it down a little. My mother is trying to get some sleep.'" The emotional truth of the situation, the mother upstairs, the girl who likes Walter, his inability to respond, are rendered with an engaging honesty, the hallmark of Shields' style. Walter almost drowns in the real pool of his family's neuroses; he will, however, eventually swim in open water.

Craig Seligman (review date February 1992)

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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 work a metaphor so cruelly that he raised the book to another, richer plane. The richness made up for its deficits: the familiar coming-of-age story; the angry fixation on parents—which, like headbanging unhappiness, is a mark of adolescence. He didn't know what to do with his story after a while; the mother died of cancer, and that was it. But he made stuttering, which has been low comedy for centuries, into something horribly real. There was no comedy, even cheap comedy. (That, perhaps, was a deficit, too.)

The interlocking stories in Shields's new collection, A Handbook for Drowning, read like outtakes from Dead Languages. The central character's name has changed from Jeremy Zorn to Walter Jaffe, the stutter is gone, he attends Brown instead of UCLA … but he has the same hardy, disconsolate father, the same fire-breathing mother (with the same cancer), the same smart older sister, the same put-upon girlfriend doing the same slow burn. Shields has placed the stories out of sequence; otherwise they would read even more like a novel, which is basically what they are: an extremely attenuated novel in the form of snapshots. Here is young Walt floating on the Great Salt Lake. Here he is swimming (terrified of sinking) in the ocean. Here's his mother the ostentatious liberal playing up to the maid, his Jewish father aghast that his son could use the expression "jew him down," his girlfriend falling into a rushing stream. Here is a story by Walt the budding writer—"Heart of a Dybbuk," with a central character named Tannenbaum. We get basketball, we get pubescent and grownup sex, we get guilt and disaffection, disease and death.

What we don't get is the speech impediment that made Jeremy Zorn's attempts to communicate with everyone so humiliating and thus accounted for his frustration and anger. This time the bitterness seems unearned, a young writer's pose. Walt's family has its problems, but it would be a stretch to call it dysfunctional. (It would also be a stretch to call it fascinating.) Shields has a lovely ear, but if anything his sentences are too artful—lapidary wonders that sparkle but don't breathe. You can tell how much sweat went in, or rather you can deduce it—it hasn't left a trace of smell.

The model here seems to be Leonard Michaels. One story, "The Sixties," even carries the tag "After Leonard Michaels's 'In the Fifties.'" There is Michaels's brevity (24 stories, 178 pages: not one word wasted), some of his unkindness, some of the threat of sexual ugliness his stories wield; but there isn't the cold perfection, because Shields isn't cold and he doesn't have the temper for perfection. He doesn't have the heart of a formalist. You want more from him than just art—some plot, some theme, some warmth.

If this book had been published before Dead Languages it would have been called promising, meaning that it's full of ideas ready to be fleshed out. What Shields has done instead is remove the flesh. He was already down to bone in his last book. He needs to head out, not in, and quit picking at family scars. The controlling metaphor of drowning is carried through impressively, but the only time it really comes alive is when it stops being a metaphor—when someone nearly drowns. What was interesting about disfluency wasn't its metaphorical resonance (that was a bonus) but the subject itself; Shields does best when he plants his feet in the world. In three books he's traveled from clunkiness to pure technique. If he keeps heading in the same direction he could end up writing stories of two or three beautiful words.

Lance Olsen (review date Spring 1992)

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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 Prometheus Bound in preparation for a quiz.

Most of these are quiet, domestic, sadly funny pieces set fifteen or twenty years ago in suburban rooms, urban dorms, and sunny beaches in California and Rhode Island. Some, like "Father's Day," a tender account of a father and son attending a Mariners game, and "The Sixties," a whimsical rethinking of Leonard Michaels's "In the Fifties," are almost essayistic. At the center of each stands Walter Jaffe, a geekish young man who carries a bright, innocent belligerence within him, the kind of guy who rummages through his lover's stuff while she sleeps, reads her journal behind her back, and forces her to dance against her will in a sleazy bar.

Throughout, Shields uses up some paint left on his palette from the creation of his excellent first two novels, Heroes (1984) and Dead Languages (1989). Many ideas and even scenes from those return: a mother dying of cancer, a weak father's sins visited upon a son, failed lovers struggling for power, perils of college life in Providence, Proustian memory's importance, the persistence of basketball as an image of blocked transcendence, political and personal idealists trying to swim in an ocean that is anything but ideal.

While clearly obsessed with these signature situations, Shields seems at least as interested—probably more so—in generating surprising, precise, exquisite sentences, beautifully evident in the Barthelmesque "Gun in the Grass at Your Feet," the emotionally rich "Imaginary Dead Baby Seagull," and thematic pastiches like "Lies" and "War Wounds." In fact, Shields's final obsession is not with death and dying at all, but with a Nabokovian love of language, though perhaps in the end for him these ultimately come down to two sides of the same coin.

Publishers Weekly (review date 5 February 1996)

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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 culture so interesting is its highly personal, even confessional nature: his essays often examine the private connections he feels to public figures and events. At times, however, Shields (Dead Languages) slips into narcissism; at others, such as in his "found" essays, composed entirely of bumper-sticker slogans, he is sterile if clever. But Shields is a gifted writer capable of surprising perceptions and considerable wit, and his idiosyncratic book offers intriguing insights into the ways the media can shape both the identities and the perceptions of its viewers.

Janice Braun (review date 15 February 1996)

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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 television and movies, desire, acne, sports, etc.); transcriptions (53 roadside Wall Drug signs in South Dakota, dreams about Kurt Cobain, bumper stickers, etc.); and references (often with footnotes) filtered through his offbeat viewpoint. In a subtle way, Shields imparts the vague cynicism and bemusement of one growing up in middle America in the Sixties and Seventies. Entertaining and original, this is highly recommended for general consumption.

Jeff Giles (review date 26 February 1996)

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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 and remembrances, a book for a society sick of books.

Remote channel-surfs through 52 quickie chapters—on Oprah, on Rousseau, on bumper stickers, on movie stars, on childhood, on the significance of tilting one's head in a photograph—that are meant to accumulate in power until they become the story of both Shields's life and ours. It's a funny, fizzy book, but drink it fast, because it's going to taste flat in the morning. In general, Shields casts himself as an alienated, covetous nerd who's wondering why we're all such alienated, covetous nerds, why we're so obsessed with celebrities when they make us even more depressed about "our unamplified little lives." Roving far and wide in the pop-culture universe, Shields weighs in on the erotic power of women who wear glasses ("The arrogance implied in believing that one's beauty can afford to be concealed is entrancing"), and on his quest to obtain a genuine Boy Scout belt: "I go so far as to schedule an interview for a troop leader position, until, fearing accusations of pedophilia, I end the charade." He's at his best during a bizarre meditation on the work of character actor Bob Balaban, who's popped up in everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Seinfeld. The piece is so serious and minutely detailed that it becomes a parody of celebrity journalism: "What is Bob Balaban, anyway, a professional punching bag? What indignity will the movies not subject him to? What indignity will he not accept?"

The answer, presumably, is that Balaban will suffer any indignity as long as he can be in the movies. And that we all would. Remote makes plenty of charmingly fisheyed points about our strange desires. Still, nothing here is brilliant enough to stop you dead in your tracks. And the futuristically formless nature of the collection gets irritating; it's an ambivalent comment on bookmaking, and before long it's got us feeling ambivalent too. Once, publishers would likely have balked at an oddball collection like Remote. Now, oddball books are in vogue, and Shields's publisher can go after the audience that reads irreverent postmodernists like Nicholson Baker, Mark Leyner and Douglas Coupland. Why not? There aren't many audiences left.

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 3 March 1996)

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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 form letter thanking him for his interest, plus an autographed photo of Batman, he turned against the show and never watched it again.

Mr. Shields sought to turn pop-cultural obsession into an identity, but also showed an ability to turn his devotion abruptly to contempt. This almost excessively revealing anecdote appears in Remote, a fragmentary sequence of essays that includes elements of journalistic exercise, photo album, abstract gossip (revelations from "Writer C" about "Writer D") and personal history: Mr. Shields reprints the postcard messages he sent home from summer camp and fills many pages with lists of bumper stickers. His main theme is a preference for the secondhand over the direct: "I don't know what's the matter with me—why I'm adept only at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor."

This is certainly a rhetorical series of questions. Mr. Shields wouldn't thank anyone who suggested, on the basis of the material presented in his book, that as the child of "Jewish liberal activists," he might have chosen passivism as the subtlest possible form of rebellion. The point of the book is to show its author's disaffection with immediate experience as somehow representative of the culture.

At times, that point is persuasively made. When Mr. Shields describes a taping session for Seattle Today or a special "Television Preview" at which the audience gets to assess two sitcom pilots, it's easy to feel that America is so polysaturated with unreal input as to approach a state of information infarction. When he describes pornography as "a revel in distance" rather than "a substitute for closeness," the shift of emphasis is enlightening: pornography looks a little different when we acknowledge that its supposed drawback is actually the whole point.

But there is also a persistent element in the author's persona of the (remote) control freak. Invited to that television preview, for instance, he tells us, "I don't even think of turning it down." Yet having seen the sitcoms, he compares them to "very difficult Zen koans, the answer to which can only emerge from a newly evolved understanding of the fundamental inconsequentiality of human existence." This seems to be the adult form of his Batman routine: stylized fascination with the worthless, followed by ironic intellectualizing.

Mr. Shields's blend of the schmoozing and the sardonic is most completely displayed in his account of David Milch, once his creative-writing teacher and subsequently a successful writer for Hill Street Blues. What he says about Mr. Milch's contributions to the show isn't stupid or even trivial, but he enjoys to the full the privilege of having the last word, and his deepest motivation seems to be the desire for symbolic revenge. When it comes to (ex-) friends, this revenge can be extraordinarily oblique: at one point, he reprints a long and passionately reproachful passage from a friend's letter as a footnote, purporting to illustrate an abstract observation. Here, though, the revenge backfires. Even out of context and in very small print, the "letter from Bruce Brooks to the author" moves the reader as nothing else in Remote condescends to do.

If it's nice to think of your disaffections as exemplary, it's not so nice to think of them as only exemplary, and there is an element in Remote of competitive inadequacy—neurosis as an Olympic event. Some of these passages read like warmups for a comic novel with a very unlikable narrator (Mr. Shields has had two novels published). Where other people (the Woody Allen character in a movie, say) are only hypochondriacal, Mr. Shields is "hyperhypochondriacal." When nervous, he chews blank 3-by-5 cards "like a woodchuck." After the breakup of one relationship, he harasses a massage parlor for no obvious reason, calling and hanging up, or directing the women who work there to false addresses. Presumably by now we're past the stage of being expected to say, "Hell, we've all done that."

Walter Kirn (review date 4 March 1996)

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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 are newer, synthetic edibles, too, that are less the products of nature than of science. David Shields's Remote belongs to one of these. This breezy, sideways autobiography, which seeks to reveal the author's soul via some quick-take musings on the media, is the literary answer to fake fat. Blurbed to the max by pop iconologists such as Wayne Koestenbaum and David Halberstam, Remote is a book designed to go down easy and leave no aftertaste. This is the New Higher Slickness perfected. After an early twinge of satisfaction, it passes through the system without absorption, leaving the reader faintly stimulated but essentially unchanged. Remote is a guilt-free, bite-size head treat. An intellectual Snackwell. It's even, as such products often are, lightly fortified with vitamins.

The form is loose, a tricky miscellany of criticism, reporting, and anecdote. The tone is stupid-smart. Ironic. (If you take me too seriously, it seems to say, you're being humorless. Take me too lightly, you're being unimaginative.) Shields starts with a field trip to a local talk show featuring Oprah Winfrey. He's careful to confess up front to being a big Oprah fan himself, albeit a hip and highly conscious one. "In Oprah's transition from fat to thin, from poor to rich, we see the possibility of our own transformation." The other, less knowing Oprah fans are kidded for their idiot sincerity. "Someone from the Rape Crisis Center wants to know whether Oprah is ever going to do a show on male victims of rape. Someone from the Northwest Women's Law Center wants to know what she thinks about abortion…."

Other vignettes follow. At a baseball-card-signing show, the canny kids, armed with price lists and clever buying strategies, are snubbed by the dopey, charmless jocks. At a taping of America's Funniest Home Videos, the audience is happily manipulated by the greasy staff. Always, the point is pathos and passivity. The sad unrequited romance of nineties fandom. "We are just outside Chartres, and all any of us care about is the lives of the saints." Shields admits to being a tube boob, too—lazy, detached, his brain awash in trivia, bad at relationships, vain yet self-loathing—and this is supposed to come as winning honesty. But I detect a shrewd defensive maneuver. By copping in advance to every weakness with which he might be tagged, Shields shuts out skeptics while bonding with the reader. Come, let us all grow up absurd together.

Shields's awkwardness flatters our own. His outsiderliness is inclusive, a clubby come-on. By seeding his text with campy yearbook photos and posed, professional author shots, he mocks his own authority, but every dig is a backhanded compliment. Nowadays, superficiality isn't shameful; in fact, in some intellectual circles it's de rigueur. When Shields writes, "I don't know what's the matter with me—why I'm adept only at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor," the whine is generic Woody Allen, a staple sentiment from the better sitcoms. Shields's remoteness is Warholian orthodoxy, not a troubling new brand of alienation.

Remote is a funny, stylish book at times. Shields has an ear for media clichés. One chapter catalogues truisms from sports. "Asked to reveal the game plan for tomorrow, the player always says, 'We're just going to go out and have fun.'" Being a midwestern book reviewer, I especially liked Shields's take on parochial New York critics: "American writers residing in and writing about the tri-state area are always understood to be adumbrating a universal spiritual condition, whereas writers residing in and writing about the other forty-seven states are always congratulated for being gifted regionalists." Shields's dictionary of received ideas is sharp and incontestable. "Political ideologues on both the right and the left always reserve their deepest passion for detective novels."

In what's becoming a literary fad, footnotes accessorize the lower margins. It's a satire of precision—mock scholasticism. For all the author's screen-age leanings, he's always cuing us to his old-school thoroughness. A smattering of mini-chapters ruminate on Rousseau's confessions in lofty Comp. Lit. theoryspeak: "Language is utterly separate from experience…. His compensation for the disaster of his love life is refuge in convoluted language that invalidates the innocence of the love for which he professes to yearn." Such sentences are all elbows, all cartilage; it's hard to tell what exactly is being grasped at. A sheen of seriousness? More tri-fold irony?

Shields's seminarish tone works best when the subject is neither truth nor trivia but the uncharted limbo in between. Remote's best chapter follows the career of a certain Bob Balaban, character actor, who invariably plays faceless, heartless nerds to bigger stars' expansive leads. Balaban is cinematic furniture, an object for major characters to lean against, and Shields identifies with his second-bananahood. To the same end, a later chapter lists Shields's brushes, many thirdhand, with a roster of celebrities. The result is a sad-sack existential résumé. "A former student of mine went out with Elizabeth Montgomery's son." "Twice I'm pretty sure I've seen Gary Larson walking around Seattle."

Inspired cuteness, this, but nothing new. The Zeitgeist's shallow waters are getting crowded. The comedy of schlock references is aging. Watch any Seinfeld episode. Watch Cybill. Fame's underdogs no longer skulk in alleys; they're the dominant pack. Their sighs and howls are just the latest old joke. Indeed, if a book like Remote is any sign, they're threatening to become the only joke.


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