'You Think That's Bad': Stories From the End of History

David L. Ulin
Jim Shepard
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Jim Shepard gives us characters at the edge of their endurance, not just at the end of their ropes but at the end of their lives.

You Think That's Bad: Stories

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 240 pages
Author: Jim Shepard
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-03

It's not that Jim Shepard isn't known, exactly; it's that he isn't known enough. Although his 2007 collection of short fiction, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, was a finalist for the National Book Award, he has never fully caught on with readers — his work is too diverse, too out there, too unclassifiable to find a place among the silos defining so much of our conversation about writers and books.

That's to our detriment, for, beginning with his first novel, Flights, in 1983, Shepard has traced his own odd line through contemporary fiction, engaging everything from historical figures to the most outrageous landscapes of the imagination. In Nosferatu (1998), he builds a novel around the German Expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau; Project X (2004) describes a Columbine-like school shooting from the point of view of one of the attackers, a confused eighth-grader who seems as surprised as anyone when the shooters' plan actually takes shape. These are prototypic Shepard characters: adrift, uncertain, with a strangely futile sense of destiny. "At this point," the narrator says in "The Netherlands Lives With Water", each of us understands privately that we're operating under the banner of lost control."

"The Netherlands Lives With Water" is one of 11 stories in Shepard's new collection, You Think That's Bad, and it's a stunner: a look at a future Holland in which climate change has created a flood crisis so extreme that it's no longer certain how or whether the country will survive. "It's the catastrophe for which the Dutch have been planning for fifty years," Shepard tells us. "Or, really, for as long as we've existed. We had cooperative water management before we had a state." What such a story really traces, however, is the point at which all the tools of civilization may no longer be enough.

That's a running theme in You Think That's Bad which balances an understanding of history with a recognition that we may be living at the end of history, at a place where narrative can go only so far. Again and again, Shepard gives us characters at the edge of their endurance, not just at the end of their ropes but at the end of their lives. In "The Track of the Assassins", a female British explorer of the '30s goes in search of the legendary Hassan-i Sabbah and his band of assassins; although she initially impresses her guides, the story ends with her weak from malaria and dysentery, staring down eternity "with (her) hands upon (her) breasts." In "Poland Is Watching", a pair of Polish mountaineers become the first climbers to reach the summit of Nanga Parbat, "the world's ninth-tallest mountain," only to succumb to the elements.

These stories bring their first-person narrators right up to the point of obliteration, leaving us exhilarated and despairing at once. It's a peculiar tension, but it works because Shepard never flinches from its implications. "Most people don't know what it's like to look down the road and see there's nothing there," explains the narrator of "Boys Town", a 38-year-old veteran at the breaking point. "You try to tell somebody that but they just look at you. I don't know why people need to hear the same thing ten thousand times, but they do."

At the heart of such a vision is the idea of disconnection, of the things we do that keep us from ourselves. Shepard's characters are, for the most part, distracted: husbands, fathers, co-workers lost among the surfaces of the world. "Gojira, King of the Monsters" — which reflects the author's long-held fascination with pop culture (one of his early stories reframes "Creature From the Black Lagoon" from the monster's perspective) — portrays Eiji Tsuburaya, the real-life Japanese special-effects wizard who created the original Godzilla, as a man whose fascination with the orderliness of model-building reflects an inability to deal with the messiness of family life. "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You" and "Happy With Crocodiles" portray young men wrestling with the specters of brothers who are friends and rivals, especially when it comes to the women they love.

"I don't think I'm ready to get married," says the narrator of the latter story. "But the minute I said it I thought, But I do want to be buried with her." That's a key line, all the more so because it comes from a soldier pinned down in an Indonesian jungle during World War II. What he is saying, after all, is that there's something safer, something more containable about the stillness of the grave than the entanglements of a living relationship. It's a brutal notion, and nowhere does Shepard investigate it more relentlessly than in "Classical Scenes of Farewell", in which a servant to 15th century French madman Gilles de Rais narrates his confession before his execution for helping his master kill 142 young boys. "God will come to know our secrets," he says. "At our immolation He'll appear to us and pour His gold out at our feet. And His grace that we kicked away will become like a tower on which we might stand. And His grace will raise us to such a height that we might glimpse the men we aspired to be."

You can read that declaration as a statement of transcendence or of delusion, or as a little bit of both. Regardless, it is fundamentally human -- contradictory, full of bravado, clinging to hope when there is no reason (was there ever?) to be hopeful anymore. It matters less what a character has done than where he finds himself: Even when facing the limits of his own morality and endurance, he can't help but reach for the promise of possibility. "'What are you really looking for?' my wife said to me, last thing, before I left," recalls the narrator of "Low-Hanging Fruit", who works as a theoretical physicist. "What we're all looking for. That saving thing, I think: something that right now is beyond our ability to even imagine."


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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