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Project X (Vintage Contemporaries) [Paperback]

Jim Shepard
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

12 April 2005 Vintage Contemporaries
n the wilderness of junior high, Edwin Hanratty is at the bottom of the food chain. His teachers find him a nuisance. His fellow students consider him prey. And although his parents are not oblivious to his troubles, they can't quite bring themselves to fathom the ruthless forces that demoralize him daily.

Sharing in these schoolyard indignities is his only friend, Flake. Branded together as misfits, their fury simmers quietly in the hallways, classrooms, and at home, until an unthinkable idea offers them a spectacular and terrifying release.

From Jim Shepard, one of the most enduring and influential novelists writing today, comes an unflinching look into the heart and soul of adolescence. Tender and horrifying, prescient and moving, Project X will not easily be forgotten.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 163 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books USA; Reprint edition (12 April 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400033489
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400033485
  • Product Dimensions: 20.5 x 13.3 x 1.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 775,342 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant 25 Jan 2005
By A. Ross TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
In the few years since the Columbine massacre, there have been a slew of novels (including the 2003 Booker Prize winner, Vernon God Little) attempting to understand what triggers such horrifying acts. Shepard's is the first of these I've read, and it's hard to imagine a superior version existing. This story of two boys plotting revenge on a school that has shunned them is a nuanced and subtle work that perfectly captures the speech and emotions of its protagonists while shying away from offering easy answers. Edwin and his only friend, Flake, are not metal/goth listening, animal torturing, trench coat-wearing, video-game junkie, grumpy teens. Teetering between adolescence and teenagerdom, they are the perpetual targets, not ultra geeky or ultra feeble or ultra nerdy, just enough of each to make them a pair of misfits worth picking on.
Told from Edwin's perspective, the novel depicts junior high as an endless series of insults and defeats, sometimes culminating in a bloody beating. Adding insult to injury, teachers never give Edwin the benefit of the doubt. This has led many reviews to write that the teachers pick on him or dislike him, which is actually not true. It would be very easy to portray the teachers as monsters from Edwin's viewpoint, but in fact, the teachers are often shown reaching out and making at least clumsy attempts to try and understand what his problems are. But because he is sometimes in the wrong, and can often be sarcastic or disrespectful, it's also easy to see why he is sometimes unjustly punished. And this is part of the complexity of the novel that makes it work-the teachers' actions do contribute to Edwin's misery, but not by design.
Similarly, Edwin's home life is hardly the dysfunctional den of horrors one might expect.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  71 reviews
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What Went Wrong? 28 July 2004
By A. Ross - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In the few years since the Columbine massacre, there have been a slew of novels (including the 2003 Booker Prize winner, Vernon God Little) attempting to understand what triggers such horrifying acts. Shepard's is the first of these I've read, and it's hard to imagine a superior version existing. This story of two boys plotting revenge on a school that has shunned them is a nuanced and subtle work that perfectly captures the speech and emotions of its protagonists while shying away from offering easy answers. Edwin and his only friend, Flake, are not metal/goth listening, animal torturing, trench coat-wearing, video-game junkie, grumpy teens. Teetering between adolescence and teenagerdom, they are the perpetual targets, not ultra geeky or ultra feeble or ultra nerdy, just enough of each to make them a pair of misfits worth picking on.

Told from Edwin's perspective, the novel depicts junior high as an endless series of insults and defeats, sometimes culminating in a bloody beating. Adding insult to injury, teachers never give Edwin the benefit of the doubt. This has led many reviews to write that the teachers pick on him or dislike him, which is actually not true. It would be very easy to portray the teachers as monsters from Edwin's viewpoint, but in fact, the teachers are often shown reaching out and making at least clumsy attempts to try and understand what his problems are. But because he is sometimes in the wrong, and can often be sarcastic or disrespectful, it's also easy to see why he is sometimes unjustly punished. And this is part of the complexity of the novel that makes it work-the teachers' actions do contribute to Edwin's misery, but not by design.

Similarly, Edwin's home life is hardly the dysfunctional den of horrors one might expect. His father is around, if distracted much of the time, but his mother is very aware that he is troubled, and frets about it a great deal. And there's Gus, his four-year-old brother, whom he clearly loves a great deal. Edwin's parents make repeated attempts to try and get him to open up and talk about what's bothering him, but he just can't get out of his shell. His mother manages to empathize with his emotional pain, mouthing the perfect words, but all her best efforts just never quite penetrate. Again, the complexity lies in the reality that the family is very typical, the parents don't do anything wrong, and yet Edwin sees shooting his classmates as a viable action. Interestingly, Shepard shows Edwin as suffering from sever reoccurring headaches and severe insomnia, which may speak to a physical or chemical disorder that might explain much else. Of course, these may also be stress or anxiety induced, but either explanation goes a long way toward explaining why he seems to sleepwalk through life.

As the book progresses, Edwin and Flake wallow deeper in their misery, humiliation, and ambivalent hatred, while remaining relatively sympathetic and amusing characters. As a counterpoint, their social prospects actually seem to improve slightly even as X-Day approaches. One sees rays of hope as a girl flirts with Edwin and his art project is enthusiastically lauded. Their plans for revenge are so desultory that one prays that they'll be abandoned as too much trouble, but in the end, Edwin's actions are precisely what we expect them to be. So what is the ultimate message? Shepard's novel seems to be delivering the disheartening message that even essentially good kids can be turned into powder kegs, and given the ease of access to guns in this country, we shouldn't be surprised when tragedies such as Columbine occur.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Adults have no idea 20 Dec 2005
By Jennifer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Why do adults lose their capacity to see reality especially from a kid's perspective? Jim Shepard does not lose this capacity in anyway during Project X. This book captures what kids think but 99.9% of them do not do. Of course tortured kids think these things when being bullied by insane selfish Kings or Queens of the school, how simple life would be without these type of people. But you have to keep in mind that this type of bullying is what makes a lot of great people great. What is crueler what Edwin and Flake do or what others do to them that drives them to it? Not for innocent or closed minded people who think the earth is a great rosy place. This book is reality. Jennifer, a 27 year old kid.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let the Shepard Guide Us 25 Mar 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
To Richie the Reviewer: Project X is not Young Adult Fiction. It is a work of literary fiction about young adults, and with all due respect, there is a big difference. After reading your review, I question whether or not you've ever been a teenager (and whether you really read this book). Is it surprising that the teenage narrator of this book continually feels misunderstood by the adults in his life? And does it really shock you that some schools have Draconian disciplinary policies? I was a junior in public high school when Columbine happened, and believe me, everything changed: Students were constantly monitored, dissent was not tolerated, suspensions and expulsions were handed out for seemingly insignificant things (junior high students who pointed their index finger like it was a gun, high school girls who carried Tylenol in their purses).
Project X takes a chance that other school shooting stories don't: It shows the two perpetrators as human-- as loving and terrified and confused children. And that, I believe, is what makes this story so compelling and ultimately rewarding.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting, frightening 15 Mar 2004
By Brian W. Milligan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Shepard's novel is more frightening in its depiction of the normal, every day life of two terribly alienated teens, rather than its depiction of a Columbinelike school massacre. Yes, we know going into the book that the two main characters are sliding inevitably toward a school shooting. But what truly captures our attention is their listless, violent lives and their failed attempts to either connect with peers or even see any hopes of ever doing so. We see painful glimpses of what the narrator's life could be if he could simply pull himself out of his downward spiral - he does well in an art project and in English class. Yet the constant bullying, and his own angry reaction to it are making him a virtual puppet for his less-worthy and far more dangerous best friend, Flake. The novel simply cannot be put down, and is best read on a dark night while you're lying alone on the sofa. Shepard gets into the mindset of these lost characters, and his prose is haunting. Ironically, I'm saving the book for my two boys. I want them to read it when they become teens so they can see the terrible costs of alienation, and how easy it is to slip down the wrong path. Pick up Project X. You won't put it down till you're done.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Book Yet Written On This Topic 17 Mar 2009
By S. Michael Wilson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
In the aftermath of the Columbine High School Shootings in 1999, countless reporters and commentators repeated similar versions of the same phrase over and over again: "People are wondering how something like this could happen."

Jim Shepard knows.

Project X is one of the few books that has ever honestly attempted to get into the minds of people like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, or the other teenager gunmen who later patterned themselves after the Columbine incident.

Most seem to take comfort in explanations that support preexisting phobias and prejudices; violent video games and movies, popular music, poor parenting skills, drug abuse, white supremacy, and even homosexuality have often been blamed for driving these kids to violence. Project X refuses to fall into this simple-minded trap. Edwin and Flake, the two teenage characters in the book, are portrayed as the complex personalities that people really are, and not the easily categorized stereotypes that people tend to see each other as.

The protagonists in Shepard's book aren't simply misanthropic loners by choice. They are bullied and harassed on a daily basis, in and out of school, by people they know and complete strangers, and by adults as well as teenagers. The toll of this repeated physical abuse, egged on by their inability (both physically and emotionally) to fight back, forces them to withdraw from society. But they aren't presented as pure victims of an uncaring system. Their self-imposed alienation and inability to explain their situation to someone who could assist them, coupled with increasingly anti-social and reactionary behavior, just makes them easier targets and escalates the situation even further.

If this were just about bullies, the playgrounds across the country would be a never ending battlefield (and for some, it is). There are often other influences involved, and Shepard exposes some of these as well. The psychological instability of both characters is well displayed, but never left as a final scapegoat. Allusions to a previous head injury possibly causing some of Edwin's emotional problems, as well as Flake's apparent sexual confusion and sometimes aggressive domination over Edwin in their friendship, add to the pressures and overwhelming confusion. It is all too easy to forget that some kids live with stress levels that often drive adults to nervous breakdowns.

Shepard doesn't just trap these characters in a world where no one cares about them or notices the problem. Edwin's parents are well aware that their son is troubled, and try to both understand and lend emotional support. But their awkward attempts to reach out never manage to break through the confusion and despair. Their rebellious behavior makes Edwin and Flake an easy target for the scorn of teachers and other adults, but even some of them attempt to help through positive reinforcement, and enrolling Edwin in an after-school program for troubled youth.

The true brilliance of Project X is that Shepard manages to easily evoke sympathy, and even empathy, for Edwin and Flake. Most readers will no doubt find themselves not only wanting to help them, but wondering what could have been done differently. Through fictional characters and events, Shepard is giving the reader a glimpse behind the curtain that hides most of these kids until it is far too late to do anything but pick up the pieces and wonder to ourselves what went wrong?

I have read other reviews of this book, and I am surprised by two common reactions to Project X. One is the repeated comparison of Project X to Vernon God Little, which is unfair to both books. Vernon God Little is a great book in its own right, but only uses troubled youth as a foundation for its story, and in no way attempts to expose or explore the serious issues that Project X does. This is almost like comparing Gus Van Sant's Elephant to Napoleon Dynamite.

The other reaction is from those who complain about the book's ending. Some readers wanted more about the aftermath of the events at the end of the book, and felt the need for closure. I feel that these people missed the point entirely.

Project X is not about school shootings. It isn't about the victims or their families, the assailants or their families, the media coverage afterward, or the attempts by those affected to somehow pick up the shattered remains of what used to be their lives. The truth is, there is no real closure after such a tragedy.

Project X is about what happens before these tragic events. It is about the children who become lost amongst us, the demons that plague and influence them, and most importantly, what finally drives them over the edge. Jim Shepard knows the truth; the only way to save ourselves from them is to learn how to save them from themselves.
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