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.