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.
About the Author
Jim Shepard is the author of seven novels and four previous story collections. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with his wife, three children, and three beagles. He teaches at Williams College.
Read an Excerpt
First day of FS and where are my good green pants? In the wash. I have one pair of pants that aren’t clown pants and they’re in the wash. They haven’t been washed all summer but today, this morning, they’re in the wash. It’s too cold for cargoes and everything else in my drawer is Queer Nation, and sure enough I’m the only one on the bus in shorts. “Scorcher, isn’t it?” a ninth-grader asks when he goes by my locker. I’m standing there like I’m modeling beachwear. Kids across the hall chuckle and point. I almost head home right then.
“FS, man,” Flake says when he sees my face.
“I can’t take it,” I tell him. “It’s like, twenty minutes, and I can’t take it.”
“Look at your face,” he says, and he has to laugh. He doesn’t mean it in a bad way.
I put my head on my hands in my locker and try to tear the shelf off the wall.
“FS,” he says. At least our first period classes are near each other.
“FS,” I tell him back. We don’t even have homeroom together, though they told us over the summer we would. FS is fuckin’ school. We argue over who thought of it.
My homeroom teacher has a big banner up on the bulletin board that says welcome to eighth grade! Underneath it there’s a sign that says leave no child unsuccessful and a handout for “eight ways of being smart.”
In the doorway of first-period English my feet like freeze. I can’t even get into the room. I will not fucking do this, I think to myself. “What?” the English teacher says.
We’re not in the same gym class, either. And his is fourth period and the first day stuff runs long, so there I am in the cafeteria without him. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, I go to myself, like some god’ll say, “Oh sorry, Hanratty, you want your only friend? I’ll send him along.”
And who’s there: Hogan, Weensie, and all the other buttwipes who are always after me. The kid from Darien we call Dickhead who beat me with a plank last spring. He pulled it from his tree house, and his friends held me down. Flake said when he saw my back that I was lucky there were no nails in it.
“Look who’s watching his figure,” the kid goes. I have like one milk pint on my tray.
“Eat me,” I tell him. My eyes are tearing up and I want to pull them out and pound each of them flat on the tray.
“You’re not sittin’ on this side,” the kid says.
“I’ll sit where I want,” I tell him. But I stand there and then head across the room away from him. I want to set fire to every single fixture and chair and window and crappy water-stained ceiling tile in this cafeteria. I can never eat anything here. Just taking a sip of water makes me want to hurl.
I’d fight if it was just him. But he’s got eight thousand friends. Every asshole in the school is his friend.
I’m standing there with my tray. Pint of milk and a Rice Krispies Treat in a little dish. Every table’s worse than the one next to it. It’s the worst feeling in the world.
When you’re standing there in the middle of the floor with no one to eat with, there are about four kids who don’t look at you. The cafeteria holds three hundred.
“Nice shorts,” somebody says.
Even if you don’t eat, you have to just stay until lunch is over anyway. There’s a spot next to a kid from Latvia or Lithuania or something who smells. She has her hair moussed and smashed onto one side of her head like she fell asleep in tree sap. She showed up last year. She has fewer friends than Flake and me. And we only have each other.
“Is this seat taken?” I go.
“I yev a fren coming,” she says.
I end up next to a girl who has to be the most beautiful person in her zip code. The rest of the table is all her friends. One of them I know from grammar school.
“This is a S.M.I.L.E. meeting,” the one I know tells me. She shows me her folder: Students Making an Impact Locally and Everywhere. I eat my Rice Krispies Treat.
“We could sponsor a child,” one girl goes.
“For a year?” somebody says. “Well, what would you do?” the first girl goes. “Sponsor one for a week?”
They talk about a car wash. After a while they quiet down and I realize they’re looking at me.
“You know who Kel Mitchell is?” the beautiful girl asks me.
“What?” I go. I switch my milk and Rice Krispies Treat on the tray. I never know what to do with my hands.
“You heard of Kel Mitchell?” she says.
When I keep looking at her, she says about me to her friends, “He’s not a random guy.”
“He’s a random guy,” one of them says. “He counts.”
It’s some kind of bet. “Yeah, I know who he is,” I go. “He’s the guy on that thing.”
They’re looking at me like they found a little lizard asleep on the table. “What thing?” one of them says.
“That thing,” I go. My Krispies Treat’s all sticky. I can’t think of anything, but I’m not giving them the satisfaction. “You know, that thing on cable.”
Their faces look like I may have hit it. The beautiful girl goes, “You are so bluffing.”
“Mr. Hanratty,” my fifth period social studies teacher says in front of the whole class. I haven’t even sat down yet. “You going to be favoring us with more of your particular brand of sullenness this year?”
I write my name on the inside of the 20th Century Civilizations cover: E. Hanratty.
“What are you shaking your head about?” he wants to know.
I’m not shaking my head about anything, I tell him.
He asks if I’m calling him a liar.
“I’m not calling you a liar,” I tell him.
He says he’d like me to apologize to my classmates for wasting everybody’s time at the beginning of the semester.
I apologize to them. Kids snicker. “Don’t let it happen again,” a kid behind me murmurs.
“We’re going to be concentrating this year on Innovators,” the teacher says. “Men and women of the twentieth century who found new ways of addressing society’s problems.” A kid in the last row makes a farting noise. The kids around him make snorty and strangled little sounds.
“Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King,” the teacher goes. “Mr. Hanratty? Any names to add to our list?”
“Richard Speck,” I go.
So on day one I get detention. The secretary outside the vice principal’s office congratulates me on being the first kid called in this year.
I don’t see Flake for three straight periods.
“What’s the matter with you?” a girl asks me on the stairs.
I have to call home when detention’s over, since the buses all left an hour ago. My mother comes to get me and drives a mile and a half after I get in before she says anything. I measure it on the odometer.
“Your friend called four times,” she says. “He didn’t seem to know about your detention.”
“You mad?” I ask.
“No, I’m proud,” she says.
“Sorry,” I tell her.
“So what’d you do?” she says. “Talk back?”
“Talk back,” I tell her.
At dinner my dad tells me I’m grounded.
“No more malt shop for me,” I go.
He tells me I’m grounded an extra week.
Flake can’t believe it when I get him on the phone. “That’s fucked up,” he says. I can hear him sucking down a Go-Gurt. He goes through the things like he’s five years old. “How could you get into trouble so fast with everybody?”
He likes what I told the teacher. He thinks my parents should’ve cut me some slack. “FS,” he goes.
“FH,” I tell him.
All the lights and the TV finally go off around midnight. My dad peeks in to make sure I’m not on the computer or sharpening a spoon to cut out his heart. “You asleep?” he says.
“Completely,” I tell him. I have the covers over my face and a hand off each side of the bed.
“Try and avoid any felonies on day two,” he says. “Though I know you already set a standard for yourself.”
“I think Mom’s waiting for you,” I go.
“You got some mouth on you,” he says.
“Good night,” I tell him.
And I can’t sleep. The digital clock on the nightstand makes loose little flipping noises when the minutes change. I put my underwear over it and then can’t take it anymore and have to see how much time has passed. 1:14. 1:51. 1:54. 1:55. I lie there swearing like I’m calling Jesus Fucking Christ on my pillow radio. The flipping noises keep going, each one getting me closer to school.
I get up and go to the bathroom mirror. My nose is eight feet long and I’ve never had a haircut I liked. My glasses are crooked from always being broken. My lips are too big. If I get any skinnier I’ll be able to pull a sock up to my neck.
“Somebody help me,” I go. I squat on the floor with my hands behind my head and rock in place.
“You look worn out,” my mom tells me at breakfast.
“Can I just have orange juice?” I go.
“I’m worried about your weight,” she goes while she watches me drink it. My dad isn’t even up yet. He’s an econ professor at the college and his first class on Tuesdays isn’t until two-something.
“Your pants are ready,” she tells me, to cheer me up. “If you want to wear those green pants you were looking for.”
At the bus stop I squat again. I pull my knapsack by the straps up to the top of my head. The two ninth-graders waiting with me look weirded out.
“That girl who’s on everybody’s shirts is like Satan,” Flake goes at lunch. “She’s like Evil Incarnate.”
“You ever notice how many people around here wear green?” I ask him. “Everybody wears green.”
“Yo,” a seventh-grader says as he passes our table. Flake gives him a miniwave.
From the Hardcover edition.
A Conversation with Jim Shepard
Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a fiction writer?
A: In third or fourth grade I found myself writing stories, almost exclusively about monsters: mostly variations on the universal monsters or silent film monsters, all of which I'd seen on TV by that point. My family tended toward very lax supervision. The nuns–I went to Catholic school until junior high–were happy to allow me to write, and write about anything, as long as I did it on my own time. So in English I'd finish diagramming sentences way before the time allotted was over, and I'd go back to Chapter Three of whatever I was working on. I drew the covers, too. I remember Sister Justine looking bemusedly at one entitled All That Blood. I never thought I'd be a writer, necessarily. My secret plan was that I would write and people would give me food. My ambition was to be a veterinarian, until I realized that they had responsibilities beyond playing with puppies or giving old dogs treats."
Q: This is an amazing book with a young narrator so alternately anxious and touching and funny, he reminded me of Holden Caulfield, if he were subjected to junior high school today. Was it the subject of alienation you were drawn to or a situation that could cause a Columbine-like reaction in kids?
A: The subject of alienation itself. I attended a sinkhole of a junior high (since greatly improved, apparently) and I remembered vividly, when first conceiving of this book, how much nearly everyone I respected in the school detested the place. And I wanted to write about what an unhappy nexus of self-imposed and official/repressive miserythat place was.
Q: Other writers have said of your work, and it's certainly true here, that you have an amazing ear for capturing the voice and tone of your subjects–be they children or grown-ups. Do you consider yourself a good listener or is it something else?
A: Well, I might consider myself a good listener, but my loved ones would probably want to weigh in on the subject with dissenting opinions. I grew up with a small nuclear family, but a giant Italian extended family–29 first cousins on my mother's side–and so telling stories meant doing voices, as in, "So Auntie Ida says to me, 'Aw, go take a shit for yourself–'"
Q: Although the action of this novel takes place after Columbine–and is even referred to in the book–it certainly brings up the same issues of handling revenge with a school shootout. In the film "Bowling for Columbine," rock star Marilyn Manson is asked what he would have said to the two kids of Columbine if he'd had the chance and his answer is "Nothing. I'd just listen." Is this what part of the problem is, that no one hears them?
A: That's part of the problem, but only a part. I wanted to get at the way in which–and this I remembered, and I've witnessed–there's also a heartbreaking inchoateness to what the kids want or need to express. So that even when adults do sit them down and wait, patiently, it doesn't always work. That's part of what rock music is about, I think: teenagers having registered that there's no other adequate way of communicating what it is that needs communicating.
Q: In this story, it seems as though the parents of these 12-year-old kids, while trying to tune into their kids' struggles, often seem to miss what's really being said. Do you think that's true for most families?
A: Yes. For all sorts of reasons. It's so easy, as a parent, to slip into modes that are self-deluding and self-protecting.
Q: You have a wonderful/scary assessment of the relative popularity-to-geekness factor for the various groups in junior high (p. 34):"Behind the jocks are the artsy types. Behind them, the kids that are good at something real, like math" and downward it goes! Did you spend any time in a junior high to capture the world these kids are in or does this come from being a dad and a former graduate of junior high yourself?
A: Well, it comes from the living hell of my own junior high, as I said; but it also comes from having sat in on current junior high classes, both in Los Angeles and here in Williamstown, MA. Kind of a wide cultural spread there. And yet there was a lot more similarity than difference.
Q: In the novel, you describe posters with "positive" mottos seen throughout the school, which have almost painfully irrelevant phrases, such as an elephant on a beach ball that says "The Key to Life is Balance." Did you see these as ironic?
A: Oh, yeah. All of those signs are real signs from real schools. And they're not only ironic: they're poignant, as well.
Q: After writing about the silent film director F. W. Murnau in your previous novel, Nosferatu, what made you decide to take on such a current-day subject?
A: The boy's voice inhabited my head. He was really pissed off about something, and that anger was driving the voice. He had a story to tell, and that story had to do with a more radicalized version of the alienation that I experienced. When things like that happen, I've learned by now to run with them.
Q: Speaking of voices, in your new story collection, Love and Hydrogen, which Vintage is publishing simultaneously, there are a few stories told from a young boy's perspective, such as "Mars Attacks." Are some of the experiences described in these stories taken from your youth?
A: A good many of them are, in transformed (transmogrified?) form, of course. I did indeed have a brother who struggled with mental illness; I went to a Catholic school much like the one described in "Eustace"; I played tag with airport security as described in "Runway"; I collected Mars Attacks cards; and a story like "The Mortality of Parents" is designed to exploit in peculiar ways the autobiographical fallacy. On the other hand, I was nowhere near the Hindenburg when it exploded, I've never played for Ajax or been to Amsterdam, and have never come face to face with a Megalodon in the Antarctic.
Q: What are your habits as a writer? What does an ideal day look like?
A: I write fiction in the mornings; do busy work in the afternoons. If I'm going well or at the end of a novel I might return to the fiction for a few hours in the evenings. An ideal day would involve all of that and basketball, and romps with the kids, and hours of lovemaking, and getting an inordinate amount of reading done, too. Too much sharing, I know. Anyway, as you can tell from the list, an ideal day is impossible. Mostly I stare out the windows, my mouth ajar.
Q: In Ron Hansen's terrific interview with you in the current issue of Tin House, he says "In terms of intelligence, variety, humor, depth of feeling, and sheer mastery of craft, your fiction is among the finest being produced in America, and yet many of your books are scandalously out-of-print and you're not even close to being a household name. Project X and the stories in Love and Hydrogen may change that deplorable situation, but I wonder if yours isn't the fate of being a writer's writer. What gets in the way of your popularity? Why ain't you famous, kid?"
A: Ha! Why so parsimonious with the praise? I'm not even sure I am a writer's writer. I mean, a lot of writers that I respect have told me that they admire my stuff; on the other hand, I've won fewer literary awards than Charo. I suppose one of the things that gets in the way of a bigger readership is something that countless reviewers have mentioned, occasionally with surprising peevishness: how different all of my fictions are; how hard it is to decide exactly what kind of stuff I do. It may be that without that kind of categorization it's hard for book buyers to know what they're getting. I'm not the Catholic Guy or the Post-Modern Guy or the Satirical Guy or the Historical Guy or the Whatever Guy. Other than that, who knows? I lament reaching so few people. But I also remind myself how fortunate I am: every so often the world leaves me alone, and let's me do the thing I want most to do.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another school shooting book. Well done. Interesting. I would recommend it.
A powerful novel about a delicate subject. Shepard generates abundant pathos without ever coming across as exploitative; this is due to the excellently-constructed characters and plot. PROJECT X is engaging, moving, and occasionally beautiful.
Really eerie first-person novel about a totally alienated eighth grader (I think . . . maybe he's a seventh grader) who gets involved in a plot to pull a Columbine in his school. The story is pretty entertaining until the plot becomes increasingly concrete.
Extremely sharp writing about dysfunctional Junior High School kids. Sharper, in the direction of Zeitgeist barometrics, than George Saunders.
Project X is a look inside the world of an eighth grade boy, Edwin. Edwin is not accepted socially, and he and his best friend Flake decide to seek revenge on their tormentors.This book was a page-turner for me. I cared about the characters, and I wanted to see how it turned out. I think the author¿s style fit the subject matter perfectly. The language of the teens is accurate. The angst is spot on. The social situations are common.But ultimately I found the book unsatisfying. It did not really attempt to answer the big ¿why¿ questions that we ask in the wake of real-life school violence.
Did u mean gay when you said "curvy".
I read this book a long time ago. When i was young. I dont know why there's a book like this out for children. The book is really good. But i think its one of the experiences in my life that contributed to deterioration of my mental health. So i wouldnt read it if i had a second chance.
U kno its funny because i rly doubt that ur 14or 13 because u siad u were 13 one comment and the other u were 14 sooo.. ya xD im not sure if ur a female because i woyldnt giv u any personal info so how would we even date lmao
demond rp at sell your soul must be active talk to kathrine at the second res
My names Emilie and i like se.x. Im 14 and single. If you ask for a description youll get one. Just put @reply in the top box
Hello, tell me about urself
Hey go to zing res six
Go to our book
Does anyone wanna chat ?
Every one is invited little dawg. Dj anon: its at jet res 9 thanks bro :) goo lookin
*gets up and spins in circles*
Sitting in my bathroom painting my nails yummmmmmm i love pancakes>_<
Well i have dirty blonde haor and green eyes. Im 5'2 and am pretty skinny. I am also curvy and 13. I love sports art and reading. But im not a nerd
Sounds a bit mean to me *swims towards him grabbing neck and wrapping legs with his* so shall we?
AWESOME BOOK? COULDNT STOP READING FOR EVEN ONE SECOND