Project X by Jim Shepard, Knopf, 2004, ISBN 978-140-0040-711
Project X (not to be confused with the movie of the same name) tells the story of two middle school boys who plan a school shooting. The narrator of the story is Edwin Hanratty – an eighth grader who no one seems to like. On the first day of school, he gets detention for saying that serial killer Richard Speck was “a great innovator”. His well-meaning parents don’t know what to do with him and his sullen moods. “He doesn’t even like music,” his mother says to his father. “What kid his age doesn’t like music?” Hanratty doesn’t even like himself as one can see from this passage: “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.”
Hanratty needs help. He’s regularly bullied and beaten up by kids at school. Even his teachers don’t seem to like him much. The only friend he has is Flake, an equally unpopular kid with a darker, more violent side to him. When he starts talking about getting revenge on all the kids who have mistreated them over the years, Hannity is eager to listen and follow his plan. The two break into Flake’s fathers gun stash and hammer out a plan that will make everyone sorry they ever mistreated them. As the fateful day approaches, Hanratty starts to have misgivings and even finds some acceptance at school through his artwork. Whether this is enough to stop him from carrying out the school shooting is left to the final pages of the novel.
There have been many books written about school shootings, most notably Walter Dean Myers Shooter and Todd Strasser’s Give a Boy a Gun, but Jim Shepard’s Project X feels like the most painfully realistic treatment of these horrific acts. Myers’s Shooter tells the story through police reports and Strasser’s Give a Boy a Gun is told in multiple point of view flashbacks. As a result, neither book takes the reader into the mindset of a boy driven to such a desperate act. Because Project X is narrated from the point of view of one such boy, the reader gains insight into these senseless tragedies.
Shepard has an uncanny ability to capture Hanratty’s voice and quiet desperation. He is not an easy character to like at first. He seems to purposefully push people away, including his parents who desperately want to help him. He is sullen, withdrawn, and cynical about everything. It doesn’t help matters that he’s in a place that only feeds his bleak view of the world. Project X helps the reader understand that school shootings result from a toxic combination of isolation and bullying. But Shepard doesn’t provide any easy answers for the reader. Hanratty’s isolation is caused as much by his own attitude and behavior as it is by the cruel world of middle school. As a result, he is incredibly vulnerable when a person like Flake suggests a plot for revenge. By the end of the novel, you like and sympathize with Hanratty and pray he will make the right decision.
What causes someone to do a Columbine-type school shooting? Project X takes readers into the mind and world of an eighth grader named Edwin Hanratty to help us understand how these horrific events occur. While the book offers no easy answers, it conveys both the psychology and environment that produce the kind of senseless massacres we see in the news today.
Information about the author
From the author’s Wikipedia page we learn that “Jim Shepard was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and is the author of six novels, including most recently Project X, and four story collections, including the forthcoming You Think That’s Bad (March 2011). His third collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize. Project X won the 2005 Library of Congress/Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction, as well as the ALEX Award from the American Library Association. His short fiction has appeared in, among other magazines, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, DoubleTake, the New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Playboy, and he was a columnist on film for the magazine The Believer. Four of his stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories and one for a Pushcart Prize. He’s won an Artists’ Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches at Williams College and lives in Williamstown with his wife Karen, his three children, and two beagles.”
Young Adult Fiction
English, Psychology, Civics
How responsible are the adult characters for the events in the novel?
What can be done to help people like Hanratty and Flake from turning to desperate acts like this?
Reading Level / Interest Age
Grade 9 and up
The book is written from the perspective of an angry eighth grade boy and so has a lot of swearing and bad language. The voice feels real and authentic and captures the desperation of an isolated and bitter child, driven to violence.
Why did I include this title?
I am a huge fan of Jim Shepard’s short stories (compiled in the collections, Like You’d Understand Anyway, You Think That’s Bad, and Love and Hydrogen), so I knew his short novel on a school shooting would be well written and accurately portray the dark world of middle school. He has captured better than any writer I’ve read the pain and isolation of this time and helped me understand the psychology behind a horrific act like this.