Jeff Giles
February 07, 1992 AT 05:00 AM EST

A Handbook for Drowning

type
Book
Current Status
In Season
author
David Shields
publisher
Knopf
genre
Fiction, Short Stories

We gave it a B

Shields, the author of a weird and lovely coming-of-age novel called Dead Languages, has stitched together 24 stories in A Handbook for Drowning, about a young man named Walter whose restless, liberal Jewish family is trying to navigate its way out of the ’60s. Walter’s mother is dying of cancer; his father is still in mourning for the executed Rosenbergs; and Walter himself is ”a nervous little boy cowering in the corner.” Shields’ collection is uneven, but his best stories capture the bottomlessness of obsession and fear. ”War Wounds,” for instance, is chilling: Walter is terrified of swimming, terrified of being drafted, terrified of his mother’s requests that he help her kill herself. Elsewhere, Shields’ associative leaps seem cute and contrived. In a ”A Brief Survey of Ideal Desire,” Walter’s fantasy about ”Miss Nude USA” is juxtaposed with his analysis of the closing lines of James Joyce’s ”The Dead.” Alas, Walter can be a bit of a bore when he’s conquered his fears. B

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