The key to Jim Shepard's sixth novel, "Project X," about two misfit suburban kids who plan a Columbine-style massacre at their school, is that it doesn't earn sympathy for its young protagonists by making villains out of all the grown-ups. In fact, aside from a few obvious bullies, there are no villains in "Project X": It's a tragedy, pure and simple.
Shepard tells the story from the point of view of Hanratty, an eighth-grader whom nobody seems to like -- and at first, you think that might include his teachers as well as the other students. Hanratty's social studies teacher, in particular, seems to have it in for him: He makes a wisecrack about Hanratty's sullenness the minute the kid walks through the door on the first day of school, practically challenging him to talk back. Hanratty keeps his cool, but when teach asks him for an example of an "innovator," a 20th century figure who "found new ways of addressing society's problems," Hanratty offers the name of serial killer Richard Speck. That lands Hanratty in detention on his first day.
Hanratty is a bright, difficult kid; he says weird things sometimes, and he's dangerously withdrawn with his teachers, his schoolmates and his parents. But Shepard doesn't use any magic tricks in getting us to sympathize with him; page by page, we see where he's going wrong and a few glimmers of the reasons why, and yet we're powerless to stop him. Hanratty has one friend, a kid named Flake, and the two do everything together, simply because no one else will have them. Flake is more aggressive, less thoughtful and more volatile than Hanratty, but we see how Hanratty gets swept up by his cockeyed, awkward glamour. When the two of them break into Flake's father's gun stash and start hammering out the details of their plan, your heart sinks -- by this time, you've grown to like them, particularly Hanratty.
Hanratty has misgivings and doubts about what they're going to do, but he's also filled with rage and frustration that he doesn't quite know how to deal with. His school is full of jocks and knuckleheads who beat the daylights out of him every time he glances at them sideways; even when certain girls try to be nice to him, he's so wary of them, and so insecure, that he can barely enjoy it.
Flake is even more deeply troubled than Hanratty is. The problem is that he's also much more self-assured, so he doesn't hesitate to feed Hanratty's insecurity and hatred instead of quelling it. It's harder to feel anything for Flake, because his emotions are pinned under so many layers of rock -- still, it's clear they're there. Hanratty, even in all his sullenness, is much more readable. And his sense of humor wins us over early on: When his father, an economics professor at a local college, tells him he's grounded, he deadpans, "No more malt shop for me."
Yet we also can't help feeling for Hanratty's parents. At one point, his mother laments to his father, "He doesn't even like music. What kid his age doesn't like music?" And you can see how hard she's tried to engage him, to point him toward things that might lessen his pain and isolation. You can imagine she'd be grateful if he took a liking to semi-Satanic heavy metal, or even if he would just watch a little TV now and then. (Hanratty and Flake have decided TV is for losers and never deign to watch it.)
And Shepard is lacerating on the details of junior high: He describes a homeroom banner that reads "WELCOME TO EIGHTH GRADE!" And then, underneath it, a sign that says, "LEAVE NO CHILD UNSUCCESSFUL." We understand immediately how absurd these cheerful exhortations must seem to Hanratty; they're like messages from outer-space beings -- that is to say, adults -- who simply have no clue. In "Project X," Shepard puts us into the shoes of two boys with murder on their minds but not in their hearts. His compassion for them rings out like a shout -- the kind no one hears until it's too late.
-- Stephanie Zacharek
Our next pick: Colin Harrison's dazzling New York noir features an accidental death (or two), a steakhouse with a dark secret, and a self-made guy named Jay chasing a girl from the past