Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Writing Craft: Love and Hydrogen by Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard’s collection of stories is a unique mix of heavily flawed characters, dysfunctional families, early twentieth century military and engineering feats, classic horror movies, and dark humor. His stories take unconventional approaches to a variety of taboo and uncomfortable subjects, of which I am focusing on the stories portraying the protagonists or cast of characters near death.

A self-deprecating husband tells the first story in the collection, “The Gun Lobby,” in the present tense as his gun-crazy wife holds him hostage during a standoff with law enforcement. The scene is a catalyst for the protagonist to reflect on his marriage and his personal failures with a strange sense of calm and humor, in which they can watch themselves on the local news shortly before meeting their probable demise:

“Here” is Waterbury, Connecticut, which is right now the main show in terms of the cutaway news, because of the standoff. You can see Stephanie or me, the Hostage, at the windows every so often on TV. We watch ourselves. (Kindle Loc. 89-91)
I’ve been a problem baby, a lousy son, a distant brother, an off-putting neighbor, a piss-poor student, a worrisome seatmate, an unreliable employee, a bewildering lover, a frustrating confidant, and a crappy husband. Among the things I do pretty well at this point I’d have to list darts, reclosing Stay-Fresh boxes, and staying out of the way.   (Kindle Loc. 147-150)

As the story reaches its climax, the seriousness of the situation is down played with lighthearted metaphors and observational wisdom:

I have a hold of Stephanie’s ankle. For the longest time I’m not hurt. Her rate of fire is spectacular. The ordnance coming back at us sets everything in the kitchen into electric life. Our overhead fixture’s doing a tarantella. (Kindle Loc. 228-229)
There are events in which every second can be taken out of line, examined this way and that, and then allowed to move along. This is one of them. (Kindle Loc. 230-231)

The title story “Love and Hydrogen,” set in the Hindenburg over the last few days of its final voyage told in the present tense, follows the homosexual relationship between two crew members: Meinert, a German war vet who took pride in his bombing raids on England and France, a Gnüss, who is much younger, jealous, and infatuated with Meinert. The tension displayed from Gnüss’s perspective of their relationship is filled with fond memories of their love and Meinert’s war stories. As the drama plays out the dark humor creeps in at unexpected moments juxtaposed against the reader’s relentless knowledge that the Hindenburg would soon meet its fate:

Egk is a fat little man with boils. Meinert considers him to have been well named. (Kindle Loc. 277-278)
[Gnüss] goes below and stops by the crew’s quarters. No luck. He listens in on a discussion of suitable first names for children conceived aloft in a zeppelin. The consensus favors Shelium, if a girl. (Kindle Loc. 411-413)

Ultimately, Gnüss’s despondency and jealousy brings down the zeppelin and everyone aboard:

Inside the hangarlike hull, they can feel the gravitational forces as Captain Pruss brings the ship up to the docking mast in a tight turn. The sharpness of the turn overstresses the after-hull structure, and the bracing wire bolt that Gnüss overtightened snaps like a rifle shot. The recoiling wire slashes open the gas cell opposite. Seven or eight feet above Gnüss’s alarmed head, the escaping hydrogen encounters the prevailing St. Elmo’s fire playing atop the ship. (Kindle Loc. 475-478)
The fireball explodes outward and upward, annihilating Gnüss at its center. More than 100 feet below on the axial catwalk, as the blinding light envelops everything below it, Meinert knows that whatever time has come is theirs, and won’t be like anything else. (Kindle Loc. 479-481)

The final story of the collection, “Climb Aboard the Mighty Flea,” follows a small squadron of German soldiers during World War II who stopped caring about the war. Their job was to fly the “Messerschmitt 163 [the Komet], the first manned rocket-powered aircraft, the first aircraft in the world to exceed a thousand kilometers an hour in level flight, and in statistical terms the most dangerous aircraft ever built in a series.” (Kindle Loc. 4593-4595) They were intended as a line of defense to take down Allied bombers over Germany, albeit with poor effectiveness. Their lives were built around the high risks in piloting these rockets during testing and training exercises:

So? we said to ourselves. Everyone knew that learning to fly meant little more than learning to land.

But pilots are taught to land by flying alongside instructors. There was no room for two in these things. So we’d have to be told, rather than shown.

“Does the landing,” Ziegler asked in a classroom session, “have to be perfect?”

“No,” Wörndl shrugged. “You could die, instead.” (Kindle Loc. 4663-4667)

 As the story goes, a number of pilots die horrible deaths or experience grave injuries. Yet, it carries on in Shepard’s light-hearted and sometimes grotesque manner:

The cockpit was filled with a black-and-red-and-yellow soup. The yellow looked like chicken fat. The fuel cells had shattered and the fuel had poured into the cockpit. Those who understood explained it to those who still didn’t: Glogner had been dissolved alive. (Kindle Loc. 4724-4726)
The next Komet exploded on the flight line. When we reached the spot, there was only a blackened and steaming stain. Medical personnel found a bone fragment, and brought it in on a stretcher. (Kindle Loc. 4733-4734)
Rösle’s Komet flipped on landing just before the perimeter. It didn’t explode and he was pulled from it just conscious, but pints of the fuel had run over his back while he hung there, and when they tore off the flight suit, the skin underneath was a jelly. He was on enough painkillers to last until April. (Kindle Loc. 4827-4829)

The collective psychology of the squadron enters a mix of depression and isolation. They adopt a gallows humor to cope with the near-death risks of their job while celebrating their love for the Komets:

My turn came next. “Come come come, Baby Bird,” Uhlhorn said as I held up my straw. “Your one-six-three-B is steaming and ready to blow. We need to put you in it or it will blow up for no reason.” (Kindle Loc. 4735-4736)
We are all insomniacs. We are, as a group, a picturesque compendium of physical tics. (Kindle Loc. 4779)
WHEN I WAKE there’s an impromptu celebration and meeting around my bunk. It transpires that Wörndl’s Komet caught fire right above the field. He had to bail out forty meters from the treetops and his parachute caught the upper branches of a big pine, insuring he only cracked his ankle. He tells everyone that it was like jumping off a church steeple with an umbrella. (Kindle Loc. 4823-4826)

In conclusion, I could discuss this collection for endless hours, as the stories are rich in vivid content and unusual circumstances. I highly recommend Love and Hydrogen to anyone who enjoys the art of short fiction.