WE'RE all familiar -- boringly familiar --with the kind of novel which describes a male adolescent's sexual fantasies, initiation and subsequent adventures. First novels especially tend to treat this theme and the reader has by now a right to reject modern-day versions of Tom Jones on sight. Jim Shepard's first novel concerns a 13-year-old boy growing up in Connecticut, but it in no way belongs to the overworked genre I've just described. Flights is a subtle, brilliant, beautifully- wrought fiction which succeeds because it chooses Biddy Siebert's pre-adolescent consciousness as its focus and center. Shepard has cleverly elected to write about boyhood, rather than youth, and in doing so he has made that relatively unexplored hinterland seem uniquely his own.
Biddy Siebert's consciousness is precisely that of a boy who feels that he exists on the fringes of other, more powerful lives. He moves through the landscape of a small town, a place of salt marshes, wired perimeters and narrow blacktops that lead to the Sikorsky aircraft works and the local airport with its derelict "melancholy Windsock Restaurant." Very astutely, Shepard creates a personality which is ordinary and unassertive-- Biddy is neither passive nor rebellious, just an occasionally delinquent "normal" boy. He's interested in baseball and airplanes, serves as an altar boy and sings in the choir. He appears to have no distinctive qualities or talents and yet he is in no sense a null or boring figure to watch. Like Henry James' Maisie he seems to be acted upon by a coarse and often insensitive adult world which he is powerless to alter or understand. Here, Shepard's gnomic epigraph--"Children are the eyes and hands of a family"--deftly suggests just how kids of Biddy's temperament exist in a family. Like eyes and hands, they are the instruments of an invisible will power--in this case, of the currents of a difficult, though unexceptional marriage.
Biddy's family is neither private and nuclear, nor large and extended, and this means that Biddy and his sister, Kristi, are the victims of the tense and shifting definitions which his parents seek to impose:
"His parents fought after the Lirianos left. He'd heard it coming just in the sharpness with which they put things away, and he hesitated, stupidly, before coming upstairs from the cellar. Dom was fine, the kids were fine, all of his father's friends were fine, his mother said. Everybody was fine except Judy and her family. Judy and her family got treated like s---."
Judy--Biddy's mother--emerges as weak and self-justifying, while his father is a dominating and insensitive extrovert. With scrupulous relish, Shepard deploys the paternal vernacular to crisp and suggestive effect: "Sometimes I think you haven't both oars in the water. . . either s---or get off the pot," Walt Siebert tells his son. His brusqueness grates, but instead of rebelling, Biddy broods and ponders and bides his time.
Approaching his mother when she is doing the family Christmas cards, Biddy discovers that she is as helpless and confused as he is:
"She put her pencil down. 'Biddy, I'm not running this show. I don't choose our friends. I don't choose our activities. I don't make decisions. I get a vote. Sometimes.' "
By consistently understating and by rejecting all intrusive commentary Shepard neatly allows the reader to deduce character and psychology from small but significant actions and snatches of casually perfect dialogue. His deceptively simple prose-style and low-key narrative manner conceal a cool, exacting artistry.
One of the outstanding features of Flights is the dreamlike precision with which action and landscape are described. Biddy's fatalistic numbness and intense self-absorption refract a bizarre reality which is both banal and strange, ordinary and marvelous. This muted atmosphere is particularly effective in an early scene where Biddy's family and friends gather on the Siebert lawn one Labor Day to watch an air show. A parachutist detaches himself from the diamond pattern which the rest of his team is making, the group watches and comments casually, and then the atmosphere is charged first with surprise, then fear. "He could be coming here," someone says, and then the parachutist is seen "coming in low and hard, still pulling, not floating at all, swooping, and Biddy could see the frustration on his face and the shine on his boots." Biddy's father swears and begins to herd the women out of the way, the parachutist dips lower, hits the roof, bounces and then comes twisting down again "catching a TV tray with watermelon on it and kicking it up over the clothesline in a rain of pink chunks and seeds." Shepard narrates this episode with studied poise and we're reminded of it later when Biddy goes to the restroom during a wedding celebration and catches a vague smell "of melon and urine." It's as though Biddy is sensitive to mysterious fragments of experience which he is as yet incapable of understanding or giving shape to.
Jim Shepard, however, has succeeded wonderfully in building a sharp, enigmatic, highly intelligent fiction from what at first appeared an unpromising subject. Shepard is gifted with a wise and unforced insight into the shifting politics of family life, and he is able to move his story to its climax of momentary independence and escape without any appearance of conscious plotting. It would distort his achievement, if I were to reveal just what that climax is--this novel needs to be savored moment by moment for its benign artistic cunning and sheer imaginative wisdom. Flights is a stunning and highly professional first novel and we may safely predict a most distinguished future for its author.