Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 16: “Safety Tips for Living Alone” by Jim Shepard

     And something was already wrong with Tower No. 4. Unlike the others it moved so much in heavy weather or even in a good strong wind that everyone who worked on it called it Old Shaky or the Tiltin' Hilton.

       from “Safety Tips for Living Alone” by Jim Shepard

This entry in the Watchlist anthology should be required reading for anyone studying the art of the short story. Grandmaster Jim Shepard (The Book of Aron, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, and You Think That’s Bad) doesn’t even appear to break a sweat as he documents, in precise detail, the true story of a doomed Air Force surveillance station in the North Atlantic. You can read more about the so-called Texas Towers at this link, which describes them like this:
Built in 1957, the five Texas Towers were intended to become part of the USA’s advanced early warning system against Soviet bombers. Named for their resemblance to oil platforms found in the Gulf of Mexico, the towers were radar platforms designed to be placed out to sea. Towers 1 and 5 were never built. Towers 2 and 3 were situated on the rocky seabed off Nantucket and Boston respectively. Tower 4 posed a much greater challenge, as it needed to be placed in waters twice as deep and on a soft bed of sand and mud. Nevertheless, engineers described the final design as a “triumph.” The 3,200 ton triangular structure stood on three legs, each 100m long and 4m thick. These were supported by cross braces and were hollow so that they could be used to store fuel and freshwater. It cost $21 million, and would be manned by 50 Air Force officers and enlisted men.
What Shepard does in his short story is take a dry, historical record and spin it into a multi-character drama that builds not only the tension of an approaching storm destined to wipe out the radar station, but also develops rich backgrounds of the men on the Texas Tower and their families waiting for them back home. And that last line? Oh, that final sentence as the men watch a wave, high as a skyscraper, loom over them is simply sublime: “And they recognized it as the implacability that would no longer indulge their mistakes, and would sweep from them all they had ever loved.” Now that, boys and girls, is how you craft a story.

Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  The “persons of interest” contributing short stories to the anthology include Etgar Keret, Robert Coover, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard, Alissa Nutting, Charles Yu, Cory Doctorow, David Abrams, Randa Jarrar, Katherine Karlin, Miracle Jones, Mark Irwin, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Dale Peck, Bonnie Nadzam, Lucy Corin, Chika Unigwe, Paul Di Filippo, Lincoln Michel, Dana Johnson, Mark Chiusano, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Chanelle Benz, Sean Bernard, Kelly Luce, Zhang Ran, Miles Klee, Carmen Maria Machado, Steven Hayward, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Alexis Landau and Bryan Hurt.

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