Project X is like no novel I have ever read before. Author Jim Shepard tackles a taboo subject. In raw prose, graphic scenes and images, and with horrific truthfulness, Shepard explains to America, in terms of fiction, how a nightmare like the one played out at Columbine High School might have come to be -- and how it is all too possible other similar nightmares might be just a heartbeat away from happening.
Edwin is trapped in high school. He has only one friend, Flake (Herman). Edwin has a loving mother, who does her best to do what is best. His father is a bit clueless, in spite of his status as a college professor; his sarcasm is sometimes overkill, but he is otherwise supportive. Edwin's kid brother, Gus, seems to be a source of light in his life.
Using his artistic talent as a means, Edwin could have a promising future. However, he and Flake seem to feed negatively off each other. Teachers don't understand them; their parents don't seem to understand, either. It is the fact that other kids are clueless to who and what they are that is the most damaging.
Taking beating after beating, Edwin and Flake succumb to fantasizing about revenge, the ultimate revenge. It starts out as just talk, until Flake begins to act out the fantasies for real, and Edwin eagerly participates as they plot to use the guns in Flake's father's possession. Though teachers, the vice principal and Edwin's parents are concerned and worried, and though they take some steps to figure out what is "wrong" with the boy, none of it is enough to alter the eventual fate of the students at the high school.
Shepard shows that no one person is to blame when things like this go wrong. Edwin's parents know their son is somewhat depressed at home, but he is not "bad"; he does not act out. They seem to assume he is like every other teenager, just slightly more withdrawn and unmotivated, an underachiever. The authorities at school have their hands full. But when they spot something that might be a problem, they address the issue. The peers in Project X, however, are more relentless and ruthless.
Though the ending is too abrupt, the rest of the story is strong, powerful, leaving the reader feeling empty and scared. Shepard makes it easy for us to feel compassion and sympathy toward Edwin and Flake. Not to say that those who were targeted got what was coming to them—not at all. Project X is an important book with a meaningful message that explores adolescence, sexuality, peer pressure and depression. You will read it fast, but it will haunt you for a long, long time.