"Boys Town"
by Jim Shepard
Originally published in the November 8, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

I’m afraid that, as much as I usually like Jim Shepard’s work, this one didn’t do much for me. To be honest, I finished it about a week ago and haven’t had the will to write much on it.

As mentioned in the comments below, we have here a highly disturbed narrator. Suffering from PTSD, he is having an awful time trying to fit in to society. The people around him are not making it any easier. It’s really ugly, actually, because the narrator is brisk and not attractive, yet we sympathize with him because the people around him do nothing but complain about him. Comparisons are frequently made between the narrator’s situation and that of the more cared for boys in the Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracey film Boys Town.

There are some terrifying moments, like the one when we realize the narrator thinks he might, someday, have to resort to a stash of weapons and clothing he’s hidden in the woods.

Still, the voice, while convincing, was grating to me — probably more my mood at the time than any failing with “Boys Town.” Ultimately I’m afraid I just wanted to get through the story, and I wasn’t particularly satisfied with the ending.

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By |2016-06-23T17:40:11-04:00November 1st, 2010|Categories: Jim Shepard, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |7 Comments


  1. Trevor Berrett November 1, 2010 at 10:14 am

    New fiction forum up.

    Once again, it is available only for subscribers. In fact, this week most of the magazine is available only for subscribers. It does appear that with their over-priced iPad app, The New Yorker is looking to get more people to pay for the content, which, to me, is just fine — I only wish they’d give current subscribers the benefit of their subscription in the iPad app. So far there has been no update or word (that I’ve heard) suggesting that current subscribers would be able to get the iPad edition of the magazine for free, or at least for a reasonable price.

  2. Thomas November 2, 2010 at 1:42 am

    Although I have a subscription (which arrives on fridays–very late in my opinion!) I think it is very sad that all the New Yorker stories are now being a subscription wall. I personally hate reading the stories in such a format. I think it just looks crisper and is easier to read when I don’t have to “flip” digital pages with a mouse.

    Anyways, this week’s story started off good. The voice was great (albeit not entirely original), and I liked the addition complexity when we discovered that our narrator (for whom I felt sorry at that point) had bounced checks and had a shady altercation with a girl in the woods. After that, I felt the story was wrapped far too quickly and I’m not even sure I enjoyed the “unibomber” ending.

    Random question–why has Amy Hempel never been published in the New Yorker. She is bar non the greatest short story writer alive (consistently outshines Munro and Trevor–her only competition being Gaitskill). I suspect that her writing is too short, but the magazine publishes three pages stories including one by Roddy Doyle earlier this year, and several times before Mary Robison. I know they have magazine’s to sell, but I’m beginning to look elsewhere for good stories that aren’t there just because of the name.

  3. Trevor Berrett November 2, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Hi Thomas, I skipped your review of the story, but I see your comments on the subscription and on Amy Hempel.

    Regarding the subscription, I actually don’t mind that The New Yorker is starting to become more strict with their content. Recently, you could go to their website and only one or two articles would be limited to subscribers. All of this while their subscription price and cover price increased. As much as I like that people could get on there and read whatever they wanted, I don’t want that at the expense of the content (or at my own expense as a subscriber). I’m hoping that if they make some extra money they can cut subscribers a break with the iPad app, which at this point is ridiculously expensive.

    As for Amy Hempel, I’m not sure why she hasn’t been published in The New Yorker. I’ve read her recent “best of” collection, and I really liked it. While I prefer Munro, MacLeod, and Meloy, her work is certainly superior to much of what makes its way into The New Yorker. And they aren’t afraid of short-short fiction. Doyle’s story was awful, in my opinion, but last year they had a few great shorts by David Foster Wallace and some excellent short-shorts by Stephen Milhauser and J.G. Ballard (his was only three columns). Maybe Hempel herself doesn’t want to publish in The New Yorker? At any rate, she deserves more attention than she gets (I don’t know anyone who talks about her, actually). I need to reread that collection now that I’m blogging and can share my thoughts.

  4. Ken November 6, 2010 at 4:33 am

    I thought this was pretty familiar stuff although decently executed. The slow reveal that our first-person narrator is unreliable and mentally ill is pretty old stuff as is the PTSD narrative and possibly violent climax.

  5. Trevor Berrett November 7, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    Ken, I finished this story late in the week but didn’t particularly like it. I have avoided writing my thoughts about it, but they are coming. I think we landed in about the same place here.

  6. Brian November 10, 2010 at 2:12 am

    Hey guys

    I have to disagree with most of you. I read this story earlier today and thought it was exceptional. “Boys Town” isn’t about PTSD, mental illness, an unreliable narrator, or the unibomber ending. It’s a story about somebody who is so disturbed that he is not capable of helping himself or even asking for help. What he needs, is somebody to help him. What makes the story so special and so painful, is that even though they are in a position to offer support and assistance, none of the other characters do so. Instead, they borderline bully him…and the consequences are not surprising. You end up liking (at least I did) the narrator more than any of the other characters in the story. Even though he is a violent psychopath, somebody should have helped him.

  7. Trevor Berrett November 11, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    My very brief thoughts are posted above.

    Brian, I revisited the story, briefly, after your comment because I think some of the reason I didn’t like it was my own mood. I’m afraid that it still didn’t do anything for me. I agree with you about liking (well, not liking, but sympathizing) with the narrator more than any of the other characters, but, to be honest, I think we’ve seen that need for some sympathy and help before in the original Boys Town. What I liked about this story was that it had the other elements not present in the old film, like the unreliable narrator, etc. (though none of those saved the story for me).

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