Handbook for Drowning:
A Novel in Stories



The Sixties

A friend of my father’s lived less than a block from where the Symbionese Liberation Army was being busted on live TV, so we all hurried over to this friend’s house, with one eye on the television and the other eye out the window. “It’s so real I feel like I can almost smell the smoke,” someone said. “You can smell the smoke,” my father said. The SLA was burning to death and smoke was pouring in an open window.

In the fall of 1974 I left Los Angeles to go to college in Providence, Rhode Island, which I imagined as, quite literally, Providence, a heavenly city populated by seraphic souls. I imagined Rhode Island as an actual island, the exotic edge of the eastern coast. And I saw Brown as enclosed, paradisal space in which strong boys played rugby on fields of snow and then perused Ruskin by gas lamps in marble libraries too old to close; and girls, with thick black hair, good bodies, and great minds, talked about Turgenev at breakfast. The first month of my first semester, black students occupied the administration building and demanded increases in black student enrollment and financial aid. These seemed to me laudable goals, so I went over to become part of the picket line outside the administration building and marched in a circle, chanting, for a few minutes, but the whole event seemed like a really weak imitation of all the demonstrations I’d been going to since I was six years old, and I wanted to get away from groups and the West Coast and my former milieu for a while. A few people from my dormitory hall were tossing around a Frisbee on the back side of the green, and I left the picket line to go join them. That, for me, was the end of the sixties.



  • NEA fellowship, Artist Trust fellowship



Handbook for Drowning painfully, accurately chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling.”
Rhoda Koenig, New York Magazine

“David Shields’s tautly constructed, tartly observant stories present Walt as a survivor of family drowning, now free to grow up . . . their cumulative effect is powerful.”
Dan Cryer, New York Newsday

“His best stories capture the bottomlessness of obsession and fear.
Jeff Giles, Entertainment Weekly

“David Shields brings fresh insights to an old theme, the shame and tenderness of an American coming of age . . . rendered with an engaging honesty, the hallmark of Shields’s style.”
Robert Taylor, Boston Globe

“Shields demonstrates his ability to conjure up the past by using lyrical, rhythmic language to relate ordinary events. He possesses a gift for taking a seemingly mundane moment and investing it with layers of psychological resonance.”
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times