Enfant terrible grows up

A fragmented meditation on lifelong obsessions and conflicts

Sam Shepard’s stories are made up of narrative, poetry, and dialogues. Sam Shepard’s stories are made up of narrative, poetry, and dialogues. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press/File 2006)
By Alec Solomita
Globe Correspondent / January 10, 2010

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In his latest book, the puer aeternus Sam Shepard suddenly becomes old. From the opening pages of “Day Out of Days,” the tone is elegiac. Samuel Beckett, donor of the valedictory epigraph (“That’s the mistake I made . . . to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough”), also appears in the first piece of the collection - a picture on the narrator’s kitchen wall: “Beckett’s sorrowful bespectacled hawk-face, gazing into oblivion . . . Underneath in neat black scrawl: ‘There is no return game between a man and his stars.’ ”

No return game, perhaps yet this is a book of returns. “Day Out of Days” calls itself a work of short fiction, and sometimes it is. But it is also a fractured re-engagement with a long, examined life. These poems, dialogues, dreams, and surrealistic sojourns read like a final visitation to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s familiar obsessions: a brutal father; life on the road; the fidelity conundrum; the savage, aspiring Old West and the silent waste of the modern West; the witless, relentless beauty of the natural world; and the poisonous DNA that climbs the family tree.

Shepard’s prose, always spare, is, in much of “Day Out of Days,” nearly telegraphic. The book sometimes reads as if he’s taken up handfuls of his previous collections - “Cruising Paradise’’ (Knopf, 1996) and “Great Dream of Heaven” (Knopf, 2002) - and thrown them in the air to watch them shatter on the page. In these earlier books, we find complete portraits and stories that in “Day Out of Days” become cryptic fragments, shreds of dreams. “Everything’s coming back to me now,” he writes, “in tiny pieces.”

These shards, often sharp enough to move a reader to tears, can also be as meaningless as a lone puzzle piece. Shepard continues to challenge his audience with passages of obscure, free-falling prose, and even a diligent admirer can become frustrated. Some of his longer forays into the absurd, however, are funny and smart; for example, his unique take on the mind/body problem is presented in a series of tales in which a severed head calls to a passerby for assistance. And the few traditional short stories, such as “Land of the Living,” a shapely narrative about suspicions of infidelity during a family vacation, are profoundly satisfying.

Despite a deepening sensibility compatible with the book’s leave-taking tone, Shepard retains a childish contempt for middle-class America, which, along with his penchant for easy ironies, can undermine his caustic wit. In “Boca Paila, Mexico,” the narrator (and the trickster in Shepard conflates narrator and author throughout the book) looks down on his fellow tourists and their “top-heavy wives . . . reading historical novels and spine-tingling Grisham under lime green umbrellas.” In not particularly sharp contrast, the privileged narrator reads Graham Greene, presumably under a less bourgeois tinted umbrella. And his various personas rarely resist comparing themselves favorably to waitresses, desk clerks, American-flag-sporting truck drivers, and other benighted fellow travelers.

But these small tantrums are overshadowed by a new maturity, the result of at least one frightening event suffered by the narrator of “Wisconsin Wilderness”: “his little ‘almost’ heart-attack experience.” In most accounts of this sort of life-altering occurrence, we read of a new “recognition of one’s mortality.” Not so in Shepard, whose first plays, written in his teens, point to a preternaturally early arrival at that dark knowledge. It appears that for Shepard (or for his “fictional” double, at any rate), the more humbling epiphany is a new awareness of his resemblance to other human beings. “He religiously downed his daily dose of five colorful pills: anticoagulant pills, cholesterol reduction pills, ramipril, Zetia, a . . . 325-milligram aspirin, and now . . . here he was . . . going out of his way . . . to exercise and raise his heart rate like some aerobic moron - the kind of dutiful citizen he used to hold in highest contempt.”

Shepard made his name as an off-off-Broadway enfant terrible and maintaining that persona over the past half-century may be one of his greatest achievements. After his early career as a playwright who shocked and thrilled audiences with his dark, violent vision of American family life and a breathtakingly theatrical sensibility that rendered the surreal plausible, he has since become a movie star, appearing in dozens of mainstream Hollywood productions (the term “Day Out of Days” refers to a filmmaker’s chart that keeps track of cast members’ working days). But the present collection demonstrates that he is still genuinely an outsider, confused by and resentful of his worldly success, and still restless - a cowboy on an endless drive in an old Chevy.

Torn between the clarity of linear narration and the pleasures of obfuscation, between self-satisfied self portraits of a bronco-riding intellectual and surprising sketches of a flawed and aging narcissist, and most of all, between a Bohemian life on the road and a powerfully compelling domestic life, the narrator talks out his conflicts on these pages, often with great precision and beauty. Here, he wonders for the thousandth time whether to: “risk the road again/ . . . [or]/ stay/ and tough it out/ between the cattle and the moon/ but what if she goes off/ and gives up the ghost /of him/ forever/ . . . / without even a kiss goodbye/ that would have to be worse/ than risking the highway/ one last time/ surely/ that would have to be much much worse/ stay/ and watch the next set of possibilities/ arise/ and fall away/ what have you got to lose/ but everything/ piece by piece/ everything/ day by day.’’

Perhaps for Beckett “life alone is enough.” But the rest of us will look forward to Shepard’s next book of stories.

Alec Solomita is a fiction writer and critic living in Somerville.

By Sam Shepard
Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95