In the longest work of fiction to date from the Pulitzer Prize–winning
playwright, an aged actor moves through his fragmented memories of his father,
the young girl who loved him, and the vast American landscape that served as a
backdrop to it all. Following a poignant foreword by Patti Smith, each
successive chapter of the novel flits among times and forms: there are poetic
reminiscences of the actor’s ex-wife, and terse all-dialogue conversations
between him and the lover intending to blackmail him.
Coloring those dynamics are flashbacks to the actor’s
complicated relationship with Felicity, his father’s underage girlfriend, who
also comes to take the actor’s virginity. Mixed amongst these grounding story
lines are vivid scenes of his father’s death, drug fantasies, and vague
meditations on sex and death. The last section of the book concerns Felicity’s
disappearance and apparent suicide, an event that deepens and bonds every moment
that precedes it.
Though some of the writing feels like leftovers from
discarded drafts of books and plays, much of the content remains striking and
memorable, illustrative of what makes Shepard’s work so arresting on the screen
and the page.
"The One Inside" proves to be meditative and
valedictory, featuring (not surprisingly) an
actor/writer recalling significant people and places
in his life as the narrative careens through time
from California to Santa Fe to an Oklahoma film set.
Since this is Shepard, the protagonist is riding a
sharp and polished knife’s edge as he muses; he’s
trying to persuade a young woman not to publish some
dark and damning phone conversations they’ve had
together. Memories of his father, especially during
wartime; of his father’s girlfriend, with whom he
also became involved (with tragic consequences); and
of the vibrant American landscape inform the
narrative. Reflections on how acting, writing, and
filmmaking really feel make this more than a novel
An elegiac amble through blowing dust and greasy spoons, the soundtrack the
whine of truck engines and the howl of coyotes.
If one word were to define Shepard, the chisel-faced actor and playwright of few
words, since his more madcap days of the 1960s, it might be "laconic." So it is
with this vignetted story, with its terse, portentous opening: "They’ve murdered
something far off." "They" are the ever-present coyotes, who, of course, kill
but do not murder, strictly speaking—but Shepard’s choice of words is deliberate
In this Southwestern landscape, where the sand cuts deep,
driven by the scouring winds along with the "Styrofoam cups, dust, and jagged
pieces of metal flying across the highway," Shepard’s actor narrator, wandering
from coast to interior and back again, remembers things and moments: the '49
Mercury coupe that delivers his father’s mysteriously mummified corpse home, the
latter-day bicycle cowboys of Santa Fe, "guzzling vitamin water from chartreuse
Like a cordonazo storm about to break, the atmosphere is
ominous, but only just: in Shepard’s prose there is always the threat of
violence and all manner of mayhem, but then things quiet down, the hangover
fades and the talk of suicide dwindles and the stoic protagonist returns to
reading his Bruno Schulz at the diner counter.
At turns, Shepard’s story morphs from novel, with recurring
characters and structured narrative, into prose poem, with lysergic flashes of
brilliance and amphetamine stutters: "Mescal in silver bottles. Tacos. Parking
lots. Radios. Benzedrine. Cherry Coke. Brigitte Bardot." It’s a story to read
not for the inventiveness of its plot but for its just-right language and
images: "Nothing but the constant sound of cattle bawling as though their
mothers were eternally lost."
Cheerless but atmospheric and precisely observed, very much of a piece with
Shepard’s other work.
In the newest work of fiction by celebrated playwright, actor, and writer
Sam Shepard, a writer and actor on in years looks back at his life, while
negotiating an increasingly volatile relationship with a much younger woman.
The nameless narrator refers to his tormentor as the
Blackmail Girl because she claims to have recorded and transcribed their phone
conversations with the intention of publishing them. They clash in taunting and
seductive encounters rife with lacerating dialogue that alternate with bruising
scenes from his hardscrabble boyhood, when he became infatuated with voluptuous
teen Felicity, who was having a scandalous affair with his father.
In a slowly cohering jigsaw puzzle of flashbacks and jump
cuts, memories and dreams, Shepard’s piercingly observant and lonely narrator
broods over the mysteries of sexual enthrallment, age’s assaults, and the abrupt
demise of his 30-year marriage in finely etched vignettes capturing the poignant
moods of wind, sky, the open road, birds, dogs, and coyotes; high drama in a
Denny’s; absurdities on a film set; and hallucinatory visions of his dead
father’s corpse shrunken to doll-size.
Much of the book’s contemporary story has the
substance of an extended, self-pitying sigh. In
short, oblique chapters — sometimes only a small
paragraph floating on a page — we divine that the
narrator, an actor and writer with “a reputation for
discarding women,” is still reeling from the
collapse of a long relationship. (There’s no mention
of Jessica Lange, but it’s hard not to think of the
actress who was Shepard’s partner for almost 30
years.) There’s an awful lot of wandering around the
house, looking for the dogs, feeling bereft. He
thinks about suicide, mulls his dreams, considers
the smell of his urine... The best parts of
“The One Inside” are those least hobbled by its
fractured structure and mannered dialogue. When he
stops letting vagueness masquerade as profundity,
when he actually tells a story about a real man
caught in the peculiar throes of a particular
moment, he can still make the ordinary world feel
suddenly desperate and strange.
The Culture Trip:
"The One Inside" is tryingly male in its
indulgence of the macho unconscious... ...a lesson in how our culture
dresses things up as things they’re not, and while the edgy cover, the
faux-poetry of Patti Smith’s foreword, and Shepard’s wannabe Beckettian prose
will deem the book cool to many a brooding American bachelor, this "cool" is one
that privileges self-pity and the evasion of catastrophic behavior over any
attempt to do the hard work of self-reflection.
The Bowed Bookshelf:
Literature, language, and its portrayal in film or on stage, has been his
work for forty years. He may be winding down, but this he can still do: write
with clarity, dreams or memories or lies or wishes or denials. This may be a
memoir, but who’s to say the memories of an old man aren’t half fiction?
I loved this work. Shepard always read a lot of books but
famous writers like Mailer, Capote, or Nabokov confused him. Shepard knew what
was important, and stashed language like memory, in red naugahyde suitcases,
ready to be pulled out in wonderment years later, and used to describe this
world of his, or ours. He may be an ordinary man (who knows?), but he has
extraordinary skill. This is a special, wonderful, joyful, ugly, painful look at
our past century, a western landscape, and a man in it.