To get the essence of Sam Shepard, you have to hit the
Not metaphorically. Do it for real.
You ought to drive for a while and then pull off the
highway, wait for a break in the traffic — if it's the
right kind of road, the wait won't be long — vacate your
vehicle and kneel down and slap the asphalt.
That's right. Give it a good, hard smack. Note how it's
composed of nicks and ridges and tiny fissures. Feel the
grit and menace of an American highway. Let your hand
linger, and you might pick up the faint vibration of a
distant car or the faraway tremor of a truck or two.
Everybody's making some kind of getaway.
You'll sympathize with Wesley, a character in Shepard's
1978 play "Curse of the Starving Class," who says, "I
could feel this country close like it was part of my
bones." Or with the narrator in " Wisconsin Wilderness,"
a story in Shepard's latest collection, "Day Out of
Days" (2010), who spends his nights "staring deep into
the broad valley, eyes tracing the snaking car lights
along US 66."
Highways are the nation's skeletal system, branching and
probing, heading everywhere at once. Thus if you want to
understand Shepard and his work — he's haunted by roads,
the ones we take and the ones we don't — you can start
by pressing your palm for a few seconds against a dirty
Shepard, who will receive the 2010 Chicago Tribune
Literary Prize for lifetime achievement at 10 a.m.
Saturday at Symphony Center, is a startlingly unique
figure in American cultural life. He's a Pulitzer
Prize-winning playwright, a movie star, a musician, a
screenwriter, a director, a poet. His companion since
1983 is another movie star: Jessica Lange. All of which
makes him possibly the only American celebrity who can
straddle the gap between The New Yorker and US Weekly,
who would be a plausible guest for both Charlie Rose and
But it's hard to imagine Shepard, who turned 67 Friday,
enjoying either experience. Mostly, it seems, he drives.
And thinks. And writes. And gives us a portrait of
ourselves and of contemporary life that initiates a
cringe and a shudder but not much of a contrary
argument. Born in Fort Sheridan and raised mainly in
California, he's often pigeonholed as a chronicler of
the American West — but his true territory is the nation
itself. It's a place, he seems to believe, that has
failed to live up to its own potent mythology, betrayed
its grand ideals.
"He makes us think about what it means to be an
American," says Ann C. Hall, a professor at Ohio
Dominican University who has written about and taught
Shepard's work for many years. "Like David Mamet, he
really pushes the limits of language — what is said and
what is not said.
"He came on the scene and took American theater to
another level," she adds. Indeed, in the mid-1960s
Shepard swooped down onto New York's off-off-Broadway
stage "like a tornado," Hall says, and he blew the doors
off the place, turning out play after play after play
with an angry passion that left audiences shaken but
Shepard has written some 45 plays, but between the late
1970s and the mid-'80s he wrote the four that are the
cornerstone of his achievement: "Curse of the Starving
Class," "Buried Child," "True West" and "A Lie of the
Mind." They're about violent families burning with
shameful secrets, about battling lovers, about shattered
lives. They're written with a savage, earthy poetry that
sounds not like poetry, but like the way people really
talk; Shepard's dialogue is a kind of vicious
vernacular. A lot of his work is about losers on life's
margins, about drifters and misfits and alcoholics, and
the twisted roads down which they ramble.
No wonder it appeals so much to Terry Kinney, co-founder
of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Kinney starred as
Tilden in a 1996 revival of Shepard's "Buried Child"
(1978), a production that originated in Chicago and then
moved to New York.
"All of his people are outsiders," Kinney says. "They
can be very feral. Steppenwolf is very much in tune with
the outsider. We empathize with people on the
And then there are the movie roles. Shepard specializes
in straight-grained, lean-jawed characters such as test
pilot Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff" (1983) or the
farmer in "Days of Heaven" (1978) — watchful, laconic
men defined by action, not talk.
In the short stories in "Day Out of Days," many of which
are set in the Midwest, Shepard shows "his feel for the
roll and pitch of landscape," notes Donna Seaman,
associate editor of Booklist. "His characters are at
once helpless in the grip of sorrow and free in their
The tales in "Day Out of Days" read like notes from the
road, scribbled on napkins from truck stops. They have
titles such as "Dawson, Minnesota (Highway 212 East)"
and "Indianapolis (Highway 74)." As Shepard writes in
one, "After two runny eggs and processed ham, I hit the
road by 7:00. It's hovering at around nineteen degrees.
… Just barely tap the brakes and the whole rear end
slides out from underneath you."
The only way to get a grip, it seems, is to keep on
going, even if you don't know how or where it's all
going to end.