Sam Shepard offers more of himself
Source: Chicago Tribune - November 14, 2010

But the winner of the Tribune Literary Award keeps much tucked away beyond the page and stage.

Sam Shepard asked if anyone had read "Life" yet? The Keith Richards autobiography? Anyone? He asked a full house at Symphony Center on Saturday morning, where he was receiving the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. There were a few nods, though not many. He said it was wonderful, with a great line that stuck in his head: "Memory is fiction." He reiterated this, it seemed, as a kind of warning.

"I am notoriously bad at speeches," Shepard said, "so I'm not going to give one. I'm just going to read."

And then, like Richards, he proceeded to offer more of himself than you might expect, but less than is probably available. It was a reading that felt like a performance, with snippets of the real Shepard glimpsed between the 10 or so works he dug into for about an hour, and which spanned his career, dialogues, short stories, poems that sounded like short stories. One piece began this way: "I am a man not to be trusted." Another story he introduced by saying that "it was written some time ago but most of it still holds true. There are a few little things that aren't true but I'm not telling what they are."

One story offered this detail: "I am an actor off and on now, I confess… But I don't fly. I have been having some trouble lately landing jobs because of this not-wanting-to-fly business." Then: "I'm not getting any younger. My face is falling apart, most of my lower teeth were knocked out by a cold in the spring of '75." What's real? Well, his plays, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Buried Child" (1979) and "True West"; his screenplays for directors such as Robert Altman and Wim Wenders; his supporting roles in films as varied "The Right Stuff," "The Notebook" and "Charlotte's Web" (which he narrated).

And what else?

Unclear. But Shepard is 67; and he was born in Fort Sheridan. He wore jeans and a casual sports coat, the kind a rancher would wear in a movie, with suede at the shoulders. He seemed to be playing Sam Shepard and came across the way his work does, rooted but playful, part Dylan, part Clint, part Cormac McCarthy. The first piece he read, taken from his 2003 collection, "Great Dream of Heaven," written from the point of view of his youngest son, began "My dad knows absolutely nothing about the '80s. I have to interview him for my seventh grade social studies class and he knows nothing."

But those snippets of home (probably) seemed rare, and more common were the inanities and absurdities that surround a working actor. For instance, Shepard's last piece was from "Day Out of Days," his most recent book of stories, and like many of the pieces he read, it was full of facts tangled densely with fictions, though it also left the feeling that Shepard the playwright and sometimes actor never stops wondering if he will be remembered as Shepard the sometimes actor who wrote great plays – a feeling Chicago Tribune editor Gerould Kern nodded to in his introduction of the author, noting how ironic it was a man often called America's greatest living playwright is best known as a movie star, an etched face of common sense and gravitas.

Indeed, how did he end up at this point, Shepard wondered, "playing yet another military man which I am not and never would be but my father most certainly was," portraying another stone-faced solider and authority figure showing "grim determination in the face of hopeless odds"? Where did that come from? He read from his story and wondered aloud about this – or was it that he wondered aloud about this while reading from his story? Either way, he said in that familiar crinkled rasp, if someone would "just tap me on the shoulder and invite me the hell out of here, believe me, I wouldn't miss it."

Then he put his book and his literary award beneath his arm and walked off.