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