|Published: December 5, 2017
- Alfred A. Knopf (hardcover)
In searing, beautiful prose, Sam
Shepard’s extraordinary narrative leaps off the page
with its immediacy and power. It tells in a brilliant
braid of voices the story of an unnamed narrator who
traces, before our rapt eyes, his memories of work,
adventure, and travel as he undergoes medical tests and
treatments for a condition that is rendering him more
and more dependent on the loved ones who are caring for
him. The narrator’s memories and preoccupations often
echo those of our current moment—for here are stories of
immigration and community, inclusion and exclusion,
suspicion and trust. But at the book’s core, and his, is
family—his relationships with those he loved, and with
the natural world around him. Vivid, haunting, and
deeply moving, Spy of the First Person takes us from the
sculpted gardens of a renowned clinic in Arizona to the
blue waters surrounding Alcatraz, from a New Mexico
border town to a condemned building on New York City’s
Avenue C. It is an unflinching expression of the
vulnerabilities that make us human—and an unbound
celebration of family and life.
|From the beginning of
Seen from a distance. That is,
seeing from across the road, it’s hard to tell how old
he is because of the wraparound screen porch. Because of
his wraparound shades. Purple. Lone Ranger. Masked
bandit. I don’t know what he’s protecting. He’s actually
inside an enclosed screen porch with bugs buzzing, birds
chirping, all kinds of summer things going on, on the
outside — butterflies, wasps, etc. — but it’s very hard
to tell from this distance exactly how old he is. The
baseball cap, the grimy jeans, the old vest. He’s
sitting in a rocking chair, as far as I can tell. A
rocking chair the looks like it was lifted from a
Cracker Barrel. In fact, it still has the broken
security chain around one leg. I think from this
distance it’s red but it could be black, the rocker,
some of these colors originate from the Marines, some of
them from the Army, some from the Air Force, depends on
the depth of one’s patriotism, and he just rocks all
day. That’s all.
A sharply observed, slender novel set in familiar Shepard
(The One Inside, 2017, etc.) territory: a dusty, windblown West of limitless
horizons and limited means of escape.
An image at the beginning of what is billed as the recently deceased
Shepard’s final work of fiction—until the next one is found in a drawer,
presumably—offers arresting portent: robins are singing, chirping away, not
so much out of happiness with the world but, as the nameless narrator says,
“I think mostly protecting nests" from all the "big bad birds" that are out
to get their little blue eggs. The world is full of big bad birds, and one
is the terror of a wasting neurological disease that provides the novel’s
closing frame: two sons and an ailing father lagging behind the rest of
their family as they make their way up the street in a little desert ville.
"We made it and we hobbled up the stairs,” says the old man. “Or I hobbled.
My sons didn’t hobble, I hobbled."
It’s exactly of a piece with "True West" and other early
Shepard standards, and one can imagine Shepard himself playing the part of
that old man in an understated, stoical film. In between, it’s all
impression, small snapshots of odd people and odd moments ("People are
unlocking their cars from a distance. Pushing buttons, zapping their cars,
making the doors buzz and sing, making little 'Close Encounters of the Third
It’s easy to lose track of where one voice ends and
another begins, where the young man leaves off and the old man picks up the
story: explaining the title, the young narrator likens himself to an
employee of a "cryptic detective agency," even as the old man, taking up the
narration in turn, wonders why he’s being so closely watched when he can
barely move. In the end, this is a story less of action than of mood, and
that mood is overwhelmingly, achingly melancholic.
The story is modest, the poetry superb. A most worthy valediction.
Donna Seaman, Booklist:
A gorgeously courageous and sagacious coda to Shepard’s
innovative and soulful body of work.
Early in 2017, Shepard, the author of 55 gutsy and
imaginative plays and three transporting short story collections, published his
first novel, The One Inside; he died that summer after a long battle with ALS.
Now, just before the year closes, his final work of fiction, written in the grip
of that debilitating disease, appears.
A meshing of memoir and invention, it snares with virtuoso
precision both nature’s constant vibrancy and the stop-action of illness. Told
in short takes pulsing with life and rueful wit, it portrays one man spying on
another from across the street, raising binoculars to better watch his subject
struggling to make the simplest motions and family members appearing from within
the house to offer help and company. As for the nearly immobilized man, he is
remembering his immigrant mother, a troubling night in New York City, and visits
to a famous Arizona clinic in pursuit of a ‘magic cure.’ He also offers acid
commentary on episodes in American history, and revels in the resonance of
Gradually the spy and the man on the porch merge, and the
resilient yet reconciled narrator celebrates family love beneath a full moon in
the farewell beauty of twilight.