Published: December 5, 2017
ISBN: ISBN 978-0-525-52156-3 - 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 the book

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.


Kirkus Reviews:

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 Kind' noises").

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 words.

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.