Sam Shepard first appeared on my radar in the early 80s with the publication of Rolling Thunder Logbook, a journal of his time spent on the road with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review (1975-76). Being a Bob Dylan fan and having caught the penultimate Rolling Thunder Review concert (known as the “Hard Rain” concert), naturally I bought the book. For the next forty years, I followed Shepard’s career as a playwright, screenwriter, actor, and director, and I was saddened when he passed away at the age of 74 last July.
At the time of his death, Shepard was working on his final work, a novel. Suffering from ALS, he got to the point where he was unable to hold a pen, so he dictated his words into a tape recorder, and when he could no longer hold the recorder, he dictated to his daughter and his sisters. He did not complete this work, one of only two novel he wrote. One-time lover (and still friends), Patti Smith, rocker and poet, helped finish and edit the novel. The result is A Spy of the First Person.
It’s short (96 pages) and it’s… well, it’s Sam Shepard: impressionistic, oblique, and beautifully written in the sort of spare style that I love. The anonymous narrator, crippled by some unknown condition, spends his days confined to a rocking chair on a wraparound screened-in porch, eating, drinking, observing and thinking. Actually, there seems to be two narrators and it is confusing sometimes which one is speaking but that doesn’t get in the way of aprreciating this novel (or nevella).
Here’s a couple of excerpts:
If you were traveling in a foreign country and you lost your dogs and you lost your car and you lost your note from home that your mother pinned on your collar and you lost your clothes and you were standing there naked and somebody came up to you and said, where do you belong, how would you answer? Would you ask the one ancestor who happened to be Portuguese? Or would you ask the Spanish Armada? Somebody has forgotten…
In this desert I was originally referring to, the painted desert, you walk across Zen-like sculpted gardens full of carefully raked sand and cactus to get to the Clinic. And these sculptured gardens are full of little signs. They look like dominos from a distance. Signs that read Watch Out for Rattle Snakes. Beware of Rattle Snakes. People come from all over the world to get the cure from the Clinic… But just outside in Arizona it’s 112 degrees and there are sculptured gardens full of sand and cactus and rattle snakes. Bigger than life itself.
Considering the themes that Shephard deals with – life, death, fathers and sons, America’s frontier, memory, time – it’s not hard to imagine that in the hands of another author the result would have a 500 page tome. But I think Shepard’s brevity had more to do with his style rather than a matter of running out of time to complete the work.
It’s worth reading… an honest, eloquent valediction from a dying artist.