To say that Sam Shepard’s new book is a travelogue, would be like saying Will Self’s new book (Psycho Too, which, coincidentally, I just finished recently) is a travelogue. It just ain’t so. But whereas Self’s essays work as a springboard to ask questions of the 21st Century that we live in, Shepard’s book is more reflective, more deeply personal, more stylistically eclectic. Notes, snatches of dialogue, moments, vignettes, poems, songs, even a short story or two (133 in all), Shepard treks across the American West.
Like many writers who reach the latter years (Roth, Coetzee come to mind), Shepard seems increasingly focused on dissolution, sickness, and death. The title of the book comes from a film production term that charts production schedules on something called the Day out of Days. Shepard is both an actor and a playwright – one out of necessity and one out of love. The acting serves only to support the writing. And like a head severed from the body, the two different lives would seem to be at cross purposes, especially for a man who really prefers his solitude.
From the second story – “Haskell, Arkansas (Highway 70)”, in which a severed head is found in a ditch by the side of the road – to the penultimate one – “Rogers, Arkansas (Highway 62)” – a man carries with him, and carries on a conversation with, a severed head – finally depositing it in its final resting place.
Shepard would rather deny that part of him (‘the actor’) than participate in the celebrity game. He accepts the rewards and downside though with equanimity. Unlike some actors (and here I think of Brando, who seemed to develop a self-loathing because of the trap he felt himself to be in), Shepard has a respect for the profession, being a playwright and all. In Costello an actor returns to his hometown (after 45 years) and is recognized as Billy Rice by a guy he used to raise hell with – Eddie Costello. ‘The actor’ never does acknowledge that he is the former Billy Rice, now a Hollywood star.
In “Esmeralda and the Flipping Hammer (Highway 152, continued)” the narrator reminisces about Kerouac and Jack Cassidy. Being on the road, with limitless horizons. Esmeralda, a waitress in a diner, like Eddie Costello of the earlier story were both born and will likely die in the same place, without ever having left it.
Is Shepard beginning to ponder death, perhaps his own mortality? There are several short sketches about the deaths of famous people: Casey Jones (“Casey Moan”), Hank Williams (“Mr Williams”), Eric Dolphy (“Five Spot” – the jazz club “which is now a dumb-ass Pizza Hut”), bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley (“Knoxville, Tennessee (Highway 40)”), Carrie Nation (“Butte”) , Crazy Horse (“Fort Robinson, Nebraska (Highway 20)”).
Shepard contemplates not only certain, specific deaths, but the passage of time and place. Change. For change is a form of death…and rebirth.”Buffalo Trace” is a short, and lyrical passage about an unnamed town. An excerpt:
…and there must have been a great traffic of oxen teams and black mules coming and going, throngs if you will; blacksmith hammers ringing down the broad avenues. And beyond these lots, fields stretching right out to the highway with volunteer oats and blue timothy undulating in the prairie breeze. And the highway itself, now broken up with tall yellow weeds and potholes deep enough to kill a Ford of any kind and, what’s even more revealing, is that now the dead highway seems to be returning to the ancient buffalo trace beneath it where someone must have tried to copy the migrations of the vast herds that once blackened the landscape. Maybe they felt the buffalo knew where they were going even if they themselves didn’t have a clue.
And with all the meanderings here, it is clear that there is no itinerary. The word “wandering” appears in the title of at least two segments. “Where are we now?”, is the title of another sketch. This meandering is also reflected in the structure of the pieces. From highway to highway and back again. This is no linear journey.
In “Van Horn, Texas (Highway 10)”, he tells the cook and waitress in a diner that
…I’m a big fan of desolation. I’m fascinated by the way things disintegrate; appear and disappear. The way something very prosperous and promising turns out to be disappointing and sad. The way people hang on in the middle of such obliteration and don’t think twice about it. The way people just keep living their lives because they don’t know what else to do.
There are sketches not only of the deaths of historical figures, but of those close to the narrator: a friend Paul in “Paul” and his father-in-law in “One Stone”.
Even death itself is referred to in the title of a short note called “Demon in the Woods”.
This feels to me like a Shepard book filled with blink of the eye moments. There’s sardonic humor, and peaceful reverie. But beneath it all, there is a somber pillow of melancholy. Lots of whippoorwill.s Patti Smith’s book (which I’ve just begun) starts off with a white swan taking flight. I’m not sure where the swan will take me, but Shepard has revealed the ephemeral moments that make up a life. There are regrets, but none that could be changed. After all, we cannot go back and change the hurtful moments from a future perspective. Then it would have been someone else’s life.