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Sam Shepard's dual-voiced farewell

The difficulty of reckoning with Sam Shepard’s artistic legacy is primarily a problem of cartography. Indeed, negotiating the terrain of such an uncommonly broad, richly contoured oeuvre is no easy feat for the would-be elegist. Perhaps best known as a playwright (he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for “Buried Child”), Shepard was also a gifted actor, musician, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer and novelist. Occupying a kind of permanent West, his spare and often surreal portraits dismantled the bankrupt mythologies propping up the American dream. In Shepard’s work, what is most wanted — family, home, identity — is most unmoored, prone to drift and distortion.

Shepard, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in July, was working on a final book at the time of his death, writing drafts by hand until the complications of his neurodegenerative disease made such work impossible. He then dictated segments into a tape recorder, which his family would later transcribe. Longtime friend and ex-lover Patti Smith assisted him in editing the manuscript, the final review of which occurred just days before his death.

The resulting novel, “Spy of the First Person,” is an eloquent, if necessarily brief, valediction. At just 96 pages, its effect is one of atmosphere rather than narrative, an aching requiem sung in the shadow of extinction. It is also partly autobiographical. Like Shepard, the narrator is an old man dying of a debilitating illness. His flickering consciousness ranges over great temporal distance, blending present-day observations with fragments from a disintegrating past. Across the street, the eponymous spy watches him through binoculars, obsessing over the mysterious stoic with whom he feels a curious kinship: “I can’t help feeling a similarity between him and me. I don’t know what it is. Sometimes it feels like we’re the same person.” The short dispatches that serve as chapters leap between these two voices, at times attaining an almost Beckettian quality, the lean poetry of utterance as it scrapes against the void. “Sometimes people appear like that out of nowhere,” the younger man says during one of his vigils. “They just appear and then they disappear. Very fast. Just like a photograph that emerges from a chemical bath.” Shepard’s gaunt lyricism conjures an album of bleached images in which the life of a man and the changing face of a country are cataloged with both love and bafflement.

The dissolution of the American frontier — one of Shepard’s enduring themes — animates many of these fractured remembrances. “There used to be orchards as far as the eye could see,” the old man says of the California he knew as a boy. “Like picture postcards… Orchards of every kind corresponding to the nationality that brought them here.” Now it is a land of corroded metal, trash, fences, dead birds. As in so much of Shepard’s work, fixity is a mirage that vanishes when approached. “Durango’s still there, the desert’s still there, Mexico’s still there. Everything’s still there but everything’s changed.”

Beneath the pressure of such implacable transformation, a kind of cosmic rootlessness begins to crystallize:

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.

Far from mere metaphysical noodling, the consequences of such forgetting are situated within an all too familiar contemporary dread. Shepard’s West, always a land of endless vistas and no exits, has here acquired a newly thrumming menace in the presence of agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement . “There are trucks loaded with masked men looking for immigrants of all kinds. Looking for enemies of the people behind coffee shops. Behind shoe stores. Behind wineries.” The telescoping nature of collapse — from the frailness of the physical body to the tragedy of the national soul — lends these pages a loss that is both painfully intimate and disconsolately vast.

Amid these intimations of decay, enigmatic vignettes are scattered like detritus. Characters turn up again and again in elliptical flashbacks. There are free associations of family, flowers, colored stones and animals, zócalos, little lost towns. At one point, the narrator appears to confess to a crime heretofore unknown to his daughter, a shooting committed at a racetrack — or perhaps it’s all in his head, as she believes. “Everything’s in my head,” he counters.

If these fragments attain a particular elegiac gravity, Shephard never allows them to stray into unearned sentiment. A lived richness burnishes each page, though the constructive and the ennobling are never less than relentlessly qualified: “There must be a cure. We are children of the miraculous. Long pause. Pausing. A long pause. Pausing. Nobody hangs on to words. Nobody hangs in the moment. Nobody really hangs for nobody.”

The novel ends at a Mexican restaurant, the old man having been joined by his family for tequila and “a lot of conversation, a lot of people talking at once, the whole table bustling with conversation.” Afterward, the troupe makes its way outside into empty, moonlit streets. The man’s final thoughts are moving in their simple dignity, suggesting the only continuance we’re afforded: “The thing I remember most is being more or less helpless and the strength of my sons.”

Shepard’s last novel is not meant to be a definitive statement; he has a career’s worth of those. Still, it is difficult not to be moved by these sparks of beauty and belonging. They light up all the brighter for how quickly they go dark.

Illingworth is a writer in Southern California. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Paris Review, and the Times Literary Supplement.

Spy of the First Person

Sam Shepard

Knopf: 96 pp., $18

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