Few deaths are kind, I think, but Sam Shepard’s seemed almost theatrically cruel.
A brilliant playwright, author, actor, director and screenwriter, Shepard died in July, at age 73, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
For a man whose life was an embodiment of the power of words, dying of a disease that steals its victims’ ability to speak and write sounds like tragedy.
Shepard, however, gets the last word in Spy of the First Person, a brief and impressionistic novella he wrote in his last days. His children and sisters transcribed his dictation after he could no longer write. Longtime friend Patti Smith edited, and Shepard made the final changes just days before he died.
The result is spare but not slight, surreal yet stoic, an intriguing and moving glimpse into what falls away and what still matters at the end.
Early on, the book’s short chapters (some less than a page) alternate between two narrators. One seems to be the spy of the title, watching another man: "Seen from a distance," the book begins. "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." In those few sentences, Shepard evokes the sense of mystery and the exploration of the myth of the American West that permeated so much of his work.
The man in the shades is living in his memories: "There used to be orchards as far as the eye could see. Like picture postcards," he says of the California desert, recalling in vivid detail a day in his childhood decades ago. It was an exciting day, but what he recalls also is its serene coda on the ride home: "Somebody is turning off a lawn mower. Somebody’s sitting at a bus stop. Somebody’s waiting for somebody. Lights are coming on. They’re starting to serve dinner."
In the present, he has a wry sense of humor. Visiting a famous medical clinic in Arizona, he notes its "Zen-like sculpted gardens full of carefully raked sand and cactus" and is tickled to see the chaos implied by ranks of little signs that warn "Beware of Rattle Snakes."
The line between watcher and watched blurs. The watcher tells us, "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. A lost twin. ... The way the eyes look confident and lost at the same time."
Shepard’s earliest fame was as a playwright, creating such plays as True West, Buried Child and Fool for Love. He won a record-setting 10 Obie Awards for writing and directing between 1966 and 1984, and Buried Child won the Pulitzer in 1979 and was nominated for five Tonys.
As an actor with rangy good looks and laconic delivery reminiscent of screen icons like Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda, Shepard performed in more than 50 movies and TV shows. His most recent notable turn was as the patriarch of a Florida family on Bloodline, but his indelible role was as test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff in 1983. In 1982 he met Jessica Lange when they starred in the movie Frances; they lived together for nearly 30 years and have two children.
Yet that fame and celebrity make no appearances in Spy. Instead, its dying narrator focuses on the landscape and the natural world: the songs of birds, the color of flowers, beloved dogs and horses. His memories are not of awards and parties, stages and movie sets, but of the youths of his children, of his travels as a young man, of living in a condemned building in New York with no money but the world open before him.
The watcher fades, or is absorbed. The watched man is reticent about his disease, but near the end he does tell us he misses being able to scratch his dog’s belly, scratch his own eyebrow. "One year ago exactly he could drive across the great divide. He could drive down the coastline. The rugged coast. He could yawn at the desert.
"One year ago exactly more or less, he could walk with his head up."
With Spy of the First Person, Shepard exited head up.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.