Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sam Shepard at 70: "who scrambled all this stuff in here?"

"Who scrambled all this stuff in here with no seeming regard for associative order, shape, or color? Without the slightest care for where it might all wind up. Just randomly pinned to cupboards and door frames, slipping sideways; gathering spotted stove grease and fly shit."

(from "Kitchen," Sam Shepard)

Well, everyone is entitled to clean out their cupboards occasionally. Especially so writers, who tend to rummage through their own gray rooms of the mind where all the stuff is kept. They have to; often they find a good story, maybe half of a novel, or something worthy only as kindling for the fireplace -- it's hard to tell until it's out of the bottom drawer. A kitchen seems an apt metaphor for Sam Shepard's 2010 collection Day Out of Daysnot for the quality of the writing (which is considerable, and consistently entertaining) but for its rummaged and haphazard array.

That's not to say the collection isn't appealing, it just seems jumbled. Fans of Shepard's writing will find familiar elements -- his characters carry on the most American of quests, to keep moving even as the decay of fate, time or age continues its unstoppable advance. There is the panorama of Western landscapes, winding ribbons of asphalt and despair, that are settings for Shepard's variety of pre-apocalyptic stories, ones without the actual end of days but mostly focused on emotional and physical ruin.

The longer stories frequently take on the character of Shepard's plays, with a cast of restless misfits, broken and forsaken relationships in dry and dusty Texas towns, Montana grassland, and Arizona deserts -- even as there are elements of literary conjuring, a brand of Borges-like fantasy, as in the story "Highway 70":

"He’s not used to this kind of labor. He’s grown accustomed to a soft, passive existence where nothing happens, nothing counts; where no single day ever stands out more than any other single day; where dreaming and waking all run together; where all the people in his life have disappeared and his main pursuits are napping and watching Mexican soap operas cast with dark-haired weeping beauties and the fantasies they evoke. He suddenly collapses under a concrete viaduct and drops the basket beside him. The head rolls out and comes to rest with the black gaping hole of the severed neck sticking straight up. The man stares into the hole, gasping for air, and listens to the voice of the head speaking very calmly: 'We just need to make a right turn here, after the bridge, and then follow the irrigation ditch. It’s not very far.'”

As good as the longer pieces are, the mosaic of styles (stories, lyrics, short pieces of dialogue) that mean to link the longer elements together don't carry the flow of the book as well. It's a tricky approach to a writer's output as multifaceted as Shepard's work as playwright, novelist, and lyric writer. The writer's overstuffed drawer of manuscripts must have seemed intriguing. The results are less so, and seem only in need of more work, a little more consideration.

Still, Day Out of Days is worth reading for pleasure and the sure craft of Shepard's writing. Even in his briefest sketches Shepard has the eye for the telling detail and sharply-drawn character. As it is the collection has the feel of a Dylan album, fractured, reflective and observant, and very contemporaary in its concerns: a man is trapped in a restaurant, forcing him to listen to an endless loop of music; a vacationing American family gets wrapped up in its own dysfunction and misses the beauty of the Mexican countryside; an actor returns to his hometown.

But Shepard -- who turns 70 today, November 5 -- has staked out his own literary territory made of equal parts longing and restlessness. Even as his characters are sure the big answers lay just out of their grasp, over the next hill -- continuing the Beat idea of happiness in endless journeys of superhighways and enough gas -- sometimes happiness can be found simply by walking out the door:

"What’s all this shit for? Some display for who? For me? What for? Some guest or other? I have no guests. You know that. I’m no host. Never have been. Maybe the old Sonoran man who drops off split oak but no real visitors, that’s for sure. Everyone knows to stay far away. Especially now with the tiger-brindled pit bull out front. The screaming burro kicking buckets down the hill. The fighting gallo in attack mode. I’m in this bunker all my own, surrounded by mysterious stuff. It may be time to take a break and walk back out into the dripping black woods where I know the hollowed-out Grandaddy Sycamore sits and waits for you to climb inside and breathe up into its bone-white aching arms."
Escapechance, the whims of fate: all of these are themes uniting the stories in Day Out of Days. The barren landscapes are metaphors for personal desperation, and there is the promise of rest at the end of these journeys -- but like noontime in the desert, hope and expectation can vanish like a mirage.

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