After watching a half-century of his legendary coolness, you either believe that 73-year-old Sam Shepard has the right stuff or you don’t. Aside from his steely performance in dozens of movies and TV shows, he’s the author of almost 50 plays, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, “Buried Child” (1979), which should be remembered as one of the greatest dramas of the 20th century. He’s got nothing more to prove.
And yet now, “The One Inside ” is being hyped as Shepard’s “first work of long fiction,” though it’s not particularly long nor entirely fictional. Fans of his short stories and autobiographical writings will hear echoes of the playwright’s life all across this familiarly bleak landscape. In her fawning introduction, Patti Smith, Shepard’s friend and onetime lover, says, “It’s him, sort of him, not him at all.” By way of clarification, she calls his new book “a tapeworm slithering from the stomach, through the open mouth, down the bedsheets, straight into the bleak infinite.”
That’s a little more psychedelic than the narrative that follows, but she’s not too far off. “The One Inside” opens in the cold, Xanax-blurred hours of an early morning as the narrator hears coyotes cackling in the distance. Just a few pages further, he imagines his father’s corpse “wrapped up tight in see-through plastic. . . . He’s become very small in the course of things — maybe eight inches tall.”
Despite his diminutive size in that nightmare, the narrator’s late father looms large in this impressionistic story. Like Shepard’s real dad, he flew combat missions over Germany in World War II, and now memories of living with him wind in and out of more recent events in the narrator’s lonely life. “I see my father in everything,” he says. He’s drawn back, particularly, to a period when he was a horny 13-year-old, and his father was sleeping with a teenage girl named Felicity. Hearing and, yes, even watching them have sex left a deep impression on the boy — boys being impressionable that way. At one point, Felicity started coming around the house when his father was at work, which, as you might expect, did not lead to a happy family reunion.
But for all the haunted Greek drama of that recollection, much of the book’s contemporary story has the substance of an extended, self-pitying sigh. In short, oblique chapters — sometimes only a small paragraph floating on a page — we divine that the narrator, an actor and writer with “a reputation for discarding women,” is still reeling from the collapse of a long relationship. (There’s no mention of Jessica Lange, but it’s hard not to think of the actress who was Shepard’s partner for almost 30 years.) There’s an awful lot of wandering around the house, looking for the dogs, feeling bereft. He thinks about suicide, mulls his dreams, considers the smell of his urine.
He has other troubles, too. Following in his father’s libidinous footsteps, he has very unwisely encouraged the attention of a woman 50 years his junior. He can feel people on the movie set gossiping about him. “Even in this era of liberal smugness it causes suspicion,” he notes with a touch of defensiveness. “Taboo! Not ‘age appropriate’!”
But if only he’d heeded those censorious voices. . . . This ambitious young woman plans to jump-start her own literary career by publishing transcripts of their phone conversations, chats that apparently featured poetic commentary on their genitalia. We learn about this in a series of conversations called “Blackmail Dialogues,” which are sprinkled throughout the book:
“I’ve been recording all our phone conversations, you know.”
“All these years. Yup.”
“With a tape recorder, you mean? Like a detective?”
“Well — ”
“How long? We haven’t known each other that long.”
“A long, long time.”
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of. They’re very beautiful.”
“What are? No — ”
“What are you going to do with them?”
“Put them in a book.”
“What about me?”
There may be actors who could bring this staccato dialogue to life, although if you’ve seen many of Shepard’s plays, you know there are a lot of actors who cannot. That rapid-fire, back-and-forth patter — like David Mamet’s — constantly threatens to slip into a manic patty-cake that sounds gratingly artificial. And yet, in another section, while working on a movie, the narrator explains, “The language holds the character, for me. Only through the varied repetition of saying words out loud does the character begin to appear like a negative in a chemical bath.”
Such insights, often evocatively phrased, are the erratic rewards of reading this fitful book. Sometimes, they come in a single phrase, such as Shepard’s appraisal of T.S. Eliot: “essential ideas redolent of stale gin and suicide.” But the best parts of “The One Inside” are those least hobbled by its fractured structure and mannered dialogue. When he stops letting vagueness masquerade as profundity, when he actually tells a story about a real man caught in the peculiar throes of a particular moment, he can still make the ordinary world feel suddenly desperate and strange.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Sam Shepard
Knopf. 192 pp. $25.95