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Monday, March 19, 2018

The One Inside

In addition to being one of America's greatest playwrights, Sam Shepard dabbled in prose. But he did not write his first novel until shortly before his death. The One Inside, which came out in 2017, covers some of Shepard's usual haunts--the West, and the dangerous bond between fathers and sons, but also provides insight into what it is like to grow old.

Shepard tells two parallel stories, both involving older men and younger women. When he was a boy, his father was having an affair with a teenage girl, Felicity, who later seduced him. Years later, as an old movie star, he is having an affair with a younger woman. I have no idea how true this is (the current story), but it does have some familiar details. He is on a movie set in Oklahoma, and Shepard had just made August: Osage County. He refers to a wife he had of thirty years, and I suppose this is Jessica Lange, but again, I don't know if any of this is based on fact.

He calls the young woman Blackmail Girl, because she wants to take the transcripts of their phone conversations and turn them into books, which leaves him aghast. The girl shows up on the set of his movie and strips stark naked. There's something erotic about that, as well as foolish."Next morning, me and Blackmail Girl appear on the set. Everyone seems befuddled and judgmental now. Even in this era of liberal smugness it causes suspicion—an almost-seventy-year-old man with a twenty-year-old girl. Taboo!" Indeed, though it is more acceptable culturally than if the genders were reversed, there is something suspicious about such a union. We know what the old man wants. We're unsure about what the woman wants. When it is spelled out how Felicity is only 14-15 years old, it's like a slap in the face. This was acceptable back in the '50s, but certainly not today.

The stories themselves don't seem as important as Shepard's lyrical style, which can be found in his plays: "We drove on past ancient meteor craters, Navajo trading posts, dinosaur skeletons, buffalo petting zoos, rattlesnake purses, knife emporiums, concrete tepees, abandoned frontier forts, authentic Zuni bracelets, Apache casinos, adult superstores, Catholic crucifixion stores, agate bookends, Aztec blankets, Elvis Presley T-shirts, Sitting Bull coffee mugs." Shepard was an interesting mixture of the old West and downtown New York City when he came on the scene, and that remained up until his death.

I haven't kept up with Shepard's plays in his last few years, when he was writing about old men, but some of The One Inside reminds me of his earlier work, such as Curse of the Starving Class, True West, and A Lie of the Mind. All are about misplaced people struggling to find a foothold. And all of them have bursts of brilliance: "There was a morning when he mistook it for one of those motel rooms off Highway 40 West, outside Little Rock. One of those little rooms where you sleep in all your clothes because the sheets are slightly suspect. The rugs are sticky so you keep your thick blue socks on. Yellow neon somehow breaks through the paisley wallpaper. Faded prints of the Mayflower muscling gigantic Atlantic waves. A laminated desk that’s never been sat at with attention. Pocketknife graffiti. Traces of cheap wine spillage or vomit—can’t be sure. Stains."

For those not familiar or not big fans of Shepard this book may be mystifying--I wasn't completely satisfied. But it can be funny: "Albuquerque seemed more boring than ever and it was hard to believe it is now the U.S. capital of MURDER. Probably because there is nothing else to do." And I love his figurative language involving art and cinema: "She wore a leering grin like one of those cat demons in a Goya drawing that seem without motivation. Black eyes, Pacino dead eyes. I didn’t feel panic but I could feel all the signals," and "Now and then, the giant scrub jay would sweep in and take over, causing all the little ones to flee, just like those helpless villagers in a Kurosawa film."

Shepard is a giant among American writers, but I would have liked him to be able to have a few more years to give us more prose.

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