Spy of the First Person

  • By Sam Shepard
  • Knopf
  • 96 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jason Tinney
  • December 25, 2017

A man confronts his mortality in this spare, lovely, sometimes confounding tale.

In Sam Shepard's Spy of the First Person, an anonymous narrator, rendered nearly helpless from a crippling condition, spends his days confined, more or less, to a rocking chair on a wraparound screened-in porch, sipping iced tea, eating cheese and crackers, reading, sometimes talking to himself, noticing all varieties of birds, winged creatures, and “white butterflies on purple flowers...bugs buzzing over the green cut lawn.”

Visitors stop by, his children, his sisters — loved ones who tend to his physical needs and listen to his stories: ever-shifting recollections that collide at the border between history and fable. Some fact. Some fiction. Not prone to paranoia, he does, however, have the sense that someone is watching him.

He's seen the owl-eyed binoculars fixed from across the road.         

“Someone wants to know something about me that I don't even know myself. I can feel him getting closer and closer...I can tell he's male by the smell of his breath,” the man, described as a Lone Ranger, masked bandit, says. “He gets more and more curious about my comings and goings. About me. He seems to want to know something about my origins.”

A second nameless narrator confesses, “I discovered him quite by accident. Bent backwards, gasping for air...Sometimes people appear like that out of nowhere. They just appear and then they disappear. Very fast. Just like a photograph that emerges from a chemical bath.”

When the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Oscar-nominated actor passed away in July at age 73 from complications of ALS, he left a canon of more than 55 plays, three story collections, a novel, and volumes of journals and letters. His final work, Spy of the First Person, imbued with Shepard's characteristic hauntingly muscular prose and poetic leaps of percussive language, is not so much an epitaph as it is an encore. A restless farewell.

A novella of sorts, clocking in at 96 pages written in terse chapters — some comprised of only five sentences — Spy of the First Person is anchored by the two voyeuristic voices, one of which morbidly observes the details of his neighbor's ailment.

“His hands and arms don't work much. He uses his legs, his knees, his thighs, to bring his arms and hands to his face in order to eat his cheese and crackers.”

Our chair-rocking masked bandit can't comprehend what is so fascinating about his predicament (one of Shepard's favorite words). These voices don't follow a linear path and, at times, even amalgamate. This is familiar Shepard territory: the dual highway of the individual. It's the ultimate theater, two characters spying on one another from a distance that is closer than they think.

“It's not my monotony anyway. It's his, too. It's both of ours,” the man says. “Maybe he's the opposite of fascinated. What would the opposite of fascinated be? To be tangled up in thought, in thinking. Tangled up. There he is looking at the same thing day after day, month after month.”

Weaving a tapestry of voices, our narrator takes the reader on a road trip of the mind, chasing vivid memories scattered across another familiar Shepard landscape, the Southwest.

“The painted desert. Land of the Apache. Land of the Saguaro.” From a renowned Arizona clinic where our protagonist receives spinal taps and MRIs — its sculpted Zen-like gardens teeming with rattlesnakes — to the dusty streets of Durango, Old Mexico, where Pancho Villa met his death, to the “picture postcards” of bountiful California, where beautiful almond orchards “looked like Japanese calligraphy,” the stories are recounted with the dry humor and unflinching candor of a man reluctantly staring square-eyed at the horizon of fate.

“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 more or less, he could walk with his head up. He could see through the air.”

Some may scratch their heads, finding Spy of the First Person's bleak staccato bluntness and dark meanderings more akin to an epic poem than traditional narrative form. Impenetrable. Even devoted Shepard followers might respectfully dismiss Spy as a minor note in the author's vast catalogue. Where the book succeeds mostly succinctly, and where the story is crystallized, is in the final chapter.

As a full Strawberry Moon rises, the narrator ventures out with his family and friends for an evening of enchiladas, margaritas, and “a lot more tequila.” It is a moving portrait painted in precise strokes that gives weight to what would be a typically benign journal entry had it not been preceded by an arduous journey.

“I was in a wheelchair with a shaggy sheepskin covering the seat and a Navajo blanket over my knees, and my two sons, two of my sons, Jesse and Walker, were on either side pushing me down the middle of East Water Street. I'll never forget the strength I felt from my two boys behind me.”

After being diagnosed with ALS, Shepard began Spy of the First Person in 2016, writing the first drafts by hand as he was no longer able to type. When the disease took grip and handwriting became impossible, he recorded portions of the book that were then transcribed by his family. When recording became too difficult, he dictated the final pages.

Longtime pal Patti Smith assisted Shepard in editing the manuscript. He reviewed the book with his family and dictated his final edits just days before passing away on July 27, 2017, at his home in Kentucky. Sometimes the work behind the work is as moving as the story itself.

Spy of the First Person stands as a mile-marker to a writer who worked when his hands no longer could. He wouldn't allow his craft to be crippled. At the end, Shepard still had his voice. And we still have it now. 

Jason Tinney is a fiction writer, playwright, musician, and actor. "Fifty Miles Away," a play he co-wrote with Holly Morse-Ellington, won first place at the Frostburg State University Center for Literary Arts 2015 International One-Act Play Festival. His story collection, Ripple Meets the Deep, was named Best Book of 2015 by Baltimore Magazine.

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