Conversations With Himself: Sam Shepard’s Narrator Takes Stock of His Life

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Book Review NYT By MOLLY HASKELLFEB. 24, 2017 

THE ONE INSIDE
By Sam Shepard
172 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95.

“You can’t go home again.” Thomas Wolfe’s famous phrase has long served as a dictum for writers and analysands, but it needs an addendum: You can’t stop trying. Sam Shepard has acknowledged the compulsion — and also the futility — in interviews and dramatized it in plays where protagonists return to the place that’s supposed to take you in, but doesn’t. They come home not for comfort but to settle scores, demand respect, even elicit an acknowledgment of their existence. Family members in extremis shout and holler, hoping, like the father in “Buried Child,” that the sounds they make will signal an affirmative reply to the question, “Are we still in the land of the living?”

This question floats over Shepard’s novella of short-burst imaginings and conversations with himself, as the aging narrator ruefully takes stock. He’s in the land of the living, but only just, hanging on by his fingernails, his memory, his imagination, his never-ending obsession with his father, his blue thermal socks (nicked from a movie set) and his ongoing arguments with women, including a sometime-girlfriend 50 years his junior. She’s called the Blackmail Girl because she’s recording their conversations for a book that will launch her literary career. Maybe. There’s a wry poetic justice in the spectacle of a writer, that scavenger of others’ lives, helplessly furnishing material for another. The voyeur voyeured.

“The One Inside” is less a stand-alone performance than Shepard’s short story collections, but it takes its place as a satisfying chapter in the autobiographical stream of consciousness that flows through his plays. Masculinity and its perils, the primitive drama of sibling and father-son rivalry, are the wellsprings of Shepard’s work. Here the narrator realizes he’s a year older than his father was when he died, but the man still looms over the present. The bomber pilot of World War II figures in hallucinatory portraits, vignettes that are the son’s way of steer-wrestling him to earth. In a scene that reprises Shepard’s striking story “Tiny Man,” the father is not only dead but shrunken, a minuscule corpse in Saran Wrap. In the presence of the mourners, or mobsters, who’ve delivered him, the son reveals the old man’s wizened face.

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Credit Patricia Wall/The New York Times

At times the narrator’s own body seems to be disintegrating. There are thoughts of suicide even as Eros struggles to assert its sway over Thanatos. We are taken back to a primal scene, shocking and vivid, when the young boy walks in on his father making love with Felicity, a girl hardly older than he is. While the father lies silent, he hears her “scream like a trapped rabbit.” Far from retreating in fear, he is fascinated, even turned on. In the aftermath, Felicity still screaming her pleasure, the boardinghouse landlady wonders if there’s a murder being committed, calls the cops. Felicity winds up on the sidewalk, clutching a sheet over her voluptuous front, as his father is hauled off to jail. They’re kicked out of the boardinghouse, marking the boy’s expulsion from innocence if not paradise.

In the son’s acting out of the Oedipal triangle, he will continue to see Felicity, talk to her, have noisy sex with her, wonder about his father’s reaction. He will recapitulate the old man’s fondness for young flesh in his coupling with the Blackmail Girl, enjoy the disapproval of cast and crew when he takes her with him on a set.

Not many Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights are also heartthrobs, but one of the things that have made Shepard so attractive on the screen is our sense of his reluctance to be there. He has a natural antipathy for the movie star life. Here the narrator wrestles with phony parts, dons costumes in an agony, as if they were medieval torture instruments. He seeks authenticity, even as he creates art and artifice as a métier. He’s a man of the West, of feedlots and ramshackle cabins, of a silence punctuated only by the sound of crickets, but a man of words as well. He’s conflicted, the intellectual versus the Marlboro man, or, as Patti Smith says in her introduction, “he’s a loner who doesn’t want to be alone, grappling with the incubus.”

By implication, the battle with the father comes down to words — or lack of them. Is that great wall of paternal silence the “real” man? Is the fancy-pants artist the wimp? In the end, it’s David slinging volleys of words at the mute Goliath, and we know who won that battle.

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