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Spy of the First Person by Sam Shepard

March 24, 2018


The circumstances of this book were enough to entice me. From the book flap:

Sam Shepard was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of more than fifty-five plays and three short story collections. As an actor, he appeared in more than sixty films, and received an Oscar nomination in 1984 for The Right Stuff.

On the writing of this book:

Sam Shepard began working on Spy of the First Person in 2016. His first drafts were written by hand, as he was no longer able to use a typewriter due to complications of ALS. When handwriting became impossible, he recorded segments of the book, which were then transcribed by his family. He dictated the remaining pages when recording became too difficult. Sam’s longtime friend Patti Smith assisted him in editing the manuscript. He reviewed the book with his family and dictated his final edits before he passed away on July 27, 2017.

The book is a poetic, dreamlike recollection of an unnamed narrator. Some parts seem drawn from Shepard’s life. Travels, adventures, moments big and small woven together in allusive language that conjures a mood more than it creates a clear narrative. There are two characters, two men who live across the street from one another, one spying the other through binoculars. There is the feeling of confinement, of a body limited to a certain space, a man dependent on his family to take him to the doctor, to move him to the yard. But there is also the infinite expanse of the imagination, of remembering, of the word to conjure a life that is both limited and boundless.

There are notes in here that seem like personal messages to Shepard’s family, as when he admits, “I’m not trying to prove that I was the father you believed me to be when you were very young. I’ve made some mistakes but I have no idea what they were…Maybe we should meet as complete strangers and talk deep into the night as though we’d never seen each other before.”

There are other moments that feel like concrete memories of someone, though it’s unclear who. Like the memory of Lee Marvin floating in the water of the San Francisco Bay during the filming of Point Blank.

I don’t know Shepard well, but after reading this I plan to buy more of his works. This book belongs on the shelf next to Patti Smith’s moving M Train and perhaps Paul Harding’s Tinkers.

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