Spy of the First Person

The first words of Sam Shepard’s remarkable, quietly devastating last book, written in the final year of his life when he was dying of ALS, let us know what he’s up to: “Seen from a distance.” In Spy of the First Person, Shepard, a restless wanderer trapped in a failing body, squeezes himself through an escape hatch by doing one of the things he’s always done — writing. He objectifies himself, putting distance between his corporeal and mental selves by splitting alternately into observed and observer in order to report on his predicament from afar. One of many searing observations: “The more helpless I get, the more remote I become.”

Shifting between first- and third-person perspectives, the book’s focus is an old man rocking on a screened porch or parked under a tree in a wheelchair. A sort of doppelgänger spies on him, peering through binoculars from across the street, trying to figure out what’s going on: “The baseball cap, the grimy jeans, the old vest . . . Telling stories of one kind or another, little histories. Battle stories . . . mumbling to himself.” The mysterious watcher mentions iced tea, reading, and people coming by all day — a son, a daughter, two sisters — from “deep inside the house” to tend to the man. He notes the man’s mounting unsteadiness on his feet, the progressive difficulty breathing. He observes, “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 be able to eat his cheese and crackers.”

The increasingly incapacitated man is trying to figure out what’s going on, too. ALS is never mentioned by name, but he paints a clear enough picture of the disease’s ravages, consistent with neurobiologist Lisa Genova’s more clinically detailed depiction in Every Note Played, her forthcoming novel about a concert pianist suffering from ALS. “They gave me all these tests,” Shepard writes of dismayingly useless visits to a famous clinic in the “painted desert.” He describes the torment of itchy eyebrows and of a monotony barely broken by birds and butterflies. The disease’s encroachment induces both a detachment from his body and a sort of paranoia, reflected in the feeling that he’s under surveillance: “Someone wants to know something. Someone wants to know something about me that I don’t even know myself.” Later, he comments, “I wouldn’t mind answering if I could. It’s kind of interesting to have someone genuinely interested in me.”

In a sense, all writing is a way of stepping away from oneself and taking the long view — and so is acting. In the course of more than fifty years, Shepard did plenty of both, writing more than fifty-five plays and acting in more than sixty films. He wrote about a mythologized West in stormy dramas about dysfunctional families torn by alcoholism, brothers battling each other, and fathers fighting sons. He wrote about abuse, addiction, and those left behind by the American Dream, in works like his 1978 Pulitzer Prize winner, Buried Child, before they became the ubiquitous dark matter of stage, screen, and memoirs. A consummate lone ranger, he ran on his own rogue steam — a persona that made him a natural in roles like The Right Stuff‘s Chuck Yeager, for which he received an Oscar nomination (despite his purported fear of flying). But producing this spare, potent book — on which he completed edits just days before his death on July 27th, at age seventy-three — required the help of his three children, two sisters, and his former lover and lifelong friend, Patti Smith. Spy of the First Person is, among other things, a paean to family.

His previous book, The One Inside, which was published earlier this year, was a muddled, intensely interior mix of dreamscape and memory. It was dedicated to his cherished family support team and featured a powerful epigraph from David Foster Wallace that applies equally to Spy of the First Person: “Why does no one take you aside and tell you what is coming?” This slim posthumous volume is a more coherent, urgent, and moving work of autobiographical fiction. It packs a punch, and not just because we know the circumstances under which it was written, or that it’s his last. There are things Shepard wants to say, and he knows it’s now or never.

Shepard’s man-on-the-wane lets his mind roam where his body no longer can — to memories of sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a condemned building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side nearly fifty years earlier, to migrants waiting for work on a street corner in northern California. Despite having been urged to stay in the present, he confesses that his thoughts are drawn to the past, which “always comes in parts. In fact it comes apart. It presents itself as though it was experienced in fragments.”

Many sentences begin with “Sometimes” or “For instance.” At once elliptical and direct, he frequently addresses his children. “I’m not trying to prove anything to you,” he writes. “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. And I’ve never desired to start over again. I have no desire to eliminate parts of myself. I have no desire.” The echo of those four words reverberates loudly.

Shepard’s ability to dramatize a scene with minimal words remains intact, resulting in powerful mini-plays. At one point, his daughter — literally lost in his memories — interrupts, “Wait a minute, Dad, what room? What are you talking about?” She tries to urge him indoors to avoid oncoming rain, but he asks her to push him to the grocery store in his wheelchair, as there’s a whole list of stuff he wants — bananas, sardines, instant coffee. “Dad? Dad? Why do you need these things now? Why all these supplies? You’re not going hunting,” she says, even as she accedes to his wish.

He is heartbreakingly aware that his hunting days are over. Leaving a crowded Mexican restaurant after a lively dinner with his family, he notes that a year ago he “could walk with his head up. He could see through the air. He could wipe his own ass.” Now he’s “a man sitting on shaggy wool with a Navajo blanket across his knees,” being pushed by his hale sons.

And too soon, he’s gone altogether. But he’s left us this extraordinary valedictory work.