The endnote of Sam Shepard’s incredibly poignant final work provides the facts:
“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 the typewriter due to complications from 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 a few days before he passed away on July 27, 2017.”
What of the resulting book? It is a spare, powerful novel that looks at one man’s end through the things most important to its author: fading frontiers of the American West, misgivings, guarded hope and, most of all, family.
There’s an old man seemingly sitting in a rocking chair on a wrap-around screen porch, talking — to himself a great deal, but also to anyone else who cares to listen: “Telling stories of one kind or another, little histories. Battle stories.”
The old man is observed from across the street by a younger man eager to know the old man. A neighbor? A friend? The narrator’s younger self? The old man is suspicious: “But I have the sense — I can’t help having the sense — that someone is watching me. Someone wants to know something. Someone wants to know something about me that I don’t even know myself.”
The old man’s stories are being told in the vast expanse of the American West; yet the old man sits on an enclosed porch. He speaks in terse language. His memories are of small spaces — examining rooms, garages, tunnels, a space in a condemned building in New York City, “the little Mexican zocalo town of northern California,” Alcatraz prison — and they are oblique monologues that any observer is or is not to hear.
The old man calls himself “a lost twin.” When he senses he is being scrutinized, the old man questions, “Why is he watching me? I can’t understand. Nothing seems to be working now. Hands. Arms. Legs. Nothing. I just lie here. Waiting for someone to find me.”
Are the old man and the observer the same individual? How difficult is it to know ourselves? How successful can we be even when we try?
In Shepard’s world, almost everything is tentative and almost everything is fragmentary. Very little is certain, and just about everything is what he calls “sometimes.”
The novel’s narrators, whatever their relationship is, one to the other, perhaps will never come to know one another. Says the old man about his observer: “Maybe we could become friends. Maybe if I sat here long enough he would come up behind me. I don’t have to see his face. … Maybe we could strike up a conversation. He must be waiting too. We’re both waiting.”
Loneliness is “sometimes” the only sure thing in Shepard’s works. But “sometimes” there is a kind of hope to be found in family. The most unexpected and moving moment of “Spy of the First Person” is the realization that the novel is concluding with the old man’s wheelchair being pushed through town after a boisterous meal at a local Mexican restaurant.
Just listen to the resignation and the resonance of that moment in Sam Shepard’s last words, one final reckoning of this Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s world:
“The full moon. Two sons and their father, everyone trailing behind. Going up the middle of East Water Street and it’s really bright now. The full moon. We made it and we hobbled up the stairs. Or I hobbled. My sons didn’t hobble, I hobbled.”
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.