SPY OF THE FIRST PERSON, by Sam Shepard. Alfred A. Knopf, 82 pp., $18.
It is impossible to dissociate Sam Shepard’s latest and last book, “Spy of the First Person,” from how and when it was written. Impaired by ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the dramatist and actor was not able to put words to paper by himself anymore, so he dictated to his sisters and his daughter. His longtime friend Patti Smith helped him edit the transcripts into a book. And now, a few months after Shepard died in July, at 73, “Spy of the First Person” has been published.
That dogged determination to put a final word out into the world recalls musicians recently inspired to create records imbued with a melancholy awareness of their impending mortality: David Bowie’s album “Blackstar” came out two days before his death, while Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” preceded Cohen’s passing by about three weeks; “Introduce Yerself” was released posthumously in October, shortly after its author, the Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, died. Shepard’s contribution to the genre is a testament-like fever dream of autofiction. Loosely structured, to say the least, it is not the easiest thing to label, and not the easiest thing to read, either. Those new to Shepard’s world may not want to start here, but his fans may find the elegiac tone haunting.
“Spy of the First Person” is a short book, with short chapters — some of them just a few lines long, most less than two pages. The point of view continually switches, and so does the chronology: You are never quite sure what is now, what is past, who is speaking.
Eventually you realize there are two main narrators taking turns: one is observing the other with binoculars, and neither is necessarily reliable. The watched man is spending his last days in a wheelchair, often sitting on a porch. “He eats cheese and crackers all day,” the watcher says. “His hands and arms don’t work much.” Shepard is essentially spying on himself, as the book’s title suggests and the text reinforces, unnecessarily: “Sometimes it feels like we’re the same person. A lost twin.”
Who is speaking at any given moment? Does it matter? The one thing we can be sure of: This is very much a work by the author of “Buried Child” and “True West,” plays obsessed with the weight of the past on the present, the burdens of family, the mythical landscapes and dusty towns of the American West.
The book moves slowly via reminiscences — or maybe they are just flights of fancy — and digressions. One of the longest chapters, for instance, is dedicated to Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in the town of Durango, and ends with words to the effect that this had nothing to do with the wandering couple Jay and Aubra, traversing the pages like weirdly earthy ghosts. A few pages later, we are told, “To me the story of Pancho Villa is completely private and belongs to the world of fable. Why should he be poking his nose into information that’s private?”
The book’s tone is at once maddeningly elusive and precise: We learn that Villa had a brown Dodge sedan; elsewhere Shepard meticulously describes eggs or the sky. The ailing narrator also mentions two sons, Jesse and Walker, and a daughter, Hannah, as well as sisters Roxanne and Sandy (Shepard has children and siblings bearing those names). The narrative, such as it is, is anchored in specificity yet evades it — a tumbleweed blown this way and that.
Shepard even pokes a bit of grim fun at the tedium of his own last days. “I don’t know how he stands the monotony, to tell you the truth,” the incapacitated man says with self-deprecation of his spy. In the next chapter, the pendulum swings back to the watcher, who is observing the other man shaking his head and having his hair combed by his daughter. The physical deterioration is inexorable. “One year ago exactly more or less, he could walk with his head up.”
Death is filigreed throughout the book, but Shepard does not force his hand and avoids anything that could look like a definitive last statement, or a philosophy of life or art. He had long thought about his end, though: In his biography, “Sam Shepard — A Life,” John J. Winters notes that even as a youth, the future playwright worried about “how or when I’m going to die. ” When the moment came, he was ready.