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Spy of the First Person
Cover of Spy of the First Person
Spy of the First Person
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The final work from the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer, actor, and musician, drawn from his transformative last days

In searing, beautiful prose, Sam Shepard's extraordinary narrative leaps off the page with its immediacy and power. It tells in a brilliant braid of voices the story of an unnamed narrator who traces, before our rapt eyes, his memories of work, adventure, and travel as he undergoes medical tests and treatments for a condition that is rendering him more and more dependent on the loved ones who are caring for him. The narrator's memories and preoccupations often echo those of our current moment—for here are stories of immigration and community, inclusion and exclusion, suspicion and trust. But at the book's core, and his, is family—his relationships with those he loved, and with the natural world around him. Vivid, haunting, and deeply moving, Spy of the First Person takes us from the sculpted gardens of a renowned clinic in Arizona to the blue waters surrounding Alcatraz, from a New Mexico border town to a condemned building on New York City's Avenue C. It is an unflinching expression of the vulnerabilities that makes us human—and an unbound celebration of family and life.
The final work from the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer, actor, and musician, drawn from his transformative last days

In searing, beautiful prose, Sam Shepard's extraordinary narrative leaps off the page with its immediacy and power. It tells in a brilliant braid of voices the story of an unnamed narrator who traces, before our rapt eyes, his memories of work, adventure, and travel as he undergoes medical tests and treatments for a condition that is rendering him more and more dependent on the loved ones who are caring for him. The narrator's memories and preoccupations often echo those of our current moment—for here are stories of immigration and community, inclusion and exclusion, suspicion and trust. But at the book's core, and his, is family—his relationships with those he loved, and with the natural world around him. Vivid, haunting, and deeply moving, Spy of the First Person takes us from the sculpted gardens of a renowned clinic in Arizona to the blue waters surrounding Alcatraz, from a New Mexico border town to a condemned building on New York City's Avenue C. It is an unflinching expression of the vulnerabilities that makes us human—and an unbound celebration of family and life.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book 1

    Seen from a distance. That is, seeing from across the road, it's hard to tell how old he is because of the wraparound screen porch. Because of his wraparound shades. Purple. Lone Ranger. Masked bandit. I don't know what he's protecting. He's actually inside an enclosed screen porch with bugs buzzing, birds chirping, all kinds of summer things going on, on the outside—butterflies, wasps, etc.—but it's very hard to tell from this distance exactly how old he is. The baseball cap, the grimy jeans, the old vest. He's sitting in a rocking chair, as far as I can tell. A rocking chair that looks like it was lifted from a Cracker Barrel. In fact, it still has the broken security chain around one leg. I think from this distance it's red but it could be black, the rocker, some of these colors originate from the Marines, some of them from the Army, some from the Air Force, depends on the depth of one's patriotism, and he just rocks all day. That's all. Telling stories of one kind or another, little histories. Battle stories. People come by, and they see him sitting there on the porch in his rocker mumbling to himself. And they just walk up and sit down. They seem to know him somehow. At first they seem as though they don't, but then they do. Also there are other people who come by. Who come and go. One of them looks like it might be his son. Tall and lanky. One looks like it could be his daughter. Two of them look like they might be his sisters. They come and go from deep inside the house but it's very hard to tell from this distance how deep the house goes.

    Robins are chirping approval. More or less. Robins are always chirping here, for some reason. I think mostly protecting nests. Protecting pale blue eggs. From crows and blackbirds. Swooping. Menacing birds trying to get their babies. Little robins with red breasts chirping madly trying to scare away the crows. Big bad birds.

    2

    They gave me all these tests. Way out in the middle of the desert. The painted desert. Land of the Apache. Land of the Saguaro. They gave me blood tests, of course. All kinds of blood tests testing my white corpuscles, testing my red corpuscles, testing one against the other. Then they tested my spinal column. They gave me a spinal tap even. They put me through MRIs. Tubes where they could look at my whole body to see if there was any paralysis in any bones or muscles. Cross-sections, sliced sections. X-rays. Ghostly pictures. And they looked at decay and they looked at all kinds of things and they couldn't come up with an answer until finally one guy, I think some kind of neurosurgeon, he had black hair and a white coat and glasses, electric probing shocks with a steel rod. He injected them into each arm and an electric current pulsed through and I could feel these shocks in my arms. He's the one who came up with the answer that something was wrong. And I said, well, I know something is wrong. Why do you think I'm in here? He just looked at me with a blank stare.

    In the mornings I would have breakfast at a Mexican joint. Enchiladas. Cheese and eggs. Green chili.

    3

    There used to be orchards as far as the eye could see. Like picture postcards. Orange orchards, olive orchards, grape orchards, avocado orchards, lemon orchards, pear orchards. Orchards of every kind corresponding to the nationality that brought them here. For instance, the Italians and the Spanish brought oranges, avocados—well, the avocados came up through Mexico—tangerines, grapefruit, those kinds of things. The Italians brought olives. Out through Padua, sweeping silver leaves, limbs gnarled like old sailors. Black bark, silvery leaves. There were oceans of olive orchards...
About the Author-
  • SAM SHEPARD was the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of more than fifty-five plays and three story collections. As an actor, he appeared in more than sixty films, and received an Oscar nomination in 1984 for The Right Stuff. He was a finalist for the W. H. Smith Literary Award for his story collection Great Dream of Heaven. In 2012 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, received the Gold Medal for Drama from the Academy, and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. He died in 2017.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    November 15, 2017
    A sharply observed, slender novel set in familiar Shepard (The One Inside, 2017, etc.) territory: a dusty, windblown West of limitless horizons and limited means of escape.An image at the beginning of what is billed as the recently deceased Shepard's final work of fiction--until the next one is found in a drawer, presumably--offers arresting portent: robins are singing, chirping away, not so much out of happiness with the world but, as the nameless narrator says, "I think mostly protecting nests" from all the "big bad birds" that are out to get their little blue eggs. The world is full of big bad birds, and one is the terror of a wasting neurological disease that provides the novel's closing frame: two sons and an ailing father lagging behind the rest of their family as they make their way up the street in a little desert ville. "We made it and we hobbled up the stairs," says the old man. "Or I hobbled. My sons didn't hobble, I hobbled." It's exactly of a piece with True West and other early Shepard standards, and one can imagine Shepard himself playing the part of that old man in an understated, stoical film. In between, it's all impression, small snapshots of odd people and odd moments ("People are unlocking their cars from a distance. Pushing buttons, zapping their cars, making the doors buzz and sing, making little Close Encounters of the Third Kind noises"). It's easy to lose track of where one voice ends and another begins, where the young man leaves off and the old man picks up the story: explaining the title, the young narrator likens himself to an employee of a "cryptic detective agency," even as the old man, taking up the narration in turn, wonders why he's being so closely watched when he can barely move. In the end, this is a story less of action than of mood, and that mood is overwhelmingly, achingly melancholic.The story is modest, the poetry superb. A most worthy valediction.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from January 29, 2018
    This slim but potent volume, which playwright Shepard (The One Inside) finished shortly before his death in 2017, alternates two voices in a poignant, unsettling double monologue. One narrator is a man who spends most of his time sitting in a “rocking chair that looks like it was lifted from a Cracker Barrel” on the porch of a house in the Southwest, and who occasionally makes family outings to a local Mexican restaurant or to a prestigious medical clinic founded by two brothers from Minnesota. On the porch, he talks to himself, or to his son, recalling events they shared or didn’t. Across the road, someone else observes him, trying to make sense of him. The observer watches the porch sitter eat cheese and crackers and notes dispassionately that “his hands and arms don’t work much,” while the sitter himself prefers to dwell in the past, since the present has little to offer. Elegant, unpretentious, funny, and touching without demanding sympathy, the book, edited with the help of Shepard’s friend Patti Smith (Just Kids), gently escorts the reader out to the edge where life meets death.

  • Michael Ondaatje, Booker Prize–winning author of The English Patient "Sam Shepard's Spy of the First Person is a devastating work that is also full of life and wonder. From its heartbreaking dedication to him by his children to its last longing and truthful pages, it is an intimate masterwork."
  • Elisabeth Vincentelli, Newsday "Haunting. . . . A testament-like fever dream of autofiction."
  • Jane Ciabattari, BBC "As the narrator's body grows weaker, his days are filled with trips to the clinic with loved ones, and a cascade of memories--orchards, surfers, the mid-1970s. He describes being 'exhausted from the chaos of this era'--'Napalm. Cambodia. Nixon. Tet Offensive. Watergate. Secretariat. Muhammad Ali.' . . . He has rendered the thoughtful, interior months of his own last act into spare and profound prose."
  • John Winters, WBUR "Powerful. . . . Ultimately, Shepard drops all pretense, closing out this collection with two heartbreaking chapters detailing his final days, and bringing the reader up close to what Rilke called 'undiluted death.'"
  • Molly Boyle, Santa Fe New Mexican "There's plainspoken reflection on the tempos of everyday life, in a signature style that lopes elegantly and rhythmically across the page. . . . Surreality emerges in Shepard's visions of his mundane West, as well as the familiar voice of a lonely, achingly acute observer. . . . The pages of a man's life, with all its glory and monotony, are sewn together here with steady pathos and flashes of brilliance, dark and light."
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