The Highway Doom, Of the Memory, Of the Grace by Christopher Heffernan
Sam Shepard’s new book of stories, Day Out of Days, is a romp through the highways of America, through the personal history of the narrators, as well as through the historical past of the many areas of the States that the highways touch and pass through, that is often as brutal and violent as it is insightful and illuminating. Published by Knopf and covering 282 pages, this new work of fiction is broken up into 133 sections that range in length from a paragraph to ten or so pages with the majority of them being only one or two or three pages and mixed in with a few titleless poems (reminiscent of his earlier work Motel Chronicles) and nonnarrative based dialogues that go untethered to any particular character, a technique used in both of his previous books of short stories, Cruising Paradise and Great Dream of Heaven. Names are rarely used and a name for a narrator or narrators is never brought up so though the steady voice of the pieces holds without much variation one cannot assume that they are all being told by the same voice, in the same vein that one cannot assume that they are all different. There is an ambiguity to who is doing the telling, but it is not an ambiguity that stumps the reader or clouds the experience of the stories with being obtuse or opaque but rather enhances the themes and the overall structure of existential query and self reflection, and by not making it the personal journey of one man, or the shared experiences of many that can be compared against each other, he does both. By never explicitly stating whether the sections are linked by one or many voices the reader must digest the stories, the journey, as both, as though it is one man traveling the heart of America, traveling his past, and as the many, the multiple people whose emotional landscapes are inextricably tied to the shared experiences of what it means to be human. And for Sam what it means to be human (or at the very least, what this book investigates as the plane of the human living condition) deals tremendously with memory. The first story, “Kitchen,” a lyrical piece, talks mainly of the past of the narrator who lists the things around him in the kitchen, many of which are photographs, that lay out a snapshot of his past as well as a dip into the historical past with references to Sitting Bull, Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett. This story is almost an archetype for the entire book as it deals with memory, the past, horses, the historical past and isolation, as the narrator says now no one comes around and that they know better and alludes to having engineered this isolation that is the fulfillment of the way of life that the narrator describes as a sinking ship, by putting a pit bull out front to keep these visitors away. In the last story of the book, called “Gracias,” the reader finds a narrator who, after driving for miles ends up in a small town with an ancient church, “ . . . walking hand in hand with our children, . . .” where having gone down a narrow side street, the family hears a piano that, when it stops, they all applaud, after which they hear a small voice from somewhere in the house say, “Gracias.” The one paragraph piece ends with the line, “That was one of those days I remember.” So here, the reader is given many of the themes that run through the book but they have resolved. They have gone from a self inflicted crippling isolation to a simple scene of music and togetherness. But the path between these two is anything but straight.
The journey along this path is literally a journey for many of the characters in the pieces themselves. Many of the sections of the book are titled with place names designated with highway numbers, “Haskell, Arkansas (Highway 70)”, “Williams, Arizona (Highway 40 West)”, “Alpine, Texas (Highway 90)”. But these places, many times, serve no real importance to the narrator, they are truck stops and gas stations, they are diners, where the narrator through the weight or sublimity of travel has become self reflected and introspective, is grappling with the greater understanding of his own life through the desolation of the place or in some cases the historical significance, which in many cases is tied directly to Native Americans. Though the narrator(s) are not Native American, it is the theme of the struggle for life, as it is now instituted in the American cultural mythology that Native Americans were systematically wiped out, that they were smashed to pieces by an overwhelming force that when fought against destroyed them even more, that binds the narrative voices together in an understanding of an impending doom, of a death that will wipe out the individual. And with this exploration goes the idea of simpler tribal times, as the journeyman grapples with modern life and is often seduced by the noble savage ideology in order to combat this awful destruction that is not lurking, but is waiting, often, in plain sight, in the faces of those around him, in his own face.
The doom is signified in many cases by memory. Memory is a major component of the book, through all the themes, pieces, characters, narrators, they are all linked by their memory of their lives, not haunted by individual events, but haunted by memory itself, by the life once lived, by the path gone by so far in what has been lived, and tied to the dysfunction of memory as many of the narrations have an inability to either remember with accuracy or to know that things have been forgotten, or that they are not being recalled properly, which in many of the sections is itself a certain death; that not only does the breakdown of the memory signify the onset of age and the impending end, but that as the events are remembered inaccurately, or with a tremendous effort to bring back the tiniest pieces, as is the case in “Indianapolis (Highway 74)”, where the narrator cannot recall a lover who he had lived with when she is standing in front of him, enormous existential anxiety is created that often defines the narrator’s emotional landscape.
Fathers and sons find their way into many of the sections of the book, a theme that riddles much of Shepard’s earlier fiction as many times there are sons learning how to deal with the disappointment of an inadequate father and fathers dealing with the profundity and, at times, absurdity of being a parent. A striking example comes from the piece “Bernallilo” which mimics an older piece from a previous collection, where the narrator’s father is stumbling drunk out of a bar and is struck and killed by a car. Here the father’s death is framed in his inadequacy as he has ended up a drunk and the son must forever live with it as it has cost him his father and a small psychological disorder as he explains at the end that he is now forever afraid of being blindsided by cars. The violence with which this event occurs is wrought throughout the book. And it is not a violence that spreads itself against the action of a story in order that the characters or even reader learn from it, that it has some intrinsic value as to educate us in life or mature us, but is rather presented as simple fact, as what is a gross base part of life that has no value in growing consciousness but is simply one other thing that we as humans must digest. In dealing with this more specifically there are two running stories through out the book, though in their sections, they are more lyrical than narrative. One is of a decapitated head found on the side of the road and the other is of a mercenary. In the decapitated head thread the sections themselves do not have much violence but violence is the backdrop as the head had been violently removed from the body and the head, through an all permeating voice, gains the aid of a passerby to bring him to a lake and toss him in. It is the aftermath of the violence, the consuming horror of the ripples from the event that is concerned here as at first the passerby must deal with what is happening, then the narration moves on to the head itself and his concerns and regrets. The mercenary is straight violence, where this man is hired to kill a man, skin his face off his skull and bring it back to his contractors. He does. Later the mercenary becomes more self reflective, but never about the way he makes a living, the violence, as that is the sustenance of his life, not something to be derided or avoided. And between these two threads are the inevitable arguments and confrontations that lace every type of relationship of a tough and violent world where Shepard often delves into the historical past, of the battles and destruction that have shaped the landscape that is being driven through, observed and examined.
But the book is not all hardship and destruction, destitute anxiety and a meaninglessness that must be dealt with the best way a person can, there is also the triumph. Many of the pieces are lyrical, many without a specific narrative direction that lets the event portrayed unfold in what, at times, is close to being imagistic poetry. Here there are birds and rivers, there is the moon and memory is not something shot full of holes as it fades away, it is something not even considered as the world, many times with music, played or listened to, is exposed as a thing not destroying us with an inane and senseless self destructing rage, but a place, like many of those places along the highways of the American west, of a beauty that comes on unfathomable and satisfies some undefined thing in all of us.