A Brilliant Golden Sunset: Sam Shepard’s Spy of the First Person
Forty-seven pages into the eighty-two of Spy of the First Person, the story stops
just long enough for someone to say, “Let me start over. I can start over. You’ll allow me
to start over please.” Like every disparate element of Sam Shepard’s loping, looping,
lingering final novel, from the title to the identity of its protagonist, the moment defies
fixed meaning. In the moment, a man has lost himself in the tattered margins of his own
timeline, unable to remember which decade of the latter 20th Century forms the backdrop
of his latest yarn. In the greater context of Spy and the mythic stature of its author, this is
an existential plea—can we, with the stories we tell, give some order to the chaos of even
a single life?
Spy’s central figure is never given a name—though many will take it to be simply
Shepard, whose twilight years and death (last July, at age 73) from complications of ALS
mirror the weary wane of Spy’s old tale-spinner. The sick man—chained by age and
weakness to a wheelchair, a porch, and often the murky prison of his own crumbling
mind—may be Shepard himself, but to hang “true story” on Spy would be reductive. Spy
takes truth and chews it up like a plug of tobacco, leaving a savory semblance and a new
taste. Shepard’s concern here is how we construct the myth of our lives and the world
around us, how private becomes public and how keen-eyed truth becomes sepia-toned
Thus, pinning down the story of Shepard’s parting gift is hardly worth the words.
A man is dying, and his family (son, daughter, and sisters) orbit around him like planets
circling their dimming sun. Somewhere, from the porch across the street or the bushes,
someone is watching the man—a doppelganger, or a memory, or maybe it’s us staring
down at Shepard’s dusky confession. Chapters flicker back and forth between first, third,
and second person, leap through time and across the country, sometimes encompassing
the whole breath of history and sometimes trapped in the old man’s head. “Everything’s
in my head” he says.
After Spy’s first person rambles through an Arthurian version of the death of
Pancho Villa, a family member bristles at the thought of the tale. “To me the story of
Pancho Villa is completely private and belongs to the world of fable.” But such is
Shepard’s point. A human life is always in conflict with itself, battling to be known by
everyone and to be guarded by the limits of one’s own skull.
Technically, Shepard’s prose is like the deserts he drives through—spare but full
of texture, sensory experiences sprouting from empty sands. Most pages read like what
they are, a faithful (and seemingly unedited) transcription of a master storyteller’s final
fractured verses. His stops, his starts, his missteps, and the halting gait of his mind are
meticulously maintained. He repeats himself, circles back, or gets hooked on a phrase or
word. At one point he stops mid-sentence to say, “Excuse me,” the sort of thing that
someone editing a dictated letter would remove. But with Spy of the First Person, every
imperfection is intentional, every contradiction a clue.
Shepard’s not-hero sits like blind Homer rattling off the ships in the Greek Fleet,
a wheezing preserver of oral tradition. But in Spy, the Greek ships are rustic Spanish
foods, or American cars (the earlier Pancho Villa is preoccupied with the fact that Villa
died in a brown Dodge sedan, which takes on the quality of a knight’s well-worn steed),
or sometimes the names of birds. His prose is gentle, halting, and mundane even when itrubs against the harshest topics—“The sky is a brilliant golden sunset,” he murmurs.
“Really golden skies.” Other moments are quietly ravaging, like descriptions of the
disease killing the man’s mind. Other’s are stark in their Beckett-like simplicity and
confidence. “The past doesn’t come as a whole. It always comes in parts. In fact it comes
But it is not without crystalized moments of the sublime. In a detached moment,
as the narrator describes the desert clinic where he was brought for treatment, he says of
the brothers who first started the institution, “They’re bringing the cure to the
wilderness.” Clear poetry is startling and we hunger for it as the narrative fragments and
decays with the mind of its storyteller. “Everything is scattered.” The tragedy, which
Shepard would not want us to weep over, is the loss of the stories, not of the teller.
The last mystery in Spy of the First Person is the identity of its title
character—the inexplicable force that peers into an old man’s life from without, “this
character who’s been dogging me all this time.” One heartbreaking moment, thrown into
the beautiful, visceral jumble, offers a possibility. A watching family remember reflects,
“Sometimes, very often, he speaks to himself. Who else could it be?” The storyteller
speaks even without an audience. But, in the composition of his final work, Shepard
makes the air and the earth his audience, and casts his readers as the wide desert around
him, able to hear him even when he speaks to himself.