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Dying Of ALS, Sam Shepard Told His Final Story Of A Man Not Ready To Go

Writer and actor Sam Shepard. (Courtesy Grant Delin)
Writer and actor Sam Shepard. (Courtesy Grant Delin)

Sam Shepard once said, "I could go on and on about death. One of my favorite subjects — so long as you can keep it at arm’s length."

Death came for Shepard this past summer, when at age 73 the renowned actor and playwright succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. His death took most people by surprise, for neither Shepard nor his family made his illness public. Indeed, like a wounded cowboy, he slipped into the welcoming shadows of the surrounding hills near his Kentucky ranch, quietly gathered his family, and took his leave. The world was notified a few days later.

Shepard had been struggling for more than a year with worsening effects of ALS. However, attentive readers of his book of prose, “The One Inside,” released last February, would have noticed more than a dozen tip-offs that something might be going on. The main character in the linked collection of stories suffers from mysterious spasms, sometimes has trouble walking, and is told by an emergency room nurse she can tell something “catastrophic” is wrong with him. As Shepard writes: “Nothing moves. Nothing even wants to.”

If “The One Inside” signaled trouble ahead, Shepard’s new book, “Spy of the First Person” pulls no such punches. Its short chapters intermittently tell the story of a man imprisoned by a merciless illness, who, stoicism aside, isn’t ready to go.

Shepard led quite a life. The author of more than 55 plays, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child,” and an actor with roughly five dozen film roles to his credit -- one of which earned him an Oscar nod -- his place in our cultural firmament is secure. He was equally proud of his short stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker, and were published in six previous collections.

Writing was the alpha and omega of his Shepard’s life, and he kept at it right to the very end. “Spy of the First Person” was literally written on his deathbed, with final edits made during his last days. When he could no longer type, he picked up a pen. Then when that became impossible, he dictated. His friend, the singer-songwriter Patti Smith, sat with him and helped make final edits on the completed manuscript. Clearly Shepard lived by the maxim laid down more than two centuries ago by the poet Novalis: “The artist belongs to his work.”

“Spy of the First Person” is a farrago of memories, observation and glimpses of the end. It is neither celebratory nor maudlin, but rather matter of fact, making it all the more 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.”

The book opens on a recurring protagonist, a man with an unspecified illness affecting his motor skills that one can assume is drawn from the author’s experience. When we first meet him, he is confined in a wraparound screen porch and has difficulty recognizing his own family members. The similes give way quickly to the cold, hard facts of the case, when Shepard writes a few pages later about a series of tests he underwent at Mount Sinai. When the doctor tells him there’s a problem, his response is pure Shepard: “I know something is wrong. Why do you think I’m in here? He just looked at me with a blank stare.”

Shepard complicates his narrative by forcing us to see his protagonist through the eyes of an unnamed observer, a second narrator (hence the book’s title). “I’m not normally a suspicious person. I don’t go around looking over my shoulder for surprises. But I have the sense -- I can’t help having the sense that someone is watching me,” he writes. This mysterious watcher will stalk our ailing protagonist through the pages of the book. Sometimes it becomes difficult to distinguish who’s watching who and whose thoughts we’re getting. In doing this, Shepard may have been mimicking the confusion brought on by aging or ill health, or perhaps underlining the universality of aging and dying. Or, just as likely, he’s engaging in something he did his entire career: portraying identity as something unfixed and fluid.

(Courtesy Knopf)
(Courtesy Knopf)

These recurring sections are interspersed with chapters full of memory, observations and anecdotes. Some of the chapters in this short book recount the lives of Jay and Aubra, slightly fictionalized versions of Shepard’s longtime friends and former in-laws John and Scarlett Dark.

As the book winds down, the end closes in. At last, Shepard opens up and gives it to us straight. “One year ago he could hear the walnuts drop. He could hear the walnuts crunch. He could scratch the belly of his Catahoula who had too many puppies ... One year ago exactly more or less, he could walk with his head up. He could see through the air...”

The final page recounts a family dinner at a favorite Mexican restaurant. Shepard’s children and their friends, along with his sisters, are there, and he is in a wheelchair with a blanket over his legs. The place is jumping, life is going on all around him, yet he can’t shake the dual feeling of belonging both to this world and the next.

Afterward, the party of nine heads out into the night under a gleaming moon; Shepard’s boys, Jesse and Samuel, now grown men, push him in his wheelchair. “The thing I remember is being more or less helpless and the strength of my sons,” he writes. The torch, it seems, is ready to be passed.

Shepard’s last written reflection is, appropriately enough, about fatherhood, something he’d dealt with in life, on pages and stages, for more than a half century. However, notably missing from “Spy of the First Person” is any mention of his own father. Perhaps Shepard had finally shaken off that ghost, the void instead filled by his own patriarchal pride in the fine young children he’d played a part in bringing into this world. Shepard knew he was going home; it was time to close the circle.

Finally, Shepard’s last book bears the influence of Samuel Beckett, a touchstone in all his work. The terse yet poetic language, the fluidity of personality and the pervading sense that we are always “astride the grave” are all hallmarks of the master. Shepard was an ardent student.

“Spy of the First Person” is not an easy book. It holds no answers, but reminds us why its creator was intent on seeking them all the same.

Related:

John J. Winters Cognoscenti contributor
John J. Winters is a Massachusetts native and the author of "Sam Shepard: A Life." He teaches at Bridgewater State and Roger Williams universities. More information can be found at www.johnjwinters.com.

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