In the original off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s play “Fool for Love” (1983), an enigmatic old man sat in a rocking chair sipping Jim Beam. He contended, against the evidence, that he was married to the country singer Barbara Mandrell.
That rocking chair is back in Shepard’s slim posthumous novel, “Spy of the First Person.” It may or may not be stolen. It “looks like it was lifted from a Cracker Barrel,” a narrator says. “In fact, it still has the broken security chain around one leg.”
The enigmatic old man is back too, or a version of him. The difference this time is that he is ill, largely immobile, cared for by others and clearly not far from death.
An indelible American playwright, Shepard died from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in July. He composed “Spy of the First Person” in his last months, sometimes dictating passages to family and friends.
This novel’s themes are echt Shepard: fathers and sons; shifting identities and competing versions of reality; a sense that there are watchers and there are watchees in this world of dusty gravitas.
The setting is the American West. The prose is taciturn. The pronouns have vague antecedents. The book is cryptic and pretentious. It is also sly and revealing.
“Spy of the First Person” is weighted with its central character’s awareness of his own rapidly encroaching mortality — the sense that he is, to borrow Cy Twombly’s phrase, closing the bodega down for real.
“They gave me all these tests,” the man says. “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.”
This catalog of medical tests continues. At various times the man visits what appears to be the Arizona Mayo Clinic. But this novel is not simply a burnt offering, a Baedeker of dread and decay. There is a kind of parched humor as well.
The man on the porch is spied upon by another man who — shades of Sean Spicer — sometimes lurks in a hedge. Are these two men the same person? Are they father and son? Shepard is interested in these questions but not in their answers. Perhaps, the watcher thinks, he was “hired by some cryptic detective agency.”
Shepard’s characters have long been voyeurs of a sort, clandestine observers of others, skeptical observers of themselves. It makes sense that a 1998 PBS documentary about the playwright was titled “Stalking Himself.”
In his 1982 memoir “Motel Chronicles,” Shepard wrote about the sort of intimate surveillance that goes on in this novel. “Sometimes I just stand outside and watch my family moving around inside the house,” he wrote. “I stand there a long time sometimes. They don’t know that I watch them.”
He is interested in spooky action at a distance.
You can tell that a poem is a poem, Nicholson Baker wrote in his novel “The Anthologist,” because the words are “swimming in a little gel pack of white space.” Similarly, you can tell you are moving into the realm of myth when you are holding a slender novel like this one that has large type and ample margins, to give the words room to reverberate.
Sometimes, in “Spy of the First Person,” the words do not reverberate so much as hiccup and free-associate. A fairly typical paragraph begins:
“Sometimes something sweeps across me. I’m not sure what it is. Sometimes swooping like the wind. Sometimes toenails or just the toes in the surf. Sometimes color. I remember sometimes you would start whole stories. Sometimes paragraphs. Sometimes sentences with the word ‘sometimes.’ Do you remember how you did that?”
Sweeping toenails, by the seashore. If this is the sort of thing you like, this novel will definitely be the sort of thing you will like.
“Spy of the First Person” did not begin to fully hold my attention until its midpoint. Several things start to happen. The novel begins to overspill its tight borders. There is an increasing, slashing awareness of not merely one human but a world in distress.
Fires scorch the landscape. Migrant workers are persecuted and surveilled by “soldiers sneaking around through the bushes. Making sure the president’s name is not spoken in vain. Making sure there are no whispered plans to overthrow the real estate.”
Better, the novel builds toward a simple but expert and moving scene. The man and his family are going out to dinner.
“I was in a wheelchair with a shaggy sheepskin covering the seat and a Navajo blanket over my knees, and my two sons, two of my sons, Jesse and Walker, were on either side pushing me down the middle of East Water Street,” he says. “I’ll never forget the strength I felt from my two boys behind me.”
He is one of nine people, friends and family, who commandeer a table in a Mexican restaurant. There are enchiladas and tequila (“Hornitos, Cabo Wabo, Sauza, Patron, Cuervo”) and a flow of warm, noisy conversation. The man relishes the meal in all its details, and especially the snug sense of being in “our whole troupe, our little band.”
There are echoes of Beckett in this novel’s abstemious style and existential echoes. Our little bands will come apart.
“There must be a cure,” Shepard writes. “We are children of the miraculous. Long pause. Pausing. A long pause. Pausing. Nobody hangs on his words. Nobody hangs in the moment. Nobody really hangs for nobody.”
“Spy of the First Person”
by Sam Shepard
Alfred A. Knopf, 82 pages, $18