Day Out of Days by Sam Shepard, Alfred A. Knopf, 282 pages
Sam Shepard has made a name for himself as a writer who derails and debunks the many myths we have about theWest. In his works, he often suggests that longing and heartbreak are better than not feeling anything at all. He instills his work with dark, wry humor, perhaps to help us digest it, and because sometimes the really weird, scary, and harmful things that he writes about are very funny.
Day Out of Days is a collection of really short stories, most of them told or narrated by people who are about to be rudely awakened by catastrophe knocking on their door. A sense of home or place is important to these people. They emphasize where they are as they tell their tales, yet few of them can stay in one locale long enough to build a stable life.
Shepard must have had a blast writing these stories, most of which have beginnings, some of which have middles, and very few of which appear to have endings. Reading the collection is akin to driving cross-country and having the radio channels fade in and out on you as your journey continues. One voice portends doom, another gives you advice on how to kill a cat (do not use a pistol under any circumstances), and a third tells you about people who have made an art form out of doing nothing. Fear, and sometimes death, accompany you on this trip, but there’s always room in the back seat for reflection.
As for questions, Shepard asks a lot of them. He wants to know how things came to be as they are— why a promising young man ended up gallivanting around theWest with a pair of drugged-up losers; how we’re supposed to make a living when we’re preoccupied with original sin and wondering whether God will punish us for not doing his work; why we let people we love drift away when we could easily have reeled them back into our hearts with a few kind words, and so on.
In “Buffalo Trace,” the narrator ends up in a town made up of nothing but backyards. “Saving Fats” tells the tale of two buffoons who manage to save Fats Domino— and Fats’ piano— in flooded New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (It’s a hilarious read.) The dialogue-driven “Thor’s Day” casts a final pall over a dying romantic relationship; it would work nicely as a play. “Lightning Man” recounts the story of a Montana fishing guide who was struck by lightning— which then bounced off its first victim and mowed down a line of Japanese tourists filing behind him, one by one. Again, pretty funny stuff, but disturbing all the same— it’s at moments like these that Shepard seems to be flirting with the idea of resettling in Joe R. Lansdale’s territory.
Shepard’s characters can’t see the reality in front of them— unless, as in the case of a recurring character called “the head,” they’ve been decapitated. The head can see and speak and scare people around him, but still he doesn’t know what he wants. Do any of these characters? All of them have hearts that are stuck in never-ending landing patterns, and while they’re waiting to settle things that are up in the air, someone comes along, sits down next to them, and tells hallucinatory fables — like the one involving the guy who got trapped in the men’s room at a Cracker Barrel restaurant and nearly went mad trying to get out so he could escape the Shania Twain songs that played on the restaurant’s speaker system all night.
Towns like Alpine, Texas, and Tucumcari, New Mexico, figure into the mix. So do Andy Devine and Farrah Fawcett and a Midwestern guy who used to do wild things in the small town he grew up in before he went West and became a cowboy star (an obvious nod to Shepard). Economy is Shepard’s strong suit; some of these pieces are just a few lines long, and there’s a lot of material that would work as audition monologues for actors.
They’re sad, the people in these stories. And lost. Maybe the best summation of their spirits comes from a quote Shepard attributes to a separatist leader at Plymouth in 1620: “Our dwelling is but a wandering, and our abiding is but a fleeting, and in a word our home is nowhere.”