Day Out of Days by Sam Shep­ard, Al­fred A. Knopf, 282 pages

Pasatiempo - - in Other Words - — Robert Nott

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.”

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