Sam Shepard‘s final work, Spy of the First Person, has been published this week by Knopf. In an early review for USA Today, Jocelyn McClurg describes it as “an autobiographical work of fiction” with a “fragmentary, disjointed narrative”. McClurg goes on to offer a pithy summary suggesting a debt to the Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, calling Shepard’s novel “Waiting for Godot in the desert.”
Such a comparison is perhaps inevitable. Shepard has long cited Beckett’s work as a key influence on his own. In a tribute published in The New Yorker, writer and musician Patti Smith remembers that Shepard “loved Beckett, and had a few pieces of writing, in Beckett’s own hand, framed in the kitchen, along with pictures of his kids.” While the influence is doubtlessly present, in this case the Beckett comparison is also a shorthand for a pared down style that addresses essential themes of life, death, language, and ageing.
These themes have long been a feature of Shepard’s work in American theatre, and indeed his work for other filmmakers (I’m thinking, in particular, of his performance as the doomed farmer in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven). But in the case of Spy of the First Person, the significance of death, ageing, and illness becomes particularly stark. All of the early reviews that I have read pay significant attention to the fact that Shepard, who died in July at the age of 73, was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Writing for The New York Times, Alexandra Alter discovers affinities between the late author and the novel’s protagonist:
“Shepard explored his condition through his writing — in vivid, precise prose that transformed his worsening symptoms into something akin to poetry. He wrote in notebooks at first, as he always had, but when his condition grew more grave and he could no longer control his hands, he dictated into a recorder.”
— Alexandra Alter, The New York Times
For Alter, Spy of the First Person “is an unvarnished, intimate portrait of a man facing the end of his life”. Patti Smith helped to edit the novel during its later stages, and delivered the final manuscript to Shepard’s daughter shortly before his death.