I once saw Sam Shepard sitting in a Japanese Restaurant on Columbus Avenue in New York City. He was all by himself at a table near the front of the restaurant, sitting right up against the window, and a few inches from the sidewalk. It was a quick recognition, I was halfway through a long walking stride, and in the time it took me to recognize him, and he recognized that I recognized him, my other foot had landed and I had walked past the restaurant. Years earlier I saw a play of his with Philip Seymor Hoffman and John C. Reilly, and was really blown away. The Right Stuff comes to mind, but Sam Shepard as writer of ficiton just doesn’t ring a bell. He’s a playwright…right? I’m kidding, I know Sam Shepard writes fiction.
It was a nice surprise to Shepard’s short stort Land of the Living in this weeks New Yorker, a magazine that never disappoints…confounds, yes, disappoints, never. The story starts off at the airport in Cancun, Mexico. A family of four has just arrrived for a vacation, kids are lazy sprawled on the floor waiting for the customs line to move, while Dad tells Mom how great it feels to be on Xanax. Shepard’s dialogue is honed from his days in the theater but is so crisp in this story it’s like hearing a deck of cards getting shufled over and over. Each conversation moves like a recalcitrant eyelash on your eyeball, and you can’t stop to see who is talking because it moves so quickly, as dialogue should. It’s the smoothest part of this story, and when the family finally gets in their rental Suburban, that dialogue makes way for little sketches of description about the passing scenery of Mexico. Shepard descirbes the flies swarming around a group of horses, it’s quick, efficient, and makes you’re fingers tingle with anticipation for what might come next.
As soon as they got started on this part of the journey, and are driving along happily, Mom accuses Dad of having a girlfriend. It’s a wild and bitter exchange, and Dad denies is, emphatically. Mom says she heard a strange woman’s voice on her husbands cell phone, Dad wants to know why she answered his phone, she couldn’t stand the constant ringing, his ring tone is the riff from Purple Rain. There is a smacking of the well-to-do in these people. They’ve vacationed to a secluded part of the country, and sometimes travel into town for dinner, to take pictures of the hairless dogs staring down from the roofs, like the wealthy coming down from their castle to dine with the serfs. Shepard seems to be traveling with this family, and this isn’t a story, as much as it is a travelogue, a kind of intimate portrait of a husband and wife who are doing what they’re supposed to do, with their children who are needing less of their attention and seem oblivious of their marital spat. This of course turns the parents on each other, and strangers to one another even though they are vacationing as a family. You’ll like this story because it will remind you of the things you’ve seen on vacation, maybe. Don’t forget, Sam Shepard writes fiction too.