First-timer Shepard writes here about people and horses: far more convincingly so with the horses.
A sentimental opener that strains credulity (“First Day She’d Never See”) is about a drug user who sells his last possession, his car, named for his drug-dead girlfriend. Readers can be pardoned, here and elsewhere, for demanding more weight and depth in Shepard’s people—as in the man in “Flaw in the Shelter” who, predictably, slips off the pitch of a roof and hangs there after trying to get a bird out of the chimney, counseling the while that “Immediacy was the only thing . . . worth recognizing as truth.” A young couple whose marriage is collapsing (“In the Open”) are so utterly unprepossessing—he shallow, she bitchy—that they’re just hooks to hang a story on, and the same is true in “We’ll Talk Later,” about a California couple trying to adapt to life in Virginia: a sorrow in the woman’s past is intended to give weight but fails to, remaining unrealized, while the husband, an independent filmmaker, is barely a cipher, however self-impressed he may be. The two getting married in “Blinkers” achieve no significance in themselves but are simply an excuse for a horse-drawn wedding procession to be described: the day is hot, the mountainside is steep, and a carriage-horse dies of a heart attack—one of the most vivid scenes in the book, for, as said, Shepard is clearly best at horses. In “Night Shot,” the type-cast cowboys are ignorable, but the uneasy horses they’re in charge of on a movie set are vivid, charactered, and real, and the same is true—both of horses and cowboys—in “Thirty Head of Killers.” The closest to a fictional balance between man and beast is in the title story, about an old man trying to prove a horse’s lineage by disinterring one of its parents for DNA testing.
Weak stories, artificial people, real horses.