A table of contents listing 133 (count ’em) entries may tempt readers to dismiss this new collection from Shepard (Great Dream of Heaven, 2002, etc.) as a literary grab bag; they will be richly surprised by its thematic depth and coherence.
A quick browse suggests a mix of travelogue, dialogue (unattributed to any speakers), free verse, tall tales, stage directions, journal jottings, dreams and writing that resists categorization. Yet rather than a busman’s holiday for the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (Buried Child, etc.) and Oscar-nominated actor (The Right Stuff, etc.), this volume offers a profound meditation on mortality, identity, eternity, blood ties, the passage of time, the essence of America, the mythos of the West and the possibilities of art. It demands to be read in order and in its entirety: Juxtapositions offer thematic links, and narratives that initially appear self-contained resume multiple times over the course of the collection. One of those narratives concerns a severed head that retains consciousness and speech and somehow convinces a passing man to carry him (it?) elsewhere. Another features three buddies whose lives have devolved into traveling from place to place for no apparent purpose. “We’re all in terrible shape,” says the narrator. “I don’t know how we got this way.” First-person narration dominates, some of it apparently representing the voice of the author, some of it obviously not. In one of Shepard’s more arresting images, “You circle all around your life, but do you find it? You circle from above. Like a hawk.” Older rarely means wiser in these pages filled with vagabonds who aren’t sure what they’re looking for, where they’re looking for it or why. They circle back to homes that no longer exist, at least not the way they did in memory. They are “lost souls wandering in the desert,” but they can never quite lose themselves.
Echoes and resonances across the selections intensify the cumulative impact.