Seventeen stories—some of them false starts, some disguised plays, some genuinely elegant pieces—from the veteran playwright, actor, and Pulitzer-winner.
Shepard has written 45 plays and one previous story collection (Cruising Paradise, 1996). It tends to show. It’s as though he’s not always sure what to do with the freedom of prose—there’s an uncertainty over how to wade into a character’s mind without slipping into the voice one might use on stage. The best pieces here are the first (“The Remedy Man”), whose highly aggressive horse-breaking main character serves as contrast to those with only lightweight understandings of Shepard’s country in fiction such as The Horse Whisperer; and “An Unfair Question,” which flirts with Chekhov’s rule about guns and the third act; and the title story, about two old men and housemates whose friendship is challenged when their favorite Denny’s waitress chooses to bestow affections on only one of them. Fine portraits of teenagers—the particular timbre of their voices—come in stories (“Berlin Wall Piece,” “The Company’s Interest”) that nevertheless fail to add up to much. Tales that are focused primarily on a single conversation can be haunting, as in “The Door to Women,” in which a grandfather tries to educate a grandson who knows more than the older man thinks, while two tales set around conversations (“Betty’s Cats,” “It Wasn’t Proust”) are simply one-act plays in disguise, the first about an elderly woman who doesn’t want to get rid of her cats, the second, more significant and complete, about a man relating an absurd adventure in France to convince his mysterious listener not to go there herself. Shepard flirts with form: one story, “Tinnitus,” is composed entirely of voice-mail messages, and in another (“Living the Sign”) a mysterious narrator unearths the source of a scrap of Zen-style wisdom found on the wall of an even stranger chicken shop.
Varied and risky, with brilliances and blunders on an occasional basis.