A sharply observed, slender novel set in familiar Shepard (The One Inside, 2017, etc.) territory: a dusty, windblown West of limitless horizons and limited means of escape.
An image at the beginning of what is billed as the recently deceased Shepard’s final work of fiction—until the next one is found in a drawer, presumably—offers arresting portent: robins are singing, chirping away, not so much out of happiness with the world but, as the nameless narrator says, “I think mostly protecting nests” from all the “big bad birds” that are out to get their little blue eggs. The world is full of big bad birds, and one is the terror of a wasting neurological disease that provides the novel’s closing frame: two sons and an ailing father lagging behind the rest of their family as they make their way up the street in a little desert ville. “We made it and we hobbled up the stairs,” says the old man. “Or I hobbled. My sons didn’t hobble, I hobbled.” It’s exactly of a piece with True West and other early Shepard standards, and one can imagine Shepard himself playing the part of that old man in an understated, stoical film. In between, it’s all impression, small snapshots of odd people and odd moments (“People are unlocking their cars from a distance. Pushing buttons, zapping their cars, making the doors buzz and sing, making little Close Encounters of the Third Kind noises”). It’s easy to lose track of where one voice ends and another begins, where the young man leaves off and the old man picks up the story: explaining the title, the young narrator likens himself to an employee of a “cryptic detective agency,” even as the old man, taking up the narration in turn, wonders why he’s being so closely watched when he can barely move. In the end, this is a story less of action than of mood, and that mood is overwhelmingly, achingly melancholic.
The story is modest, the poetry superb. A most worthy valediction.