December 8, 2017
Sam Shepard’s posthumous last book, edited by Patti Smith, is not a novel
by Grace Larkin
On Tuesday, Knopf published Sam Shepard’s final work, Spy of the First Person, edited by singer-songwriter-author Patti Smith. Shepard, who won ten Obie Awards and a Pulitzer for his playwrighting, and was familiar to millions through his numerous TV and film acting credits, spent the last part of his life working on the book. He died this summer of complications from Lou Gehrig’s Disease at the age of seventy-three.
Shepard wrote over forty plays in his life, including Buried Child, True West, and Fool for Love. His work is hard to categorize, often blurring the line between fiction and memoir, but it’s known for combining surrealist elements with with sparse language to portray the darker elements of American life. He also acted in over fifty films.
Spy of the First Person, a book of prose, follows an unnamed narrator through medical tests and procedures. The New York Times’ Alexandra Alter calls it “an unvarnished, intimate portrait of a man facing the end of his life, as he reflects on his past and observes how his own body has betrayed him.” Shepard explores what it’s like to fall victim to illness, describing the pain of seeing one’s body debilitated. The book blends past and present as the narrator journeys through his memories and reflects on past relationships.
Shepard started the book in early 2016, while keeping his illness largely private. As his condition worsened, he moved from writing in notebooks to speaking into a recorder. His daughter and sisters transcribed the tapes and brought him pages to look over.
Patti Smith, a close friend of Shepard’s, visited him several times and helped craft the manuscript. Of the visits, she wrote recently in the New Yorker, “We had our routine: Awake. Prepare for the day. Have coffee, a little grub. Set to work, writing. Then a break, outside, to sit in the Adirondack chairs and look at the land. We didn’t have to talk then, and that is real friendship.”
Shepard left specific instructions on how the book should be published, insisting it not be labeled a novel. He also chose the cover image, a black and white photo of an older man staring up at birds flying in a gray sky.
Grace Larkin is an intern at Melville House.