...[a] remarkable, quietly devastating last book ... Spy of the First Person is, among other things, a paean to family ... This slim posthumous volume is a more coherent, urgent, and moving work of autobiographical fiction [than The One Inside]. It packs a punch, and not just because we know the circumstances under which it was written, or that it’s his last. There are things Shepard wants to say, and he knows it’s now or never ... Shepard’s ability to dramatize a scene with minimal words remains intact, resulting in powerful mini-plays ... [an] extraordinary valedictory work.
The ticklish, and ultimately unanswerable, question of how much is autobiography and how much is imagined adheres to all of Shepard’s fiction. His stories are not exact reflections of memory but more like portraits in a convex mirror—realistic depictions of a distorted version of the truth, in which an unrelenting loneliness is stretched and elongated all out of proportion to his protagonists’ other attributes ... Spy of the First Person returns to the uncanny experience evoked in all of Shepard’s fiction of being both the observer and the observed. In the midst of that standoff, fragments of the past resurface. Shepard has always been a spare and oblique writer, creating a sense of dreamy discomfort by starving his prose of basic identifying details like years or proper names ... as always, the itinerancy masks a profound feeling of imprisonment, as the scenes inevitably circle back to the old man on the porch, who has been rendered so immobile that he has to ask for help to scratch an itch on his face. Yet that appeal for help marks a small but significant change. Shepard’s wanderers have usually been on unaccompanied journeys with no departure or destination, only an ever-repeating present instant. But Spy of the First Person ends with a scene of family solidarity.
This novel’s themes are echt Shepard: fathers and sons; shifting identities and competing versions of reality; a sense that there are watchers and there are watchees in this world of dusty gravitas. The setting is the American West. The prose is taciturn. The pronouns have vague antecedents. The book is cryptic and pretentious. It is also sly and revealing ... But this novel is not simply a burnt offering, a Baedeker of dread and decay. There is a kind of parched humor as well ... Spy of the First Person did not begin to fully hold my attention until its midpoint. Several things start to happen. The novel begins to overspill its tight borders. There is an increasing, slashing awareness of not merely one human but a world in distress ... There are echoes of Beckett in this novel’s abstemious style and existential echoes. Our little bands will come apart.
The resulting novel, Spy of the First Person, is an eloquent, if necessarily brief, valediction. At just 96 pages, its effect is one of atmosphere rather than narrative, an aching requiem sung in the shadow of extinction. It is also partly autobiographical. Like Shepard, the narrator is an old man dying of a debilitating illness. His flickering consciousness ranges over great temporal distance, blending present-day observations with fragments from a disintegrating past ... The short dispatches that serve as chapters leap between these two voices, at times attaining an almost Beckettian quality, the lean poetry of utterance as it scrapes against the void ...gaunt lyricism conjures an album of bleached images in which the life of a man and the changing face of a country are cataloged with both love and bafflement ... The telescoping nature of collapse — from the frailness of the physical body to the tragedy of the national soul — lends these pages a loss that is both painfully intimate and disconsolately vast.
A meshing of memoir and invention, it snares with virtuoso precision both nature’s constant vibrancy and the stop-action of illness. Told in short takes pulsing with life and rueful wit ... Gradually the spy and the man on the porch merge, and the resilient yet reconciled narrator celebrates family love beneath a full moon in the farewell beauty of twilight. A gorgeously courageous and sagacious coda to Shepard’s innovative and soulful body of work.
...a testament-like fever dream of autofiction. Loosely structured, to say the least, it is not the easiest thing to label, and not the easiest thing to read, either. Those new to Shepard’s world may not want to start here, but his fans may find the elegiac tone haunting ... The narrative, such as it is, is anchored in specificity yet evades it — a tumbleweed blown this way and that ... Death is filigreed throughout the book, but Shepard does not force his hand and avoids anything that could look like a definitive last statement, or a philosophy of life or art. He had long thought about his end, though: In his biography, Sam Shepard—A Life, John J. Winters notes that even as a youth, the future playwright worried about 'how or when I’m going to die.' When the moment came, he was ready.
...pare but not slight, surreal yet stoic, an intriguing and moving glimpse into what falls away and what still matters at the end ... The watcher fades, or is absorbed. The watched man is reticent about his disease, but near the end he does tell us he misses being able to scratch his dog’s belly, scratch his own eyebrow. 'One year ago exactly he could drive across the great divide. He could drive down the coastline. The rugged coast. He could yawn at the desert. One year ago exactly more or less, he could walk with his head up.' With Spy of the First Person, Shepard exited head up.
In Sam Shepard's Spy of the First Person, an anonymous narrator, rendered nearly helpless from a crippling condition, spends his days confined... His final work, Spy of the First Person, imbued with Shepard's characteristic hauntingly muscular prose and poetic leaps of percussive language, is not so much an epitaph as it is an encore. A restless farewell ... A novella of sorts, clocking in at 96 pages written in terse chapters — some comprised of only five sentences...Weaving a tapestry of voices, our narrator takes the reader on a road trip of the mind, chasing vivid memories scattered across another familiar Shepard landscape, the Southwest ... Some may scratch their heads, finding Spy of the First Person's bleak staccato bluntness and dark meanderings more akin to an epic poem than traditional narrative form ... Spy of the First Person stands as a mile-marker to a writer who worked when his hands no longer could.
Samuel Beckett’s influence on Shepard has perhaps never been more apparent. It’s Waiting for Godot in the desert ... It’s painful to read, and yet remarkable to think that Shepard was compelled to keep writing, and without self-pity. A feeling of vague paranoia can lurk in these sparse pages. 'Someone wants to know something. Someone wants to know something about me that I don’t even know myself. I can feel him getting closer and closer.' There’s a subtle curiosity at work, too, the curiosity of a writer to the very end. Unsettling, yet brave.
In visceral prose, Shepard describes the odd sensations and fatalism of the man’s body as it transforms around his still sharp mind. Much of the narrative is dedicated to the world of memory, and Shepard’s delicately prepared imagery evokes the scents of long-emptied apartments, the eclectic sounds of northern California neighborhoods and the colors of decades-old relationships. For fans of Shepard’s plays or those who enjoy an experimental look at mortality, Spy of the First Person is unflinching in its examination and generous in its appreciation of life’s countless small beauties.
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.