Day out of Days

Aug 13, 2010

A man's walking along, sees a head in a ditch. The head has a Medusa hairdo black-matted snaky locks. It is, of course, a talking head. A quarrelsome, weepy, head, and the man's a curmudgeon. The head needs a lift, and the man reluctantly picks it up. It gets heavy as he goes along. Weighs a ton.

This is the stuff of fairytale and myth. It's also the tragicomic opening story in Sam Shepard's new book, Day Out of Days. The book's a sort of writer's journal, with poems, stories, and short prose pieces loosely organized around the theme of disconnection of metaphoric beheadings.

Now in his sixties, Shepard grouses about losing touch with his boyhood innocence; about the middle-aged mind's disconnection from memory; and, as neighborhoods mutate, about the body's loss of home.

There are over a hundred short riffs on a wide range of subjects. There's a lament about constant chatter in the head. Howlin' Wolf sings, Ralph Stanley does too, and Fats Domino gets saved from drowning during Katrina, but this time he comes floating in, dressed in a tux and riding his grand piano.

You wouldn't think there would be much momentum in a smorgasbord such as this, but for me, Day out of Days was a page-turner. About half of the book reads like a kind of Kerouacian road trip down Route 66. Shepard's imaginative, clear-eyed perspective and wry humor illuminate each stop. We don't get the romanticized west. Instead we get man out of nature.

In Williams, Arizona an actor lolls in a motel room, walls Pepto Bismo pink, a nice picture of the Grand Canyon on the wall, the actor reading a brochure titled "Fun Things to do in Williams." There are comic nightmare stops on this tour: At the Cracker Barrel Restaurant, Anywhere U.S.A., a tourist gets stuck in a restroom, trapped listening to an endless loop of Shania Twain singing about "infidelity of all stripes."

Heads roll, bodies flounder. Sam Shepard's subject might be death and disconnection, but he is a scintillating writer, firmly rooted in the land of the living.