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... Itís 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, itís all impression,
small snapshots of odd people and odd moments.
Itís 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 heís 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.
Donna Seaman, Booklist:
A gorgeously courageous and sagacious coda to Shepardís
innovative and soulful body of work... A meshing of memoir and invention, it
snares with virtuoso precision both natureís constant vibrancy and the
stop-action of illness. Told in short takes pulsing with life and rueful wit, it
portrays one man spying on another from across the street, raising binoculars to
better watch his subject struggling to make the simplest motions and family
members appearing from within the house to offer help and company.
Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times:
Few deaths are kind, I think, but Sam Shepardís seemed almost theatrically
cruel... For a man whose life was an embodiment of the power of words, dying of
a disease that steals its victimsí ability to speak and write sounds like
Shepard, however, gets the last word in Spy of the First Person, a brief
and impressionistic novella he wrote in his last days... The result is spare but
not slight, surreal yet stoic, an intriguing and moving glimpse into what falls
away and what still matters at the end.
Alasdair Lees, Independent.co.uk:
Clocking in just over 80 pages, Spy of the First Person is clearly
partly autobiographical, narrated by a man in his later years being treated for
a crippling illness. Sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of his house in New
Mexico and being cared for by his family, he looks back over his life and
reflects on a changing America. All the while a younger man in a property
opposite watches him, fascinated by his enigmatic neighbour.
"Spy of the First Person" captivates in its distillation of many of
Shepardís enduring themes - the death of Americaís frontier, identity and
loneliness... Thereís foreboding amid the
wistfulness, but itís tempting to read this novella as Shepard looking at
America in a more elegiac light.
Elisabeth Vincentelli, Newsday:
It is impossible to dissociate Sam Shepardís latest and last book, "Spy of the
First Person," from how and when it was written... That dogged determination to
put a final word out into the world recalls musicians recently inspired to
create records imbued with a melancholy awareness of their impending
mortality... 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 Shepardís
world may not want to start here, but his fans may find the elegiac tone
"Spy of the First Person" is a short book, with short chapters ó some of them
just a few lines long, most less than two pages. The point of view continually
switches, and so does the chronology: You are never quite sure what is now, what
is past, who is speaking...
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.
Molly Boyle, Santa Fe New Mexican:
In Sam Shepardís final work, the author rakes up the leaves of his life, turning
them over and over again for inspection, knowing the end result is not quite a
neat and tidy collection... The feverishness of this writing process makes every
word count in this slim volume, as the reader who picks up Spy is aware that
this is Shepardís attempt at his own elegy. If his first hybrid work of memoir
and fiction, The One Inside, charts a slower process of aging and
self-reflection, Spy tackles what has already been lost, and now floats in the
ether ó the image fragments, emotional memories, and physical remnants of a life
spent rambling and making art from those rambles.
Heller McAlpin, Barnes & Noble:
Shifting between first- and third-person perspectives, the bookís focus is an
old man rocking on a screened porch or parked under a tree in a wheelchair. A
sort of doppelgšnger spies on him, peering through binoculars from across the
street, trying to figure out whatís going on... The increasingly incapacitated
man is trying to figure out whatís going on, too. ALS is never mentioned by
name, but he paints a clear enough picture of the diseaseís ravages...
His previous book, "The One Inside", which was published earlier this year, was
a muddled, intensely interior mix of dreamscape and memory... This slim posthumous volume is a
more coherent, urgent, and moving work of autobiographical fiction. It packs a
punch, and not just because we know the circumstances under which it was
written, or that itís his last. There are things Shepard wants to say, and he
knows itís now or never.
Dwight Garner, The New York Times:
Moving... Sly and revealing... This novelís 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. . . .
You can tell you are moving into the realm of myth when you are holding a
slender novel like this one that has large type and ample margins, to give the
words room to reverberate... There are echoes of Beckett in this novelís
abstemious style and existential echoes.
Poet M. Sarki:
The death of Sam Shepard creates a sudden void in the
landscape of contemporary literature. This talented writer, dramatist, horseman,
actor, and musician leaves as his final gift to those of us fortunate to have
known his body of work a thinly veiled memoir of the first rank. In prose
reminiscent at times of his good friend Patti Smith, Shepard eventually recounts
the last of his precious days on earth surrounded by his loving family and
friends. In one poignant sentence Shepard affirms that in a span of one year he
went from being a fiercely independent and private wanderer traveling in his
pickup truck to a man in a wheelchair who can barely raise his head and cannot
possibly wipe his own ass. There is nothing sentimental or self-serving in this
book. Shepardís honesty on the page remains as seething as his life. A testament
to one great artist, and for some, a very good friend.
Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal:
"Spy of the First Person" returns to the uncanny experience evoked in all of
Shepardís fiction of being both the observer and the observed... Shepard has
always been a spare and oblique writer, creating a sense of dreamy discomfort...
The sketches jump to northern California, the Alcatraz prison, a doctorís office
in Arizona and even the squats of the Lower East Side in the 1970s. But 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. Shepardís wanderers have
usually been on unaccompanied journeys with no departure or destination, only an
ever-repeating present instant.