Day Out of Days by Sam Shepard

You can construct a body out of the stories, poems and inside-the-head dialogues in Sam Shepard’s Day Out of Days — as in that game, Exquisite Corpse. You fold up the paper and each person draws a different part. When you unfold the paper, you’ve got a funky body.

This is the reason people always use words like “brutal”, “haunting” and “lean” to describe Shepard’s work: Each part is howling out some unfinished business. It’s not the aggression or the violence that gets you. It’s the cacophonous need. You’re just a reader. You can’t fill it. Relax.

Shepard works hard to say something real. About himself but also about how our culture kills certain parts of us. No writer wants to be seen trying — Shepard’s generation, in particular, has prized a seeming effortlessness — but you can hear the gears grinding in his writing, especially in these stories, and it’s part of their deep, abiding appeal. Even better, it’s part of their usefulness.

One thing we value is continuity: same house, same job, same spouse. Well, these stories are fragmented all to hell. The only continuity lies in the place names; the roads in some of the story titles [“Indianapolis (Highway 78)” or “San Juan Bautista (Highway 152)”]. But don’t grab on too tightly. Don’t start thinking this is some Kerouacian coming-of-age narrative.

True, there’s quite a bit about “American lostness”, but Shepard’s characters are of age all right. They’re old enough to know what they can demand and what they can expect. And they’re falling to pieces in front of our eyes.

These people are surrounded by voices: “I now have an almost constant swirling chatter going on inside my head,” says one, “from dawn to dusk. I never could have foreseen this when I was five, playing with sticks in the dirt, but I guess it’s been slowly accumulating over all these sixty-some years; growing more intense, less easy to ignore. I wake up with it. I feed chickens with it. I drive tractors with it. I make coffee with it. I fry eggs with it. I ride horses with it. I go to bed with it. I sleep with it. It is my constant companion.”

The chatter is inside the head, but it’s also in the culture. In many of the stories, a television in a public place cannot be turned off. Bloodcurdling images are paired with smiling faces and glossy brochures.

In “Cracker Barrel Men’s Room (Highway 90 West),” a man locked in a roadside restroom is forced to listen all night to a loop of Shania Twain whining and thanking Jesus. He tries to escape using a Swiss Army knife but cannot “drown the piercing voice.”

The chatter causes fragmentation: of memory, of self. “I forget lots of things these days, then suddenly something will come back, some thought or something, almost like a picture in my head that gives me this whole feeling about pieces of the past. A past I never lived in,” thinks the narrator of “Lost Art of Wandering (Highway 152, continued).”

The protagonist of “Costello”, now a movie star, goes searching for something in the town where he grew up. He meets a guy in a diner who recalls the creepy things they did together; the Benzedrine, the hit men, the whores.

Among the fragments — the random thoughts on photography, the missing fingers, the diseased heart, the infrequent insights into movie-making — are five stories featuring a severed head. A good man passes the head, which is in a basket in a ditch by the side of a road. The head begs the man to carry it to a nearby lake and dump it in. It whines, it threatens. The man wants nothing to do with it, but he carries it.

The head is so heavy he has to set it atop his own head for part of the trip. ” ‘Do you think you could open your eyes for me? Just once?’ asks the man. ‘No,’ says the head, without hesitation. ‘Why?’ asks the man. ‘Because you wouldn’t be able to take it,’ answers the head.”

Perhaps it would do a disservice to Shepard’s grave talent to parse this out; the role of the head, the meaning of the head. What seems more interesting is the impulse to tell the stories, and the effort. The aggression, the short, hard sentences, the insistence on orientation are symptoms of a kind of desperation — the kind that makes you keep living when you just don’t feel like it anymore.

It’s this same yearning the head has for the lake. “Why a lake, for instance,” it says, “when I came from the desert? Heat and sand. Why a lake for Christ’s sake?”

RATING 7 / 10