This novel’s themes are echt Shepard: fathers and sons; shifting identities and competing editions of reality; a feeling there are watchers and there will be watchees in this world of dusty gravitas.
The setting is the American West. The prose can be taciturn. The pronouns possess vague antecedents. The publication can be cryptic and pretentious. It is also sly and revealing.
“Spy of the Primary Person” is weighted using its central character’s knowing of his own swiftly encroaching mortality – the perception that he’s, to borrow Cy Twombly’s term, closing the bodega down for real.
“They gave me each one of these tests,” the person says. “Way out in the middle of the desert. The painted desert. Territory of the Apache. Territory of the Saguaro. They gave me blood assessments, of course. All types of blood assessments testing my light corpuscles, testing my red corpuscles, testing one against the other.”
This catalog of lab tests continues. At numerous times the person visits what appears to be the Arizona Mayo Clinic. But this novel is not simply a burnt giving, a Baedeker of dread and decay. You will find a kind of parched humor as well.
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The person on the porch is spied upon by another man who – shades of Sean Spicer – sometimes lurks in a hedge. Are both of these males the same person? Will be they father and boy? Shepard is thinking about these questions but not in their answers. Conceivably, the watcher thinks, he was “hired by some cryptic detective agency.”
Shepard’s characters have always been voyeurs of a kind, clandestine observers of others, skeptical observers of themselves. It seems sensible that a 1998 PBS documentary about the playwright was titled “Stalking Himself.”
In his 1982 memoir “Motel Chronicles,” Shepard wrote about the type of intimate surveillance that goes on in this novel. “Occasionally I simply stand outside watching my family active inside the house,” he wrote. “I stand there quite a long time often. They don’t know that I watch them.”
He is thinking about spooky action at a distance.
You can tell that a poem is a poem, Nicholson Baker wrote in his novel “The Anthologist,” since the words are “swimming in a little gel pack of white space.” Similarly, you can tell you are getting into the realm of myth when you are holding a good slender novel such as this one which has large type and enough margins, to give the words room to reverberate.
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Sometimes, in “Spy of the Primary Person,” the words do not reverberate thus much as hiccup and free-associate. A fairly typical paragraph begins:
“Occasionally something sweeps across me personally. I’m not sure what it is. Sometimes swooping like the wind. Occasionally toenails or simply the toes in the browse. Sometimes color. I recall sometimes you would start whole stories. Occasionally paragraphs. Occasionally sentences with the word ‘often.’ Do you keep in mind how you performed that?”
Sweeping toenails, by the seashore. If this is actually the sort of point you like, this novel will certainly be the type of thing you will like.
“Spy of the Primary Person” didn’t begin to fully hold my attention until its midpoint. Several things begin to happen. The novel starts to overspill its restricted borders. There is an increasing, slashing knowing of not merely one human but a global in distress.
Fires scorch the landscape. Migrant workers will be persecuted and surveilled by “soldiers sneaking around through the bushes. Making sure the president’s brand is not spoken in vain. Making sure there will be no whispered plans to overthrow the real estate.”
Better, the novel builds toward a straightforward but expert and moving picture. The person and his family ‘re going out to dinner.
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“I was in a good wheelchair with a good shaggy sheepskin within the seat and a good Navajo blanket over my knees, and my two sons, two of my sons, Jesse and Walker, were on either aspect pushing me down the center of East Water Street,” he says. “I’ll remember the strength I felt from my two males behind me.”
He is among nine people, friends and family, who commandeer a table in a Mexican cafe. There will be enchiladas and tequila (“Hornitos, Cabo Wabo, Sauza, Patron, Cuervo”) and a flow of nice, noisy conversation. The person relishes the meal in all its details, and specifically the snug sense to be in “our entire troupe, our little band.”
There are echoes of Beckett in this novel’s abstemious style and existential echoes. Our little bands will come apart.
“There must be a cure,” Shepard writes. “We will be children of the miraculous. Long pause. Pausing. A long pause. Pausing. No one hangs on his words. Nobody hangs in the moment. Nobody actually hangs for nobody.”