The One Inside is the first work of long fiction from Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Sam Shepard, author of more than fifty plays and three story collections, and actor in over sixty films. Shepard is no stranger to the conflation of life and art, and this slight, if rambling, work of autofiction—concerning a senescent dude set adrift in a sea of aimless virility—is no exception.
Our unnamed-narrator is a well-known actor and writer in his late sixties whose life mirrors Shepard’s in every Google-able way. Recently divorced, he’s exiled himself to the Wi-Fi-less mountains near Santa Fe, where he lives alone but for female visitors both real and imagined. His aging body spasms and leaks, abandoned to “its own nervous boredom,” and though he’s stopped smoking he drinks to the point of DWIs, hallucinating his boyhood onto the thirsty terrain as he drives a pickup truck around the neighborhood, whistling for his escaped canine companions.
When he finally rests—a Xanax-induced sleep—a feline creature curls up on his chest and wakes him at 5am. This phantom—“female, for sure”—appears posing for an iPhone photo, with a “leering grin” and “Pacino dead eyes.” Afraid of “hysterics,” he opts not to “touch her or shoo her away.” He’d rather not upset anyone, and he’s not sure if he feels anything anyway. He thinks he may have “turned to stone.”
One of the real life women that haunt him is Blackmail Girl. With her “kid-like voice,” she is nineteen to his seventy, and wants an “exchange” of “ideas that mean something,” to be “the one who discovers the undiscovered writer underneath.” She’s been secretly taping their telephone conversations, with ambitions of turning them into a book, much to her muse’s outrage. Their dialogue, transcribed here in an actual book, is wishy-washy; the conversations of a mismatched couple from different eras, neither of whom know what they want. Their speech is listed on the page but it’s unclear who’s speaking, and it hardly matters. Their blurry words hamster-roll in search of something where nothing but the spin of their own longing exists:
“I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“I don’t know what you’re doing here either.”
“I thought you knew.”
“You convinced yourself that you and I had something in common.”
Blackmail Girl’s desire to transform their “exchange” into a lasting object (she’s already thinking about her unwritten book’s cover) seems to defend against an anxiety, shared by him, that he is soon to vanish from both their worlds. Like a daughter who asks her ailing father to recount his childhood, she is governed by anticipated loss, but also a selfish desire to bank on her temporary proximity to fame. For him, her sneaky recordings are both “a total violation of trust,” and a reminder that he has become a thing to be used and memorialized.
After he drinks an entire bottle of mescal and floats the idea of joint suicide, Blackmail Girl leaves. When she returns, soon after, she takes a bath and he imagines “the arteries of her wrists slashed,” but instead finds her wrapped up in bed scrolling through movies on her laptop (she figured out the Wi-Fi). The next day he asks her to go, he doesn’t know why. Rejected, she threatens him: “I know your reputation for discarding women, but you’ll never get rid of me.”
Rather than contemplate their incompatibility, she wants to be different from the other women, the one to save him from his misery. She leaves again, he stalks her a bit, and then she’s back, helping him learn lines on the set of August Osage County, wearing nothing but a trench coat. This is how life rolls when you’re a celebrated drifter bro.
Spliced between these later-life crises, he recollects—with boyish bluntness—the story of “freckle faced” Felicity, the fourteen-year-old lover he shared with his laconic father. At just thirteen, our narrator, ear-to-the-door, hears Felicity “scream like a trapped rabbit” as she “sat backward on my father’s cock.” After the landlady calls the police, he and his dad are forced to flee town, but Felicity tracks them down and our oversexed adolescent has to entertain her while his father works the feedlot. The boy has to ask her, another child, what his father says when he speaks: “Did he ever talk?”
“He was mostly the silent type,” Felicity says, but when he did speak to her it was with nostalgia for a utopian America (something we’ve heard a lot of lately) where “people in love would jump across the snapping flames” of bonfires “hand in hand.” Our narrator has no such romance for the past, his cursed memories project themselves onto his present, distorting experience and infecting habit.
The only likable character is the narrator’s ex-wife, who won’t read Bolaño because he’s “pejorative in a strictly male sense.” When she visits our man, alone in the mountains, she takes charge, telling him they’ll be “sleeping together in the convertible couch,” she won’t be “stuck away alone in the upstairs bedroom like some house guest.” It is a relief to see him with someone by whom he is known, and we get the sense that he likes being seen and understood. During her brief visit, he relaxes into the familiar, as they watch episode after episode of Breaking Bad. For all its nightmarish visions and hellish recollections, The One Inside sometimes reads like a worryingly long email from a friend going through a bad break-up. Learning to live alone as a seventy-year old man, after thirty years of companionship, isn’t easy, particularly if your solution is to get boozed and contemplate suicide with women fifty years your junior.
The One Inside is tryingly male in its indulgence of the macho unconscious. We are prepared to let men behave however they want, and to let them talk about it obscurely. The recent election saw a dialogue, if you can call it that, between a highly qualified, responsible woman and a man whose existence actively promotes a lack of sense. The One Inside seems to me a lesson in how our culture dresses things up as things they’re not, and while the edgy cover, the faux-poetry of Patti Smith’s foreword, and Shepard’s wannabe Beckettian prose will deem the book cool to many a brooding American bachelor, this “cool” is one that privileges self-pity and the evasion of catastrophic behavior over any attempt to do the hard work of self-reflection.
THE ONE INSIDE
by Sam Shepard
published by Penguin Random House
192 pp | $25.95 | hardcover