Day Out Of Days, Sam Shepard’s new collection of stories, reads a little like Uncle Sam’s Big Bathroom Book. It isn’t exactly a traditional collection of stories so much as a collection of things Sam Shepard thought were interesting and wanted people to know about. Few of the book’s vignettes last more than three pages, and few of them have traditional story structures. Instead, Shepard leans heavily on his stage writing experience, coming up with a collection of monologues, poems, and short scenes that ramble all over the American West.
The handful of more traditional short stories in Day Out Of Days all show that Shepard still has the chops to write that sort of thing. From the tale of a drifter who comes across a disembodied head in a ditch that strikes up a conversation with him to a story about a man who runs into an old flame while waiting out a blizzard in Indianapolis, the conventional stories hum with a sense of lost connections and a loose feel for the vagabond life of the open road. Like Shepard’s other work, they tend to be mournfully funny, as though his characters only cry so they can stop laughing.
Readers’ appreciation of the rest of the book will rely on whether they’re willing to be hypnotized by Shepard’s evocation of the Western wastes and the loners who rattle through them. His voice is decidedly specific, and his vignettes bump uneasily into each other, as characters recur and wander through the length of the book, so that some of the stories turn into loose collections, detailing the adventures of certain sets of characters in bite-sized chunks.
But most of the book remains surprisingly narrative-free. Shepard is more interested in restating, say, the story of Casey Jones and his fateful final train ride, or the short observations of a man with a cluttered kitchen who tries to make sense of how he accumulated all this junk. Shepard’s monologues and dialogues are always well-observed and often funny, but the book frequently jolts about from one thing to the other when it might be better off sitting still on one piece for longer than a page or two.
That said, Day Out Of Days conjures up such a sense of a lonesome world of men and women who are just trying to put one foot in front of the other, all while walking a long, dusty highway, that it’s impossible to not fall under its thrall for at least a little while. It may work best as the kind of book you pick up and read a few pages from, then put down again for reflection. It’s hard to regard Day Out Of Days as anything like a traditional short-story collection, but as a collection of tiny jewels of language unearthed with great care by a man with a uniquely American voice, it’s unlike anything else.