‘What is it I want to make something of? A collection of sound’
Motel Chronicles and Hawk Moon doesn’t appear on this year’s 20 Book of Summer list, but it was on my list in 2014! I don’t feel so bad swapping one of my current list for this one as I didn’t read it then and thought I would turn to it now following the sad news of Sam Shepard’s death last week.
I am a big fan of Sam Shepard’s work, from his plays to his movie appearances, but Motel Chronicles & Hawk Moon is a collection of his prose work for which he is not so well known. If you are new to Shepard, I wouldn’t advise this as a good place to start, but if you know his work and his exploration of the themes of family, abandonment, masculinity and temporality, then these collections might just appeal.
Motel Chronicles are billed as autobiographical snap shots of Shepard’s own life, all based in and around the transience of motel rooms. As a child, Shepard grew up on the road, moving from place to place with his parents as his father was a US soldier and later in the 1980s he drifted around the south-west creating these autobiographical vignettes.
What follows is a scrap book of very short stories, reminiscences and poems of his time as an actor, a ranch hand, a waiter and a musician, which all have a romanticised vision of the transitory nature of life on the road. Many cover themes that Shepard built on in his later plays but at heart is a belief in the magical, mystical nature of the American West.
Often the scraps of stories read like the lyrics to an early Tom Waits song, populated as they are with drunks and jukeboxes, car thieves and put upon wives. A man receives a postcard from his woman that simply says
‘Darling, I got the report back from the doctor and he said, its best I don’t see you anymore’
A woman trying to escape her abusive partner runs for the lights of a neighbouring house because ‘any light is better than the dark’ while a man emptying his bins muses on the end of the world
I’d just as soon not know if you wanna know the truth. I’d just as soon take it as it comes. Not get all het up about it. If I dissolve, I dissolve. Nothing to it. Just as soon dissolve in peace. Except they say it doesn’t happen all at once. Supposed to be slow. Tortured like. Belabored. Ghastly breathing.
Nice thoughts. I only came to empty the garbage.
There is a world weariness, a sense of life lived on the edge that permeates these glimpses into the lives of Shepard’s characters. Many are yearning for connection of any kind, like the boy who pretends to sleepwalk to get his parents attention
Humour was the farthest thing from my mind. It wasn’t to make them laugh. It was only for the thrill of having a relationship with them outside the ordinary
Some pieces are unsettling, like the story of the two nurses and a man in a tuxedo who creep around town in the dead of night leaving a white wicker chair they believe to be a symbol of death in other people’s gardens, and many of the stories centre around people being where they aren’t supposed to be and seeing things they really shouldn’t see.
There is a strength to the obviously autobiographical pieces in the collection, including a profile of Shepard’s isolated father who lives in the desert and the longest story in the book, at 14 pages, which details the near fatal stroke and subsequent surgery of a female family member, who would seem to be Shepard’s mother. The writing is accompanied by photographs of Shepard with his father; his first wife O’Lan Jones (his ‘natural woman’) and with various friends, family members and cars. It adds to the scrap book/ notebook feel, as all the poems and prose pieces are untitled with no real through thread to connect them to each other.
The pieces feel like flash fiction, before flash fiction existed – short, sharp, ethereal scenes that work best when they tap into the themes that permeate plays like Fool for Love, Buried Child or True West.
Hawk Moon is less successful, an earlier collection, it lacks the cohesion of Motel Chronicles. It is a much darker collection of writings, a series of unpunctuated prose poems that don’t quite capture the imagination in the way that the Motel Chronicles pieces do. There is an apocalyptic feel to these pieces but they work best when they are more structured. Seven is a Number in Magic depicts a group of nurses who are mugged by a group of young boys and one of them has her ear cut off.
The next day the six nurses bring the seventh one with one ear a transistor radio to her room in the hospital where she used to work. They all make jokes about at least she knows what she’s in for.
The kid with the nurse’s ear sits on top of a roof on his haunches staring down at the ear. He drives a hole through the white lobe with a nail and threads it on a leather thong then puts it around his neck. He stands up and raises a fist to the sky. The Gods are well pleased.
Generally speaking Motel Chronicles & Hawk Moon are collections to dip in and out of, and will probably be more enjoyable if you are familiar with Shepard’s plays. The poetry is, for the most part, not very good, and the marketing that suggests that these stories were the basis for the screenplay of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, seems to be a little misplaced.
Yet, there are stories here that linger long and lay the groundwork for that mythic territory that Shepard created in his work.
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