Day Out of Days: Stories and Journals
by Sam Shepard
Reviewed by Nancy Rommelmann
I remember reading in Motel Chronicles, Sam Shepard's 1981 memoir of growing up in the American West, that the thing to do when driving and someone drunkenly pukes out the car window is to turn up the radio. I thought, then, that was a pretty decent way to live.
Nearly 30 years later, Shepard, no longer young at 66, is still driving, revisiting where and how he's lived, and searching for reasons to continue. It could be birdsong, or the "rippling sorrel muscle" of a 2-year-old colt, or a red sunrise in Mexico, or a woman's face "broken in grief" when her husband dies in the airplane seat beside her, any moment of grace or violence to keep the heart beating, that convinces a man he is still on a mission as the last exit approaches.
Shepard's protagonists in Day Out of Days -- a collection of 133 stories and snips of dialogues on 304 pages, told by men whose lives and careers mirror Shepard's -- are trying to escape the "almost constant swirling chatter going on inside my head." Sometimes they do it with drink; sometimes, they weep. Sometimes they go the most direct route: decapitation, though this does stop the head from chattering and pleading for a lift. Always, the men get in cars and go, from Montana to Mexico, California to Minnesota, never away from catastrophes but to them, whiteouts and jack-knifed 18-wheelers, Hurricane Katrina and drug murders along the Mexican border, barely remembered girlfriends and the men's own failing bodies. People are haunted, and some are still puking, but there are also luscious Mexican actresses to watch on TV, and the taste of cold beer, and possibility down the road.
While there are a few hard cases here, such as the man who skins another man's face and rolls it like a taquito ("Mean Green"), Shepard also can be funny as hell, and he's spot-on when he describes, as he does in "Land of the Living," the anguish and weariness of a man being shut out by a histrionic spouse. And always there's the tremendous poetry of Shepard's language, as in "Gracias":
"What little town was that where we drove for miles weaving through hills and hills of olive groves poured out like little oceans. ... I remember, walking hand in hand with our children, talking of living somewhere idyllic just like this somewhere suspended in time and then all of us brought to a stop by a pianist practicing some lovely lilting waltz outside a window with iron bars in a narrow backstreet and we all just stood there entranced and applauded from the street when it ended for the unseen player and from somewhere deep inside the thick stucco walls, very faintly, came a woman's voice, very very soft, and the voice said 'Gracias,' and we walked on.
"That was one of those days I remember."