Thursday, December 29, 2011

Open Lines / Jaws





Peter Bachley

JAWS

PART 1
Chapter 1

The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail. The mouth was open just enough to permit a rush of water over the gills. There was little other motion: an occasional correction of the apparently aimless course by the slight raising or lowering of a pectoral fin – as a bird changes direction by dipping one wing and lifting the other. The eyes were sightless in the black, and the other senses transmitted nothing extraordinary to the small, primitive brain. The fish might have been asleep, save for the movement dictated by countless millions of years of instinctive continuity: lacking the flotation bladder common to other fish and the fluttering flaps to push oxygen-bearing water through its gills, it survived only by moving. Once stopped, it would sink to the bottom and die of anoxia. The land seemed almost as dark as the water, for there was no moon. All that separated sea from shore was a long, straight stretch of beach – so white that it shone. From a house behind the grass-splotched dunes, lights cast yellow glimmers on the sand. The front door to the house opened, and a man and a woman stepped out onto the wooden porch. They stood for a moment staring at the sea, embraced quickly, and scampered down the few steps onto the sand. The man was drunk, and he stumbled on the bottom step. The woman laughed and took his hand, and together they ran to the beach."First a swim," said the woman, "to clear your head."
"Forget my head," said the man. Giggling, he fell backward onto the sand, pulling the woman down with him. They fumbled with each other's clothing, twined limbs around limbs, and thrashed with urgent ardor on the cold sand. Afterward, the man lay back and closed his eyes. The woman looked at him and smiled. "Now, how about that swim?" she said.
 "You go ahead. I'll wait for you here."
 The woman rose and walked to where the gentle surf washed over her ankles. The water was colder than the night air, for it was only mid-June. The woman called back, "You're sure you don't want to come?" But there was no answer from the sleeping man.
She backed up a few steps, then ran at the water. At first her strides were long and graceful, but then a small wave crashed into her knees. She faltered, regained her footing, and flung herself over the next waist-high wave. The water was only up to her hips, so she stood, pushed the hair out of her eyes, and continued walking until the water covered her shoulders. There she began to swim – with the jerky, head-above-water stroke of the untutored.
A hundred yards offshore, the fish sensed a change in the sea's rhythm. It did not see the woman, nor yet did it smell her. Running within the length of its body were a series of thin canals, filled with mucus and dotted with nerve endings, and these nerves detected vibrations and signaled the brain. The fish turned toward shore.
The woman continued to swim away from the beach, stopping now and then to check her position by the lights shining from the house. The tide was slack, so she had not moved up or down the beach. But she was tiring, so she rested for a moment, treading water, and then started for shore.
 The vibrations were stronger now, and the fish recognized prey. The sweeps of its tail quickened, thrusting the giant body forward with a speed that agitated the tiny phosphorescent animals in the water and caused them to glow, casting a mantle of sparks over the fish.
The fish closed on the woman and hurtled past, a dozen feet to the side and six feet below the surface. The woman felt only a wave of pressure that seemed to lift her up in the water and ease her down again. She stopped swimming and held her breath.
Feeling nothing further, she resumed her lurching stroke. The fish smelled her now, and the vibrations – erratic and sharp – signaled distress. The fish began to circle close to the surface. Its dorsal fin broke water, and its tail, thrashing back and forth, cut the glassy surface with a hiss. A series of tremors shook its body.
 For the first time, the woman felt fear, though she did not know why. Adrenaline shot through her trunk and her limbs, generating a tingling heat and urging her to swim faster. She guessed that she was fifty yards from shore. She could see the line of white foam where the waves broke on the beach. She saw the lights in the house, and for a comforting moment she thought she saw someone pass by one of the windows.
The fish was about forty feet from the woman, off to the side, when it turned suddenly to the left, dropped entirely below the surface, and, with two quick thrusts of its tail, was upon her.
 At first, the woman thought she had snagged her leg on a rock or a piece of floating wood. There was no initial pain, only one violent tug on her right leg. She reached down to touch her foot, treading water with her left leg to keep her head up, feeling in the blackness with her left hand. She could not find her foot. She reached higher on her leg, and then she was overcome by a rush of nausea and dizziness. Her groping fingers had found a hub of bone and tattered flesh. She knew that the warm, pulsing flow over her fingers in the chill water was her own blood.
Pain and panic struck together. The woman threw her head back and screamed a guttural cry of terror.
The fish had moved away. It swallowed the woman's limb without chewing. Bones and meat passed down the massive gullet in a single spasm. Now the fish turned again, homing on the stream of blood flushing from the woman's femoral artery, a beacon as clear and true as a lighthouse on a cloudless night. This time the fish attacked from below. It hurtled up under the woman, jaws agape. The great conical head struck her like a locomotive, knocking her up out of the water. The jaws snapped shut around her torso, crushing bones and flesh and organs into a jelly. The fish, with the woman's body in its mouth, smashed down on the water with a thunderous splash, spewing foam and blood and phosphorescence in a gaudy shower.
Below the surface, the fish shook its head from side to side, its serrated triangular teeth sawing through what little sinew still resisted. The corpse fell apart. The fish swallowed, then turned to continue feeding. Its brain still registered the signals of nearby prey. The water was laced with blood and shreds of flesh, and the fish could not sort signal from substance. It cut back and forth through the dissipating cloud of blood, opening and closing its mouth, seining for a random morsel. But by now, most of the pieces of the corpse had dispersed. A few sank slowly, coming to rest on the sandy bottom, where they moved lazily in the current. A few drifted away just below the surface, floating in the surge that ended in the surf. The man awoke, shivering in the early morning cold. His mouth was sticky and dry, and his wakening belch tasted of Bourbon and corn. The sun had not yet risen, but a line of pink on the eastern horizon told him that daybreak was near. The stars still hung faintly in the lightening sky. The man stood and began to dress. He was annoyed that the woman had not woken him when she went back to the house, and he found it curious that she had left her clothes on the beach. He picked them up and walked to the house.
 He tiptoed across the porch and gently opened the screen door, remembering that it screeched when yanked. The living room was dark and empty, littered with half-empty glasses, ashtrays, and dirty plates. He walked across the living room, turned right down a hall, past two closed doors. The door to the room he shared with the woman was open, and a bedside light was on. Both beds were made. He tossed the woman's clothes on one of the beds, then returned to the living room and switched on a light. Both couches were empty.
There were two more bedrooms in the house. The owners slept in one. Two other house guests occupied the other. As quietly as possible, the man opened the door to the first bedroom. There were two beds, each obviously containing only one person. He closed the door and moved to the next room. The host and hostess were asleep on each side of a king-size bed. The man closed the door and went back to his room to find his watch. It was nearly five.
He sat on one bed and stared at the bundle of clothes on the other. He was certain the woman wasn't in the house. There had been no other guests for dinner, so unless she had met someone on the beach while he slept, she couldn't have gone off with anyone.
And even if she had, he thought, she probably would have taken at least some of her clothes. Only then did he permit his mind to consider the possibility of an accident. Very quickly the possibility became a certainty. He returned to the host's bedroom, hesitated for a moment beside the bed, and then softly placed his hand on a shoulder.
"Jack," he said, patting the shoulder. "Hey, Jack."
The man sighed and opened his eyes.
"What?"
"It's me. Tom. I hate like hell to wake you up, but I think we may have a problem."
 "What problem?"
 "Have you seen Chrissie?"
"What do you mean, have I seen Chrissie? She's with you."
 "No, she isn't. I mean, I can't find her."
 Jack sat up and turned on a light. His wife stirred and covered her head with a sheet. Jack looked at his watch.
"Jesus Christ. It's five in the morning. And you can't find your date."
"I know," said Tom. "I'm sorry. Do you remember when you saw her last?"
"Sure I remember. She said you were going for a swim, and you both went out on the porch. When did you see her last?"
"On the beach. Then I fell asleep. You mean she didn't come back?"
"Not that I saw. At least not before we went to bed, and that was around one.
"I found her clothes."
"Where? On the beach?"
"Yes."
"You looked in the living room?"
 Tom nodded.
"And in the Henkels' room."
"The Henkels' room!"
Tom blushed.
"I haven't known her that long. For all I know she could be a little weird. So could the Henkels. I mean, I'm not suggesting anything. I just wanted to check the whole house before I woke you up."
"So what do you think?"
"What I'm beginning to think," said Tom, "is that maybe she had an accident.Maybe she drowned."
Jack looked at him for a moment, then glanced again at his watch.
"I don't know what time the police in this town go to work," he said, "but I guess this is as good a time as any to find out."




Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Patricia Highsmith / The Invalid, or, The Bed-Ridden


Patricia Highsmith
THE INVALID, OR, THE BED-RIDDEN

BIOGRAPHY OF PATRICIA HIGHSMITH

She had suffered a fall while on a skiing holiday at Chamonix with her boy friend some ten years ago. The injury had something to do with her back. The doctors couldn’t find anything, nobody could see anything wrong with her back, but still it hurt, she said. Actually, she was no sure she would get her man unless she pretended an injury, and one acquired when she had been with him. Philippe, however, was quite in love with her, and she need not have worried so much. Still, hooking Phillipe very firmly, plus ensuring a life of leisure – not to say flat on her back in bed, or however she chose to lie comfortably, for the rest of her life – was no small gain. It was a big one. How many other women could capture a man for life, give him nothing at all, not even bother to cook his meals, and still be supported in rather fine style?
Some days she got up, mainly out of bedroom. She was sometimes up when the sun was shining, but not always. When the sun was not shining, or when there was a threat of rain, Christine felt terrible and kept to her bed. Then her husband Philipe had to go downstairs with the shopping net and come back and cook. All Christine talked about was ‘how I feel’. Visitors and friends were treated to a long account of injections, pills, pains in the back which had kept her from sleeping last Wednesday night, and the possibility of rain tomorrow, because of the way she felt.
But she was always feeling rather well when August came, because she and Philippe went to Cannes then. Things might be bad at the very start of August however, causing Philippe to engage an ambulance to Orly, then a special accommodation on an aeroplane to Nice. In Cames she found herself able to go to the beach every morning at 11 a.m., swimming for a few minutes with the aid of water-wings, and to eat a good lunch. But at the end of August, back in Paris, she suffered a relapse from all the excitement, rich food, and general physical strain, once more had to take to bed, her tan included. She would sometimes expose tanned legs for visitors, sigh with memories of Cannes, then cover up again with sheets and blanket. September heralded, indeed, the onset of grim winter. Philippe couldn’t sleep with her now – though for God’s sake he felt he had earned better treatment, having worked his fingers to the bone to pay her doctors’, radiologists’ and pharmacies’ bills beyond reckoning. He would have to face another solitary winter, and not even in the same room with her but in the next room.
‘To think I brought all this upon her,’ Philippe said to one of his friends, ‘by taking her to Chamonix.’
‘But why is she always feeling quite well in August?’ replied the friend, ‘You think she is an invalid? Think again, really, old man.’
Philippe did begin to think, because other friends had said the same thing. It took him years to think, many years of Augusts in Cannes (at an expense which knocked out the savings of a whole eleven months) and many winters sleeping mainly in the ‘spare bedroom’, and not with the woman he loved and desired.
So the eleventh August in Cannes, Philippe summoned all his courage. He swam out behind Christine with a pin in his fingers. He stuck a pin in her water wings and made two punctures, one in each white wing. He and Christine were not far out, just slightly over their heads in water. Philippe was not in the best of form. Not only was he losing his hair, of no importance in a swimming situation, but he had developed a belly, which might not, he thought, have come if he had been able to make love to Christine all the past decade. But Philippe tried and succeeded in pushing Christine under, and at the same time had some difficulty in keeping himself afloat. His confused motions, seen by a few people finally, appeared to be those of a man trying to save someone who was drowning. And this of course was what he told the police and everyone. Christine, despire sufficient buoyant fat, sank like a piece of lead.
Christine was absolutely no loss to Philippe except for burial fees. He soon lost his paunch, and much to his own surprise found himself suddenly well-to-do, instead of having to turn every penny. His friends congratulated him, but politely, and in the abstract.
They couldn’t exactly say, ‘Thank God, you’re rid of that bitch,’ but they said the next thing to it. In about six months, he met quite a nice girl who loved to cook, was full of energy, and she also liked to go to bed with him. The hair on Philippe’s head even began to grow back.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Patricia Highsmith / The Female Novelist


Patricia Highsmith
THE FEMALE NOVELIST
She has total recall. It is all sex. She is on her third marriage now, having dropped three children on the way, but none by her present husband. Her cry is: ‘Listen to my past! It is more important than my present. Let me tell you what an absolute swine my last husband (or lover) was.’
Her past is like an undigested, perhaps indigestible meal which sits upon her stomach. One wishes she could simply vomit and forget it.
She writes reams about how many times she, or her woman rival, jumped into bed with her husband. And how she paced the floor, sleepless – virtuously denying herself the consolation of a drink – while her husband spent the night with the other woman, flagrantly, etc. and to hell with what friends and neighbours thought. Since the friends and neighbours were either incapable of thinking or were uninterested in the situation, it doesn’t matter what they thought. One might say that this is the time for a novelist’s invention, for creating thought and public opinion where there is none, but the female novelist doesn’t bother inventing. It is all starck as a jock-strap.
After three woman friends have seen and praised the manuscript, saying it is ‘just like life,’ and the male and female characters names have been changed four times, much to the detriment of the manuscript’s appearance, and after one man friend (a prospective lover) has read the first page and returned the manuscript saying he has read it all and adores it – the manuscript goes off to a publisher. There is a quick, courteous rejection.
She begins to be more cautious, secures entrées via writer acquaintances, vague, hedged-about recommendations obtained at the expense of winy lunches and dinners.
Rejection after rejection, none the less.
‘I know my story is important!’ she says to her husband.
‘So is the life of the mouse here, to him – or maybe her,’ he replies. He is a patient man, but nearly at the end of his nerves with all this.
‘What mouse?’
‘I talk to a mouse nearly every morning when I’m in the bathtub. I think his or her problem is food. They’re a pair. Either one or the other comes out of the hole – there’s a hole in the corner of the bathroom – then I get them something from the refrigerator.’
‘You’re wandering. What’s that got to do with my manuscript?’
‘Just that mice are concerned with a more important subject – food. Not with wether your ex-husband was unfaithful to you, or whether you suffered from it, even in a setting as beautiful as Capri or Rapallo. Which gives me an idea.’
‘What?’ she asks, somewhat anxiously.
Her husband smiles for the first time in several months. He experiences a few seconds of peace. There is not the clicking of the typewriter in the house. His wife is actually looking at him, waiting to hear what has to say. ‘You figure that one out. You’re the one with imagination. I won’t be in for dinner.’
Then he leaves the flat, taking his address book and – optimistically – a pair of pyjamas and a toothbrush.
She goes and stares at the typewriter, thinking that perhaps here is another novel, just from this evening, and should she scrap the novel she had fussed over for so long and start this new one? Maybe tonight? Now? Who is he going to sleep with?



Monday, December 26, 2011

Patricia Highsmith / The Coquette

Photo by Francesca Lukasik

Patricia Highsmith
THE COQUETTE
There was once a coquette who had a suitor whom she couldn’t get rid of. He took her promises and avowals seriously, and would not leave. He even believed her hints. This annoyed her, because it got in the way of new temporary acquaintances, their presents, flattery, flowers, dinners and so forth.
Finally Yvonne insulted and lied to her suitor Bertrand, and gave him literally nothing – which was a minus compared to the nothing she was giving her other men friends. Still Bertrand would not cease his attentions, because he considered her behavuiour normal and feminine, an excess of modesty. She even gave him a lecture, and for once in her life she told the truth. Unaccustomed as he was to the truth, expecting falsehood from a pretty woman, he took her words as turn-abouts, and continued to dance attendance.
Yvonne attempted to poison him by means of arsenic in cups of chocolate at her house, but he recovered and thought this a greater and more charming proof of her fear of losing her virginity with him, though she had already lost her virginity at the age of ten, when she had told her mother that she was raped. Yvonne had thus sent a thirty-year-old man to prison. She had been trying for two weeks to seduce him, saying she was fifteen, and mad about him. It had given her pleasure to ruin his career and to make his wife unhappy and ashamed, and their eight-year-old daughter bewildered.
Other men gave Bertrand advice. ‘We have all had it,’ they said, ‘maybe even been to bed with her once or twice. You haven’t even had that. And she’s worthless!’ But Bertrand thought he was different in Yvonne’s eyes, and thought he realized he had pertinacity beyond he common order, he felt this a virtue.
Yvonne incited a new suitor to kill Bertrand. She won the new suitor’s allegiance by promising to marry him, if he eliminated Bertrand. To Bertrand, she said the same thing about the other man. The new suitor challenged Bertrand to a duel, missed the first shot, and then began talking with his intended victim. (Bertrand’s gun had refused to fire at all.) They discovered that each had been given promises of marriage. Meanwhile both men had given her expensive presents and had lent her money during small crises over the past months.
They were resentful, but could not come up with an idea for scotching her. So they decided to kill her. The new suitor went to her and told her he had killed the stupid and persistent Bertrand. Then Bertrand knocked the door. The two men pretended to fight each other. In reality, they pushed Yvonne between them and killed her with various blows about the head. Their story was that she tried to interfere and was accidentally struck.
Since the judge of the town had himself suffered and been laughed at by the townsfolk because of Yvonne’s coquetry with him, he was secretly pleased by her death, and let the two men off without ado. He was also wise enough to know that the two men could not have killed her if they had not been infatuated with her – a state that inspired this pity, since he had become sixty years old.
Only Yvonne’s maid, who had always been well paid and tipped, attended her funeral. Even Yvonne’s family detested her.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Patricia Highsmith / Oona, The Jolly Cave Woman


Patricia Highsmith
OONA, THE JOLLY CAVE WOMAN

BIOGRAPHY OF PATRICIA HIGHSMITH

She was a bit hairy, one front tooth missing, but her sex appeal was apparent at a distance of two hundred yards or more, like an odour, which perhaps it was. She was round, round-bellied, round-shouldered, roun-hipped, and always smiling, always jolly. That was why men liked her. She had always something cooking in a pot on fire. She was simple-minded and never lost her temper. She had been clubbed over the head so many times, her brain was addled. It was not necessary to club Oona to have her, but that was the custom, and Oona barely troubled to dodge to protect herself.
Oona was constantly pregnant and had never experienced the onset of puberty, her father having had at her since she was five, and after having had at her since she was five, and after him, her brothers. Her first child was born when she was seven. Even in late pregnancy she was interfered with, and men waited impatiently the half hour or so it took her to give birth before they fell on her again.
Oddly, she kept the birthrate of the tribe more or less steady, and if anything tended to decrease the population, since men neglected their own wives because of thinking of her, or occasionally were killed in fighting over her.
Oona was at last killed by a jealous woman whose husband had not touched her in many months. This man was the first to fall in love. His name was Vipo. His men friends had laughed at him for not taking some other woman, or his own wife, in the times when Oona was not available. Vipo had lost an eye fighting his rivals. He was only middle-sized man. Ha had always brought Oona the choicest things he had killed. He worked long and hard to make an ornament out of flint, so he became the first artist on his tribe. All the others used flint only for arrowheads or knives. He had given the ornament to Oona to hang around her neck by a string of leather.
When Vipo’s wife slew Oona out of jealousy, Vipo slew his wife in hatred and wrath. Then he sang a loud and tragic song. He continued to sing like a madman, as tears ran down his hairy cheeks. The tribe considered killing him, because he was mad and different from everyone else, and they were afraid. Vipo drew images of Oona in the wet sand by the sea, then pictures of her on the flat stones on the mountains near by, pictures that could be seen from a distance. He made a statue of Oona out of wood, then one of stone. Sometimes he slept with these. Out of the clumsy syllables of his language, he made a sentence which evoked Oona whenever he uttered it. He was not the only one who learned and uttered this sentence, or who had known Oona
Vipo was slain by a jealous woman whose man had not touched her for months. Her man had purchased one of Vipo’s statues of Oona for a great price – a vast piece of leather made of several bison hides. Vipo made a beautiful watertight house of it, and had enough left over for clothing for himself. He created more sentences about Oona. Some men had admired him, others had hated him, and all the women had hated him because he had looked at them as if he did not see them. Many men were sad when Vipo was dead.
But in general people were relieved when Vipo was gone. He had been a strange one, disturbing some people’s sleep at night.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Sam Shepard / A Legend


Sam Shepard
BIOGRAPHY
A LEGEND

He's become a legend over the last three decades, but the elusive cowboy of American theater is not going soft on us ─ for damn sure.

Tuesday, Jan 2, 2001 14:00 ET

Sam Shepard is wearing black slacks, a black mock-turtleneck sweater and a glossy black leather jacket. The legendary cowboy of American theater looks dressed up. Like he's heading down to the chapel on Main Street. In fact, what he's doing is looking nice for the theater donors milling about this San Francisco party, located in a chic restaurant on an industrial slice of the bay.
Outdoors on the patio, under an unusually clear night sky, Shepard stands by a heater that glows like a street lamp and chats with a covey of Armani-clad socialites. It's a stunning sight, really. For not only has Shepard steered clear of the public since gaining renown as the second coming of Gary Cooper in "The Right Stuff," he has made the pitfalls of fame a critical theme in many of his four dozen plays. After his "Buried Child" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979, he said he "got a greater feeling of accomplishment and pride of achievement" from winning a roping contest in a rodeo.
After three decades in the theater business, though, the 57-year-old playwright knows firsthand that private donations are what keep regional stage doors open. He knows a little celebrity glad-handing seems to loosen the purse strings of the well-to-do, especially the new media-doused generation of the young and the rich here in Yahooland.
Besides, he holds a genuine affection for San Francisco's Magic Theatre, which produced his new play, "The Late Henry Moss," and where he worked as playwright-in-residence in the late '70s, when he wrote his famous "family" plays: "Curse of the Starving Class," "Buried Child" and "True West." But even if this party is making him think he would rather be home on his Minnesota horse ranch with his partner Jessica Lange, their teenage daughter, Hannah, and son, Walker, he has plenty of celebrity support
As promised, the dream cast of "The Late Henry Moss" is here, too: Sean Penn is play-wrestling with his kids near a banquet table; Woody Harrelson is chatting up a female journalist as he lifts a beer off a waiter's tray; and Nick Nolte, decked out in a knee-length seersucker coat and ratty Panama hat, looking like he just washed out of a Thomas McGuane novel, is holding court with a story about, if my eavesdropping is accurate, the thrills of cross-dressing.
As the party swells with San Francisco's requisite band of stars -- Robin Williams, Don Johnson, Bob Weir -- it grows positively giddy with that strange celebrity vortex that sucks people toward the famous but stops us short of actually talking to them. As fans, our greatest fantasy about celebrities is that they would really dig us as friends if they could get to know us in casual conversation in some cedar Montana bar. But rather than risk discovering that Sean Penn or Sam Shepard doesn't care one way or the other whether we too love Cormac McCarthy and John Ford, we don't dare breach their personal spaces -- their auras, really. It would be too humiliating. It's safer to leave them framed in fantasy. And in most cases, rather than deal with the predictable anxieties of their audiences, celebrities prefer to circle in their own orbit.
Again and again, Shepard has written brilliantly about being trapped by the images others have given him, that he has given himself. "Keep away from fantasy. Shake off the image," lectures the gangster rock star Crow in "The Tooth of Crime." The inability to connect with others through the skeins of our illusions is a driving theme of Shepard's passionate, violent work.
But -- outside of his plays, anyway -- he has done little complaining or explaining about his image. Which is one reason why he remains such a magnetic presence in person. It's sentimental, a little hagiographic, probably, to call artists mysterious. But as Shepard drifts through this party, it's precisely his elusiveness that makes it so hard to take your eyes off him.
My curiosity finally gets the best of me and I walk over to Shepard to ask how he's holding up as the evening star. Besides, I have a special passport to cross the fan-celebrity threshold: A week before, I had interviewed Shepard on the telephone, so I have a painless excuse to introduce myself.
"Oh, pleased to meet you," he says in his dulcet, country-and-western drawl, remembering, I think, our previous conversation. At the time, he was staying at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, taking a break from playing a small role in a John Travolta spy movie called "Swordfish."
Up close, Shepard is tall, gaunt as an aging rancher and still as classically handsome as the moment he appeared on-screen as the laconic, fatally ill wheat farmer in "Days of Heaven." His hair is thinner now, more of his forehead is revealed, and his sharp nose and high, Native American-like cheekbones, along with the lines in his weatherworn face, deepen the wisdom of his sad blue eyes.
As friendly and accommodating as Shepard seems, though, his conversational manner is clearly schooled by his spiritual mentor, Samuel Beckett. Yes, he agrees, the celebrity thing does feel a little off the charts tonight. But he doesn't mind it for a while. "I think Armani put up a lot of money for the party," he says. Don't blame him, though, for jump-starting the celebrity machine to gain attention for his new play. "I didn't set out to cast movie stars," he says. "It just happens that every single one of them is a dynamite actor. The fact that they're movie stars is something else."
"The Late Henry Moss" hasn't opened yet. So I tell Shepard from what I've read about its plot -- two rival brothers trying to piece together the details of their alcoholic father's death in the New Mexico desert -- that it sounds like a dramatization of one of the stories from his collection, "Cruising Paradise." In that story, set in New Mexico, the author's father staggers out of a bar into the middle of a road and is killed by a car. Later, the author finds, among his late father's belongings, a pile of unmailed letters, one of which is addressed to him. It concludes: "See you in my dreams."
"Did that really happen?" I ask. "It did, yeah," Shepard responds. The 1989 story was indeed a blueprint for "The Late Henry Moss," which was inspired by his father's death in 1984. "It took me five years to even consider writing about it," he says. "Finally, I came to the point where I thought that if I don't write about it, some aspect of it may be lost."
Since the stories in "Cruising Paradise" aren't labeled as autobiographical, but read as if they're lifted out his journal, I can't help asking Shepard about the hilarious "Spencer Tracy Is Not Dead." The most underrated quality of Shepard's writing is that it is really, truly funny. So was he really driven to a movie shoot in Mexico in a metallic blue limo by a German named Gunther, who was wearing a tuxedo, cummerbund and fluffy shirt? Did they really get pulled over for speeding in El Paso and have the car stripped by the drug police?
Shepard smiles, crow's feet spreading across his temples. "Yeah. They let the air out of all the tires so we couldn't go anywhere. Popped the hubcaps. Went through all of our luggage. Yeah, that's true." The shoot was for the movie "Voyager," based on the novel "Homo Faber" by Max Frisch. "Have you read it?" asks Shepard. "I think Frisch is one of the best modern writers." In fact, I have. But before I say anything, I see Shepard is looking across the patio. "Well, I gotta go meet Sean," he says. "Nice talkin' to you."
As the party wears on, Shepard remains insulated by friends, eating dinner with Philip Kaufman, who directed him in "The Right Stuff," and talking with musician T-Bone Burnett, whom Shepard has known since 1976, when they were both members of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. "He's the only one on the tour I'm not sure has relative control over his violent dark side," Shepard would write about Burnett. "He's not scary, he's just crazy."
Toward the end of the night, Shepard and the lanky Burnett join the dinner jazz band, the Randy Scott Trio. A drummer since he was a wayward California teenager, Shepard gets behind the kit; Burnett commandeers a microphone and they knock out a version of the novelty country hit "Long Tall Texan." As the remaining partygoers head out the door for home, Shepard bangs his way through Chuck Berry's rickety classic "Too Much Monkey Business."
"I was never one to live in the past" is the first and last line of "The Late Henry Moss." In between, Shepard has crafted his most moving, certainly most tender attempt to resolve a son's agony over his abusive, alcoholic father's death.
The play actually caroms between two brothers who, contrary to their opening and closing line, live trapped in the past. One is pinched, nasty and repressed (Penn), the other sodden, pitiful and ultimately loving (Nolte). Their drive to piece together the arc and fall of their father's final bender is a desperate desire to spring themselves from the traumatic memories of him viciously beating their mother -- memories they blame for shaping the estranged courses of their own wanton lives.
"The Late Henry Moss" is fueled by Shepard's curt, charged dialogue and a boisterous, comic-relief performance by Harrelson as a bewildered taxi driver with clues to the patriarch Henry Moss' final days on a fishing trip. As Moss himself, who appears through flashbacks, veteran stage and movie actor James Gammon literally is the damaged alcoholic looking into the spiritual emptiness of his guttersnipe life. "I thought I'd killed her," he finally confesses of beating his wife. "But it was me I killed!"
In many ways, "The Late Henry Moss" reprises themes, characters and stage devices that have long defined Shepard's writing. But despite the critics who pounced on the parallels to bolster their dim opinions that Shepard was treading old ground, the play represents a beautiful, elegiac summary of the themes that have tortured Shepard to create one of the most prolific and original careers in the American theater.
"The Late Henry Moss" is not Shepard's best play. Penn either misinterpreted the role of Ray Moss, badly underplaying his simmering resentment, or Shepard needs to sharpen Ray's portrait as a control freak on the edge. The character never catches fire and so when he does erupt in anger the effect is a dud.
But no matter. Nolte's and Gammon's final showdown is spectacular. It begins as a squonking duet of guilt and regret and takes flight on a simple melody of forgiveness. The smoky, gravelly timbre of Gammon's and Nolte's voices is so eerily similar that during their emotional sparring they seem to change sides, to transpose into one another. The son becomes the father and in the process discovers his own heart.
After the anger and recrimination between them ebbs, Gammon collapses in bed. With what seems like his own last breath, an exhausted Nolte asks his father if he wants something, "a blanket, maybe?" It's heartbreaking. Earlier, Gammon had posed, "Peaceful, that would be something, wouldn't it?" But a son's peacefulness is what we take away from the theater, a gift from Shepard that has been a very long time in coming.
The New Yorker's John Lahr, who has written about Shepard for more than two decades, was alone among critics in pointing out that Shepard's fictionalized father made his first appearance in 1969 in "The Holy Ghostly," when he was called Stanley Moss. Lahr doesn't state as much, but "The Holy Ghostly" and "The Late Henry Moss" serve as perfect bookends of Shepard's plays. In between lies the evolution of the playwright's art, a search through pain and illusion, memory and history, for transcendence and peace.
"The Holy Ghostly's" plot can be summarized as: "Father? Yes, son? I want to kill you." With its loopy songs and syncopated language, mad witches and mean motherfucker sons, it's wonderfully representative of Shepard's early plays, the huge batch of one-acts that seemed to pour out of him before he settled into the more complex and reflective "Buried Child" in 1978.
Living in a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side and bussing tables at the Village Gate, Shepard at 26 years old was living and writing close to the bone. He didn't care if his work was perceived as autobiography. From the mouth of the horn-mad son to the father, who cries out that he's dead inside, these were the words that the young writer just had to say in "The Holy Ghostly":
For eighteen years I was your slave. I worked for you hand and foot. Shearing the sheep. Irrigating the trees, listening to your bullshit about "improve your mind, you'll never get ahead, learn how to lose, hard work and guts and never say die" and now I suppose you want me to bring you back to life. You pathetic creep. Hire yourself a professional mourner, Jim. I'm splitting.
Before he does, though, he pulls out a gun and shoots his father in the stomach.
Shepard these days advises fans not to get too excited about his early plays. Says he in "Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself," a fine video documentary that made the PBS rounds in 1998: "They were chants, they were incantations, they were spells, or whatever you want to call them. You get on 'em and you go. To say they were well-thought out, they weren't. They were a pulse."
And the erratic heartbeat in most of them was pumped by Shepard looking back in anger at his 1950s childhood on a small avocado ranch in Duarte, Calif., a town outside of Pasadena that was no more than a suburban remnant, thrown up with leftover building materials that developers had little use for. Duarte "was a weird accumulation of things, a strange kind of melting pot -- Spanish, Okie, black, Midwestern elements all jumbled together. People on the move who couldn't move anymore, who wound up in trailer parks," Shepard told Rolling Stone's Jonathon Cott in 1986.
Shepard's parents had always been on the move. His father was raised on an Illinois farm and later joined the Army Air Corps. Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers IV in Fort Sheridan, Ill., in 1943. Following the birth of his two younger sisters, the family moved to South Dakota, Utah, Florida, Guam and South Pasadena before settling in Duarte. Shepard's mother was a teacher and his father held a series of odd jobs while he attended night school to also be a teacher.
"My father had a real short fuse," Shepard told biographer Don Shewey. "He had a really tough life -- had to support his mother and brothers at a very young age when his dad's farm collapsed. You could see his suffering, his terrible suffering, living a life that was disappointing and looking for another one. It was past frustration; it was anger."
More often than not, Shepard was the brunt of that anger. So when he read about a small traveling theater coming through Duarte, Shepard, who had become smitten with acting in high school, and had scratched out poems about despair in his dead-end town, signed on for the ride. Performing Thornton Wilder plays in New England churches? Sure, why not? When the Bishop's Company Repertory Players landed in New York, Shepard got off the bus.
Perhaps the one thing to know about Shepard's maturation as a writer is how diligently and obsessively he worked. It's something that seems to get obscured in all the romantic stories about his affair with blooming rock poet Patti Smith and their collaboration on the play "Cowboy Mouth," his stint as a drummer in the acid-dipped folk band the Holy Modal Rounders, in, really, all the ink spilled over Shepard's Hollywood image as an "intellectual loner," as "Voyager" director Volker Schlondorff described him.
In New York in the '60s, Shepard lived with the son of the great jazz bassist, Charlie Mingus Jr., who had also grown up in Duarte. "He never stopped writing," Mingus said of the times when Shepard wasn't reading Beckett, Pirandello, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter. Shepard "would walk into a room and close the door, with the clacking of the typewriter and all. Then he would come out with a play in a box that the paper came in, a ream of paper."
Dennis Ludlow, who helped build horse fences and a barn on Shepard's small Northern Californian ranch during the '70s (and who played supporting roles in Magic Theatre productions of "Buried Child" and "Fool for Love"), tells me his most indelible memory of Shepard is of the restless playwright writing in a pocket-size notebook. "He was always writing down what he heard in bars, stores, everywhere," says Ludlow. Later, one of Shepard's playwriting classes presented him with a carton of the tiny writing pads.
Still, Shepard's early plays were scintillating rock riffs without accessible verses and choruses until he met New York director and acting teacher Joseph Chaikin. He "had a tremendous influence on Shepard," writes Shewey. "The values he espoused -- his steadfast faith in the priority of art over glamour, show business, wealth, and fame" -- left a lasting impression. Shepard told the Paris Review that Chaikin helped him understand there's "no room for self-indulgence in theater; you have to be thinking about the audience."
Under Chaikin's counsel, Shepard began doing something he had never dreamed of before: rewriting. "Joe was so persistent about finding the essence of something," says Shepard. "He'd say, 'Does this mean what we're trying to make it mean? Can it be constructed some other way?' That fascinated me, because my tendency was to jam, like it was jazz or something. Thelonious Monk style."
Chaikin's influence blossomed in Shepard at about the same time the playwright was tiring of his ragged band of pop culture outlaws: drugstore cowboys and gunslinger rock stars, bluesy swamp rats and speed-freak gamblers. In the mid-'70s, after living for a year in London, Shepard settled in countrified Marin County, Calif., with his wife O-Lan, an actress, and young son Jesse. They shared a house with O-Lan's mother, Scarlett, and Scarlett's husband, photographer and writer Johnny Dark. With Magic Theatre actors and directors, writers and musicians coming and going, Shepard felt at home in this "very strong community of artists," he tells me. "It was energetic and intense in a way that I had missed from New York. I don't think I've really come across that situation again. There was something really great about the Magic experience."
At home on fertile new artistic ground, and committed to a new seriousness in his writing, Shepard stopped heeding every impetuous urge and began listening to voices arising from a deep and wide rift in his heart -- the emotional space surrounding his family, "particularly around my old man," he says. "I was a little afraid of it, a lot of that emotional territory. I didn't really want to tiptoe in there. And then I thought, well, maybe I better."
Of course, Shepard didn't exactly tiptoe in there. As everyone knows who has seen his trilogy of family plays -- "Curse of the Starving Class," "Buried Child" and "True West," which he wrote in a creative burst of three years -- Shepard ripped the door off the hinges, smashed the toasters and exposed an incredible torment at the core of postwar American families. Sons and fathers, mothers and daughters, aunts and uncles -- all were splintered by a never-ending race for never enough money, by base sex and ambition, by inevitably mounting layers of frustration. At least that's how it felt as we sat, awestruck, in the theater.
Most remarkably, Shepard forged his own concentrated, explosive language. The fury was still there, but now the words were stripped of pretension. Shepard created a colloquial poetry of exposure, rhythms rising in an endless crescendo. Here, in the crucial moment in "Buried Child," the diffident Tilden is telling his son's girlfriend about his sickly father Dodge:
Tilden: We had a baby. He did. Dodge did. Could pick it up with one hand. Put it in the other. Little baby. Dodge killed it....
Dodge: Tilden? You leave that girl alone!
Tilden: Never told Halie. Never told anybody. Just drowned it.
Dodge: Tilden!
Tilden: Nobody could find it. Just disappeared. Cops looked for it. Neighbors. Nobody could find it.
Dodge: Tilden, what're you telling her! Tilden!
Tilden: Everybody just gave up. Just stopped looking. Everybody had a different answer. Kidnap. Murder. Accident. Some kind of accident.
Dodge: Tilden you shut up! You shut up about it!
Tilden: Little tiny baby just disappeared. It's not hard. It's so small. Almost invisible.

In 1983, Shepard could admire the critical and popular success of his family plays. John Malkovich and Gary Sinise had mounted a daring production of "True West" that he truly loved. His romantic affair with Lange was deepening, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor in "The Right Stuff." At the same time, from the set of "Country," which he was filming with Lange in Iowa, he wrote Chaikin a letter: "Something's been coming to me lately about this whole question of being lost. It only makes sense to me in relation to an idea of one's identity being shattered under severe personal circumstances -- in a state of crisis where everything that I've previously identified with in myself suddenly falls away."
When he lived in London, Shepard became enamored with the writings of Russian spiritual master G.I. Gurdjieff. So his sharp sense of being lost, of having his identity shattered, no doubt represented to him a kind of pure state of inner being. It is an empty place, a chaotic and frightening one, but it is a place free of illusion, a place where everything a public artist, a celebrity, has been told he is doesn't hold. The one predominant and enduring theme in Shepard's work is the agonizing struggle to fill that empty space with love.
Listen to him in his story, "You I Have No Distance From": "I can't remember what it was like before I met you. Was I always like this? I remember myself lost ... But you I have no distance from. Every move you make feels like I'm traveling in your skin."
The evolution of Shepard's personal life is shown in technicolor in the tract homes and desert huts of his plays. In the absence of love and connection, the booze flows; relationships come crashing down. The explosive "Fool for Love," in which lovers and half-siblings May and Eddie rage at each other in jealousy -- "You know we're connected May. We'll always be connected" -- can easily be seen as the end of Shepard's marriage. Indeed, that year (1983), he permanently left O-Lan to move in with Lange. His divorce was final in 1984.
Given the tempestuous turns his characters have taken under endless emotional storms, it's no wonder he has remained a relatively private man. The search for love and transcendence is a fragile business in the public world of movies and popular theater. Someone always wants to tell you where to go. The allure of Shepard's elusive nature is that he has never stopped searching alone.
And we can only admire his devotion. He tells me he acts in movies only to support his writing. "No way," I say. "You're Sam Shepard." Says he: "You can't make a living as a playwright. You can barely scrape by." He does at times enjoy sinking into a role, but, just the same, he would rather be on his ranch sinking fence posts, playing with his kids or writing in his small room next to the barn.
Like his characters in "The Late Henry Moss," Shepard is "not one to live in the past." He has not resolved the anguish that fathers and sons heap upon themselves, but he has peeled away a great deal of the despair, exposing an "ember of hope." Clearly, Shepard has traveled a long way from blasting his fictional father with a revolver to comforting him quietly with a blanket.
But at 57, the angular, elusive cowboy is not going soft on us. He is still riding alone across a mesa, it's just that now he believes that out there, somewhere, is a deep, enduring peace. In his great 1985 play "A Lie of the Mind," he seemed to doubt he would ever find it. But now, it appears, the winds of change have worked their wonders. "You know, those winds that wipe everything clean and leave the sky without a cloud. Pure blue. Pure, pure blue."


Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon. More: Kevin Berger