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by Sam Shepard
Knopf, February 2017
192 pages
ISBN: 045149458X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The prospect of reading a novel by Sam Shepard, one of our most eloquent playwrights on the topics of rural poverty, of parent/child relations bordering on abuse, and on those long sightlines we call "the west," beckoned this reviewer to request a copy of THE ONE INSIDE. Ostensibly a murder mystery, or having something to do with murder, or at least something to do with crime, I think the crime may be the number of trees cut down to print this book. Nabokov, who wrote LOLITA, and who is mentioned in Shepard's novel, can write about nymphets. Once. And if those nymphets do indeed stand for American advertising and not themselves, perhaps Nabokov can be tolerated, even if at a distance. Sam Shepard, however, is not Nabokov. His nymphets are, well, just nymphets.

Dramatis personae: "I," in whose memories we are lodged, an older man whose thoughts often fix on the tawdriness of what we do versus what we could have done, and whose memories circle around a childhood of many kinds of want and many kinds of poverty; his father, who worked at a feedlot and at other rural, low-paying and low-status jobs; Felicity, his father's fourteen-year-old lover, and his, too, the focus of memory; Blackmail Girl, a much younger female who has recorded sexual encounters with "I" and wants to publish everything he said during those encounters; we, readers, who are approached as if by a drunk or by an Ancient Mariner, compelled to repeat his uncensored memories, who are part of this narrative until we say, Stop.

Stop, Sam. You have published in your novel so many stretches of dialog that it is clear that you need to write a play, not a novel, on this subject. Stop, Sam. Girls of age fourteen can indeed be one long inarticulate sexual howl. Most are not yet able to discuss what we talk about when we talk about love. Their vocabulary of words, ideas, and indeed, of sympathy occupies a very small dictionary indeed. To have an interesting love story requires interesting lovers. So. Not a love story then, although it is a sex story.

Stop, Sam. In a murder mystery, there should be some mystery, often concerning the nature of truth, or how we occupy the places we call home, or why we deceive in the patterns we do. These notions reflect back on us as we read. THE ONE INSIDE does not reflect back on us. It stubbornly reflects only on itself, its first-person narrator, and perhaps its writer as well. Indeed, perhaps that title really is truth-in-advertising. This novel is a catalog of thought and memory. The patterns of our thoughts, and the memories laid down for us before we were ever able to say, Stop! are prisons. Shepard is good at tapping into the unfiltered memories of childhoods many wrongs which, if we so allow, become us. It is the province and power of adulthood that give us the ability to open the book of memory to a different chapter.

Shepard's plays in their rawness on stage arrest us, betray the landscape of the psyche in the way only Greek tragedy can. However, these same impulses, relocated to the pages of a novel, require considerable shaping before they earn the right to a reader's attention.

Dr. Cathy Downs is a professor specializing in American literature at Texas A&M University-Kingsville who has taught Sam Shepard plays many times, but who vows never to read another of his novels.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, February 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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