Review Of Cruising Paradise: Tales by Sam Shepard
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 1/12/10
Few writers only ever stick within the genre they excel. Many, in other words, will test out another form, either for practice or just to try on. But even fewer are those writers who excel in more than one form equally. Eugene O’Neill offers far more music and poetry within the lines of his plays than in his actual poetry itself. The same can be said for Tennessee Williams.
Sam Shepard’s Cruising Paradise reads more like writing exercises than actual finished tales. It is not that the writing is bad, just structurally, the tales are merely moments, and whenever Shepard is onto something good, the tale ends. Since he is primarily a playwright, it should be no surprise that some of the best parts of the book are those tales involving dialogue, save for those that are just dialogue alone between unnamed speakers. There are a number of tales that seem utterly pointless, such as “Repeat,” which ends with one character saying to the other, “Can I take a leak now?” And the other responds with, “Yes, you may.” The story is less than a couple hundred words total and might be funny if put into some larger context, but in and of itself, it reeks. So really, what is the point?
The prose itself is solid, with the occasional nice turn of phrase: “We kept knifing slowly through the thick of fog to the back side of the ranch, where I could begin to make out trim rows of square-baled alfalfa, awaiting our muscle.”
Though too often the description will linger and the phrasing is not poetic enough to sustain itself, and then too soon the story will often end, leaving one wondering what purpose did those straightforward observations serve? This is not like Steinbeck, where the writing is fluid and carries a larger metaphor, but rather we are left with many mediocre and melodramatic endings such as, “The tall one never looked back at me after that, but even over the distance, I could see the dark one’s eyes trying hard to stab me in the chest.”
While Shepard has some interesting observations and set ups, the tales are more starting points than complete works, and moments, such as the clichéd one quoted above, remain inert upon the page. One of the more memorable incidents involves the story “Packing,” which is about a mother telling her son about having misplaced her wedding ring within a soap dish and how she couldn’t find it for a week. The dialogue reads realistically and has a nice poetry to it, ending with, “You can’t blame someone for stealing if you leave things behind.”
Again, it is an interesting moment, but then abruptly the tale ends. A scene as this would have been put to better use within a larger context, as other tales would. It is not that Cruising Paradise is a bad book—it’s actually a good one for young writers to read because his forms and approaches offer unique seedlings that could be put to better use by another writer. Although this collection is not a particularly challenging read, Shepard does experiment quite a bit, showing that tales do not need to follow one particular formula. My only wish is that his executions could have resulted in more than just isolated moments of ok.
Texas Cities some tales take place:
Del Rio, Texas; Langtry, Texas; Lajitas, Texas
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Examiner.com website.]
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