Day Out of Days
By Sam Shepard
Though Sam Shepard's Day Out of Days is being published a year into the Obama presidency, this is a profoundly Bush-era book, aching with isolation and weary moral resignation. Many of the entries in this terse collection of short fiction and poetry are appropriately subtitled with highway names: these characters are nomadic, cut loose from society and any safety net that might imply. "Jesus might have died for somebody's sins," a character laments, echoing the author's former lover and collaborator Patti Smith. "They sure as hell weren't mine." Through most of his work, Shepard considers characters who have not only given up on the American Dream, but seethe at how that apologue continues to be promoted by an establishment so far removed from them.
Here his canvas is a wasteland of surrender and withdrawal. One of the book's formats is the exchange of unattributed dialogue, which the entry "One Night in the Long-Ago" uses to build to an astonishingly powerful climax, where anonymity becomes universal. It is a testament to Shepard's abilities that so much emotion—and dismissal of emotion—is packed into a mere hundred words.
There are about 150 entries in this 282-page book. Many as short as a paragraph; their purpose not to tell a story but to evoke a mood or mindset. Inevitably, this means that some feel incomplete or abrupt. "Indianapolis (Highway 78)" has the space to build into a full three-act story, making it one of the book's most resonant and memorable. Some of the stories are so sparse that they border on cryptic, making this a poor choice for your daily subway commute. It would be more appropriate to keep Day Out of Days on your nightstand, to read the way the faithful may read their Bibles: a few verses nightly to serve as inspiration, and a shield from despair.