Friday, November 20, 2009

The New Yorker: "Indianapolis (Highway 74)" by Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard has a story collection coming out in January, called Day Out of Days, and I get the impression that it’s full of road trips. In September, The New Yorker published a story from the collection, “Land of the Living”, which I discussed here, and another story, “Thor’s Day (Highway 81 North, Staunton, Virginia),” appeared in Zoetrope: All Story this Fall, and I discussed it here. I didn't love either one.

The current story takes place on the bypass around Indianapolis where the narrator, Stuart, has stopped on his drive south from Minnesota. But winter weather and a hot rod convention have conspired to leave him without a hotel room, so he’s sitting in the lobby of a Holiday Inn, trying to ignore the unignorable true crime reality show blaring from the big screen TV(s). We know that he’s “crisscrossing the country again, without much reason,” but there seems to be more reason than we’re allowed to know. In walks a tall skinny woman wearing a bandanna, and they exchange glances but he doesn’t recognize her. But she recognizes him, as it is revealed when she returns a few moments later. Although they had once lived together, Becky doesn’t seem too upset that he doesn’t remember her. They swap quick histories—he has 5 children by a couple of women, she has two daughters, but that’s why she’s in the hotel: they’ve been kidnapped by her husband, she thinks they’re on the run to Florida, and she can’t stay in her house because the police are investigating. Whoa!

Okay, goodnight then, nice to see you. Huh? After this monstrous news, that’s it?

So Stuart goes out to his car to drive on to somewhere in search of a motel, which is when he remembers that not only did he leave his car running (it’s still there?), but his dog is inside. They head down the highway into deteriorating weather and the past comes flooding back to Stuart, unleashed, apparently, by his chance (way too much chance, if you ask me) meeting with Becky. He seems to be falling apart while driving, and it isn’t all because of the snow. In any case, he turns around and comes back to the Holiday Inn, calls Becky on the house phone, and starts crying. Not just crying, but weeping.

Sorry, Sam Shepard fans, I don’t buy it. I believe that he’s got something going on in his life that has made him this vulnerable, but Shepard doesn’t get to just make us assume it’s there. So he had 5 children with two women. So he doesn’t remember Becky. So there’s a murder loop on reality TV. We need to know more about this Stuart guy. Moreover, the kidnapping of Becky’s daughters? Is that a crazy plot device? Wouldn’t it be better if her house had burned down?

Should I put some of this crazy stuff in my next story? Is that how you get a piece into The New Yorker?

November 23, 2009: “Indianapolis (Highway 74)” by Sam Shepard


bryanbr said...

It makes total sense: the tears were tears of joy.

The guy in the story had recently read Steven's King article about finding his dog dead, and was so overjoyed at finding his neglected pouch alive and well...

Clifford Garstang said...


Of course! I'm sure that's it.

Pete said...

That, and have your name be Sam Shepard.

t. lief tepper said...

Cliff, too often you don't really "discuss" stories, but synopsize and peremptorily judge them. Highway 74 fits with Land Of The Living. Here, too, Shepard doesn't go to any length to distance his public persona from his narrator. Here, too, his narrator is coping with mortality. Maybe you and your readers are too young to empathize -- But the signs are there, the story carefully structured: "The Black Pharoahs" article once again alludes to a well of the past, an ancient deathcult world still present like the presence of the "Mayan" guards at the Mexican resort in Land Of The Living. His response to the woman in the 'Pat Nixon' cloth coat is complex, but it too prefigures an excursion. The door to the past, the grief over "lost time" is overwhelming. Yet has to be faced...

Clifford Garstang said...

T. Lief: I wasn't aware that I was under an obligation to "discuss" stories, especially when I consider them unworthy. I've got other things to do! Feel free to discuss away, though. I'm not very interested in Sam Shepard's "public persona"--the story is what it is on the page. I'm also not terribly interested in how this story fits with the Mexico story, although that might make a fine analysis when the book comes out. My problem with your interpretation here is that the author doesn't prepare the reader for it, in my opinion. Indeed the narrator may be "facing his mortality" but he's not that old (not much older than I am, in fact) and there's nothing in the story that compels me toward that conclusion.

If that's what Shepard is trying to do, in my (peremptory) judgment he doesn't he doesn't succeed.

t. lief tepper said...

Cliff, it was you who said in your post on this very story that you had "DISCUSSED" Land of the Living and posted a link to it! My gosh. I merely pointed out that what you did didn't constitute discussion. Then you accuse me of having put you under an obligation to intelligently 'discuss' the works under review. But I was merely pointing out your mis-characterization. (I think you do do a very nice job of synopsizing -- which is no mean feat)

You may claim the reader wasn't prepared here, but since you yourself missed the significance of the Natl Geog article and murder loop that sets the scene, just as you missed the significance of the "Mayan" guards at the resort (and on the highway) in Land Of The Living, and consequently the whole scope of the project of each story as they are set down "on the page" I think it's fair to say you may not be the best judge, in this instance, of what the writer has or hasn't done.

And I see no reason you should be interested in the complexities posed to first person narration for the writer Sam Shepard given his considerable celebrity -- but, gosh, Cliff, that doesn't mean it isn't interesting. Does it?

Look, you have no obligation to be fair or reflective and I apologize if I implied you did. I just thought you might be someone who aspires to it.

I will say that given your 'time constraints' you might be better served not writing about work you have no feeling for. Or, you might re-read stories with 'hints' gleaned from comments contributed by others.

But faulting a work on technical grounds to cover your disinterest -- much like your empathic blindspot about at what age a vital life might come to crisis over mortality (I was, btw, twitting your 'relative' youth) -- is to defend slack reading (and hey maybe these really are very dull stories) with the worst kind of writing school jargon. And misapplied, at that. Much the way you dismiss references to similar roadposts in Land Of The Living that support the interpretation of the material in this story as though it were somehow 'extra textual' and need wait until the book comes out.

That's silly, Cliff. And you probably know it. Get back to your novel.

Clifford Garstang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clifford Garstang said...

You are entitled to your opinion, whoever you are.