Fiction: Collections by Shepard, Stone hold out little hope

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Most of us know Sam Shepard for writing edgy, award-winning plays and playing the quintessential laconic, lanky male in films. Robert Stone's made his mark as the author of a handful of intense novels of recklessness and failure, often involving heavy-duty drugs.

Both writers, now with senior-citizen status, have regularly leveled devastating criticism of American culture and politics that often leaves one with a sense of utter hopelessness. I'm here to tell you that these guys haven't changed one iota as they try the short-format approach in these new books.

"Day Out of Days: Stories" by Sam Shepard (Knopf, $25.95)

August Wilson used to joke that it was easier to write plays than books because you didn't need to use as many words. He could have been referring to Shepard the playwright whose terse style in this uneven collection of prose doesn't use enough words.

"Day Out of Days" (the title refers to a movie-making term charting an actor's work time) takes the age-old road trip format and frames it as a kind of abbreviated diary. There are snatches of dialogue and monologues like a play, badly structured poetry and small stories set in cheap motels and diners. Few are longer than 14 pages. Many are a paragraph or two.

The thread of this minimalist journey is a talking severed head found by a nameless traveler in Arkansas in a basket on the side of Highway 70. The head begs the man to carry it to a lake a good distance away, but the load seems too heavy and the walker refuses.

"If you walk away and abandon me, you will pay the price," the head warns.

Assuming this disembodied voice is a symbol for the responsibility we all bear for each other (this is the best I can figure), Mr. Shepard offers little glimpses of the consequences of walking away from that responsibility.

Relationships suffer, love runs out, gestures are misinterpreted, aging bodies break down. This road trip is hardly the self-revelatory jaunt of previous travelers. In fact, it seems hardly worth taking at all:

"... and it was far better

to stay right there

sitting in his faded armchair

than to risk the road again

and all its bitter disappointments"

Even the fate of the head is anticlimactic. It seems Mr. Shepard still hasn't found what he's been looking for.

"Fun With Problems: Stories" by Robert Stone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24)

Robert Stone's characters don't have that problem. Most of them know what they want -- to get high or get sober. Frequently they do both in the same story, but for them, recovery is a temporary condition.

In the title story, a small-town public defender knows the criminal justice system is a mess, but so is his life:

"Mathews stuffed his papers in the case and started out. He felt depressed and edgy; angry too. It was the wretched, dangerous time of day and he was all the things the program said you should not be. Hungry. Angry. Alone."

A few drinks with a fellow alcoholic and a night sharing her bed should solve those issues, but of course, they don't. It was only "a hit from the daily drip of regret and loss."

That story sets the tone for the rest of Mr. Stone's accounting of regret and loss in other lives as well. A man kills himself on his honeymoon. A married man takes the bait from an attractive con woman and pays dearly. A nutty secretary of defense assaults a heavy-drinking journalist. A panther traps a jittery guy in his own swimming pool.

"High Wire," the collection's longest story, showcases Mr. Stone's interest in Hollywood culture, which includes heroin and cocaine. The narrator, a screenwriter, throws away most of his life for a relationship with a beautiful actress and addict.

"She was a Levantine angel, one of the celestial damsels awarded to the devout and to me."

It all goes downhill from there, including jealousy, despair and a strange bungee jump. The story sounds melodramatic, but Stone's too tough to allow cheap sentiment to interfere with a character's determination to wreck things.

Aside from a little obvious humor in the closing story, "The Archer" (a lovesick academic gets embarrassingly drunk, but doesn't care), Mr. Stone warns readers like the Old Testament prophet he resembles that hell is just an indulgence away.

Bob Hoover: or 412-263-1634. First Published January 31, 2010 5:00 AM


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