The open road is one of the Great American Myths – from Kerouac to Easy Rider to the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movies, it’s a great male fantasy of freedom and adventure. But there are physical and emotional perils to the road, no more so than in this increasingly itinerant age, and the dangers can be seen in road pictures from Easy Rider to Up in the Air. Sam Shepard’s story collection Day out of Days speaks to this modern crisis of rootlessness as it meanders through stylistic and geographical territory. It doesn’t always arrive at its destination, but when it does, it more than rewards the journey.
Actor, writer, director, Shepard is a kind of Renaissance cowboy, and his totems are the usual suspects. When he transcends his influences he can be brutal and touching at the same time, but this collection begins inauspiciously with what amounts to a laundry-list of precursors. “Kitchen” spells out the images Shepard’s authorial stand-in has on his wall: Seattle Slew, Lakota warriors, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett. Brief, fragmented pieces like it recur between longer, more powerful pieces like the heart-wrenching “Indianapolis,” in which snowy wanderings on the Interstate lead to a connection from his past that only serves to affirm his current rootlessness.
Other stories marry modern anxieties with humor, as in “Cracker Barrell Men’s Room,” about a man trapped in the facilities of that staple of highway Americana. And an absurd violence recurs in a series of vignettes about a taking severed head. Shepard’s best work is in plays like Fool for Love and True West, titles that speak obvious truths about America but are executed without the the gross sentimentality they seem to promise. He’s currently starring in a soon-to-be-released retelling of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Day out of Days is a minor collection with intermittent rewards, but is very much of a piece with his broader reexamination of American mythology.