Great Dream of Heaven. Sam Shepard.

Shepard, Sam. Great Dream of Heaven. Vintage, New York, (first publication) 2002. F;12/16.

Tiny Man was a strange powerful short story by this author in a recent New Yorker so I looked him up and was surprised to find he is also an actor, has written lots of mostly short fiction, and apparently objective commentary has named him as an equal of Beckett and Albee as a dramatist. Shepard was born in 1943 and so he’s still writing effectively at 73 although he would’ve been 59 or 60 when this collection was published. Photographs confirm him to have the looks of a classic handsome late-20th-century California cowboy type.

There is nothing floral or feminine about his writing. These stories deal straight ahead with hard independence from a difficult father, anger, unexpected and uncontrolled emotion, and sex and romance (some going well, some catastrophically) always from a strict male perspective. Shepard practices what I call good post-postmodernism: plots evoke something extraneous to the narrative and we are led to an emotional response, not necessarily with any storyline resolution.

Best of the 18 stories for me were: The Remedy Man, about a brilliant horse trainer who overrides young narrator’s father’s opinions about a difficult animal, leaving the boy with a near-magical male figure to stand up in his imagination to his troubled dad; Coalinga ½ Way where a guy, pointedly of few words, irrevocably leaves his girlfriend in By the Time I Get to Phoenix style to connect with another woman but finds her absent; It Wasn’t Proust where we see a cheerfully disagreeing couple explore the man’s anger at being duped long ago by a prostitute in a bar in France, while both he and his wife reveal their relationships with each of a son and a daughter, presenting a distinct clear male-female difference that only intensifies how they feel about each other and the kids; and the wonderful Great Dreams of Heaven which explores a deliciously dry ritualistic cohabitation between two older men, and then drives an underlying competitiveness over a lovely local restaurant waitress sharply across and through their friendship.

A few times laconic dialogue seemed repetitive and had me rolling my eyes a bit, but at the end I was disappointed there wasn’t more.

A commentator, comparing Shepard to Beckett, says of the latter’s theatre that he doesn’t write about things, what he writes is the thing itself. There is in Shepard’s stories a similar dramatic and emotional authority I don’t see very often that pushed me toward loving the experience of reading. This is especially impressive within the tough guy style of Hemingway and Philip Roth (and Bogart and Eastwood) that imposes a set of rules which in other hands constricts the scope of experience.

Unique writing from a mature powerful imagination. I might try a couple of his plays. 9.3/8.9

(Shepherd died in July 2017)

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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