The book opens with an epigraph: "That's the mistake I made-- to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough." --BECKETT
In one of the first stories, a man is walking down a road in Arkansas when he spots a severed head in a ditch. The head addresses him. In a matter-of-fact, polite manner, the head asks if he wouldn't mind carrying it to a nearby lake and tossing it in. Nothing about this story is surreal or fantastic, apart from the conversation with the disembodied head, which comes across as just one of those things you'd rather didn't happen when you're walking down a road minding your own business.
We all have an especial horror of decapitation, I think, and Shepard plays on this in "These Recent Beheadings". Whether his beheadings are allegorical -- people feeling detached as the world goes mad -- or physical, we just don't like to think about having our necks severed.
These recent beheadings are just what we've always dreaded. We knew it was coming sooner or later and now it's here. Ancient gleaming steel coming down like a message from the heavens on our exposed white necks. The kind of separation that terrifies us the most -- losing our heads. The absolute shock of sudden separation. The body here, the head over there. And the mind desperately darting between them, trying to pull them back together. How did this happen? From out of nowhere. Seemingly. Nobody saw it coming. Nobody could predict this.One of the voices in the book is that of a hired killer who is not happy with the way things are going nowadays in his profession. He expresses nostalgia for the days when a simple photo of the done deed was adequate proof, and payment was forthcoming. But in "Pity the Poor Mercenary", he describes his latest employers' demand, which strikes him as unprofessional and dishonourable. He is after all a man of his word: "I cut his face off meticulously. That's all I have to say. Just doing my job."
Many of the stories' titles include highway numbers, their narrators being peripatetic observers who roam from one side of America to the other, with a lot of time spent in the small towns in the middle. There's not much of a story in these towns -- just life.
I am stuck now in a town of backyards. This is not a dream. There are no houses to speak of so it can't really be called a town, certainly not "Our Town" or downtown Milwaukee or something identifiable like that. There is no center; no Main Street but the people stroll along as though they had somewhere to go; some destination or another -- purposefully but without any urgency like they would in a Big City, hustling and bustling just because everyone else is, as though caught up in a fever they can't escape. More like a walk in the park; meandering but not really wandering so much; not really lost like me who seems to be the only one the least bit bewildered.Our heads are, of course, a repository for memories and the studio where we create our personae. "Orange Grove in My Past" is a brilliant mosaic of identity -- what we see in others and how we define ourselves.
I thought I had done my level best, done everything I possibly could, not to become my father. Gone out of my way in every department: changed my name, first and last, falsified my birth certificate, deliberately walked and swung my arms in exact counterpoint to the way he had; picked out clothing the opposite of what he would have worn, right down to the underwear; spoke without any trace of a Midwestern twang, never kicked a dog in the ribs, never lost my temper over inanimate objects, never again listened to Bing Crosby after Christmas of 1959, and never ever hit a woman in the face.
Desolate. The landscapes, the recollections, the tone of these stories... In "Van Horn, Texas (Highway 10)", the narrator stops at a diner where the waitress and the cook look at him with suspicion. The cook, clearly wanting the stranger out of his place, tells him that the pies won't be ready for hours. The traveller says he'll come back later, after taking a walk around the town.
I'll stroll around the town and take in the sights. He says there are no sights; there is no town. But I tell him I'm a big fan of desolation. I'm fascinated by the way things disintegrate; appear and disappear. The way something very prosperous and promising turns out to be disappointing and sad. The way people hang on in the middle of such obliteration and don't think twice about it. The way people just keep living their lives because they don't know what else to do. He says he has no time for small talk and leaves me staring at the sugar.Just as the residents of Van Horn, Texas keep living their lives because they don't know what else to do, the travellers themselves struggle with direction and purpose.
But what do you do with yourself now?
I wander around from place to place.
What's there to aim for?
That must get old after a while.
I don't know what else to do.
Near the end of the book, the walker finally reaches the lake into which the head has asked him to throw it. Feeling that they've developed a bond of sorts, the passer-by asks the head if it would open its eyes, just for a moment, but the head declines: "You couldn't handle it," it says, just before the man heaves it into the water. In "Regrets of the Head", it seems that the head is not all that is severed -- he is as detached from other people as he is from his own body. Absolute, total disconnection.
I do regret not opening up my eyes and allowing him to see into me, just that once. I do regret that now. I should have been more generous. What in the world did I have to lose? I'd already lost my entire body. What was left? Fear, I guess. Of what? Of him seeing me? I guess.Who (other than Sam Shepard) would have guessed that a disembodied head would have anything left to fear? It seems the fear of revealing ourselves runs very, very deep. Regrettably.