The New Yorker and Zoetrope are up there among the most prestigious venues for short stories, and actor and writer Sam Shepard published something on both, a few weeks apart. So why not comment on both stories at once?
I read “Land of the Living” first. The New Yorker has it on its website, here. It’s a simple enough story about a family (mother, father, two kids) from Minnesota that goes on vacation to Cancún. The tale looks pretty uneventful, stirred by funny dialogues and the typical stuff that goes awry on vacation, until, out of the blue, the wife asks her husband if he has a girlfriend. He denies it promptly, but he spends more time and energy remarking on how inappropriate it is to talk about this in front of the kids, and asking where she’s getting her ideas from. Your cell phone, she says when asked; a woman called. It could’ve been anyone, he protests. This is a first-person story, narrated by the husband, so we could’ve gotten a flat denial any time; we don’t. The story ends when the family gets back home, and the narrator’s phone is blinking in the middle of the bed. We are left guessing if there was indeed a girlfriend. Somewhat random conversations, and a man dying on the airplane, flesh out the rest of the story.
I thought it was good enough. Three things about it. First, some of the descriptions were good. The language was simple yet robust, and it manages to appeal to the senses and be thematically rich at the same time. Take this sentence: “The constant wind off the Caribbean is tearing at the palms, forcing them into a savage dance.” It’s simple, but the words are well chosen. An adjective more, and you’d have an overweight sentence.
That quote also ties in with the second thing I wanted to say about “Land of the Living.” Note the “savage dance.” There is a sense in the story of things shirking from being themselves, and also of the past impinging on your perception of things. This is especially significant when it comes to the narrator’s take on Mexico. While the American travelers were waiting in line at customs, some of them break into song, and here’s what the narrator says: “The Mexican officials in SWAT-team uniforms look on in stony silence, arms clasped behind their backs, black Mayan eyes unmoved by this Nordic display of bravado.” There are “Mayan ruins” in Cancún and images of “Mayan demons” in pottery, but there is also a “Mayan waiter” at the hotel. Another provocative reference to Mayans is this: “Huge billboards welcome us in English to the ‘Mayan Riviera,’ as though Mexico were embarrassed to be Mexican.” Look at what we have: the narrator sees Mayans everywhere in Mexico, but the people he sees have probably as much of Mayan in them as the people from St. Paul have of Nordic tribesmen. They see each other as contrasting, and thus they bring their knowledge of the past to bear in the relationships of the present. In fact, this is what the narrator says while looking around at his family and wishing they were just strangers: “How much happier we might be if we didn’t know each other at all. No history. No remorse.” No girlfriends from the past haunting them on this trip, either. And yet, I didn’t find the story really cashed in on those echoes and themes. They seemed to land casually on the page, instead of being pressed from different angles for all their worth. That would’ve made it much more interesting.
The third thing about the story is that not everything was quite there. Take this sentence: “Another passenger, who said he was a doctor, knelt beside the man and unbuttoned his shirt, then began pressing and releasing his chest with his hands laid one on top of the other.” I’ve added bold to three pronouns. The first one refers to the patient, the second to the patient, and the third to the doctor. Of course, context holds the key to understanding who’s who, but it’s still clumsy. Granted, it was a difficult description to write (neither the doctor nor the patient have names), but there were many ways around that.
There was also Shepard’s Zoetrope story. It has a long title: “Thor’s Day (Highway 81 North, Staunton, Virginia).” (Zoetrope only offers the first handful of lines for free, here.) One of the things I liked best about “Land of the Living” were the forceful descriptions, courtesy of the narrator. “Thor’s Day” has no narrator. In fact, it’s all dialogue.
There are always two voices. It seems they are the same two voices, all the way up to the end, when a waitress addresses one of those voices. At that point (because the waiter says “sir”), we figure out that at least one of the voices is a man. The voices are probably lovers (“We always sat side by side in Roswell so we could hold hands and touch each other’s thighs”). One of the voices is depressed (breaking into tears at the sight of blueberry pancakes, say); the other voice is exasperated by those outbursts. The exasperated voice storms out at the end, to wait in the car; the other voice begs him or her to stay, and even draws blood while trying to clutch that person’s wrist. That’s when the waitress comes in. She says she took a while because of the far-away corner where the person was sitting. The man tries to order blueberry pancakes.
My guess is that both voices belong to the same person. The person is having a dialogue with himself, displaying the split personality that gave schizophrenia its name. The dialogue is cut short by the waitress as the story ends. One can be sure it will resume.
Neither of the stories was wonderful. But they were both worth reading.