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Fathers Drink, Women Leave, Mattresses Combust : CRUISING PARADISE. By Sam Shepard (Alfred A. Knopf: $23, 239 pp.)

July 28, 1996|Michelle Huneven | Michelle Huneven is a frequent contributor to the Book Review

'Cruising Paradise" by Sam Shepard is a book of "tales," a genre that seems more inclusive, oral and ancient than the contemporary short story. It is a book full of great and varied narrative pleasures: Some of the pieces are beautifully constructed, fully realized short stories, while others are short bursts of dialogue, meditations, diary entries, letters, monologues, phone calls and plaints. Still others seem like myth and lore gleaned from old texts or barrooms. All are strong voice pieces--no surprise from a major playwright.

Some readers will recognize locales, subjects and even specific moments in this book from Shepard's plays and from his 1982 book of short prose and poetry, "Motel Chronicles." There are teenagers ranging through the Southland, the raging alcoholic father, the divorced mother, the baffled ruminations on love and American manhood. It is fascinating to see these subjects redrawn from different perspectives, with deeper attention, and "Cruising Paradise" is ultimately a stronger, fuller book than "Motel Chronicles."

Here is a young man home from his job at a horse ranch in "Motel Chronicles": ". . . I almost never want to go up to the house for supper. Sometimes I just stand outside and watch my family moving around inside the house. I stand there a long time sometimes. They don't know I watch them."

Here is a young man home from his job at a horse ranch in "Cruising Paradise": ". . . I could see my dad in the light of the kitchen, fixing a drink. He was in a T-shirt, and his head slumped down toward his chest. He raised his face toward the ceiling, then turned to the window and stared out in my direction. I knew he couldn't see me. . . . I kept waiting for him to turn the light out and leave the kitchen, but he just kept standing there and staring. What was going through his head? Was he waiting for me? I felt this panic start to boom up through my chest and ears. This old familiar fear. . . ."

There is no table of contents in "Cruising Paradise" and, curiously, except for two pieces that came out in the New Yorker just before publication of this book, none of the tales appears to have been previously published. This suggests that they accumulated until a book formed, and there does seem to be an intrinsic, intuitive logic in the material that has only been strengthened and shaped by thoughtful ordering.

Some of the tales link up to form longer narratives. Clustered near the beginning of the book is a series of autobiographical stories: On a day trip to the desert with his hard drinking, pistol-shooting father, a 7-year-old boy spots Gabby Hayes in a bar and has his first glimpse of the power of acting, of pretending to be someone other than yourself. In "Wild to the Wild," a boy who raises mail-order baby animals finds himself custodian of an unruly adolescent wolf. In "A Small Circle of Friends," a parents' barbecue with friends degenerates into a drunken rampage.

In the middle of the book, there's a sequence about the break up of a marriage in a South Dakota motel room: The climactic argument forms a vortex for two dialogue pieces and three stories. The last part of the book is a series of vivid, wry memoirs about making a film in Mexico, including the ordeal of reaching the remote tropical location from Hollywood by car.

Many other tales are more free-standing, where fathers drink, women leave, mattresses combust. There are innumerable motel rooms, several train rides and cross-country drives; there's a recurrent fear of flying, of "falling without end"; the sudden incursions of silence, emptiness, space.

In two stories, a jack mule appears tied to a Model T pickup. In a third story, "Pure Accident," mules dive off a hundred-foot platform into a tank of water until one misses the mark. In "Papantla," Totaneco Indians climb a hundred-foot wooden pole, tie ropes to their ankles and fly, ecstatic, into the night sky.

Shepard's prose is clear-eyed, close to the senses, concrete, meditative and very often stunning, particularly in conjuring the sense of a place, be it a bar near the border in Texas, Southern California in the '60s or the Badlands of South Dakota. Details accrue until meaning wells up, saturating the landscape:

A husband driving around looking for his vanished wife gets caught in a hailstorm, then "as suddenly as it had started up, the hailstorm broke and disappeared. The sun came out hot and wide and open. There wasn't a trace in the sky of what had just taken place. The grain trucks had vanished, leaving a wake of crushed white sludge in their tire tracks. A meadowlark called from a distance as though asking for permission to continue its life. Pyramids of frozen hailstones lay stacked against every tree and fence post. What could their fight have possibly been about?"

Not all of the tales are equally strong or interesting, but some of the fun in reading a book as good and varied as this one lies in the process of differentiating favorite pieces from least favorite ones. I urge you to it.

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