It is not breaking news that Shepard was a masterful writer and storyteller, but the book serves as a refreshing reminder nevertheless.
The One Inside starts slow. At the 20-page mark, the book is setting up to be a pretentious passion project with more to say about form and genre than about story or life. As one of the most celebrated and beloved playwrights of the past half-century, Sam Shepard is deserving of such a project; but that does not mean the book is worth reading. Fortunately, The One Inside is not what it first appears to be, quickly becoming an engrossing exploration of identity, place and human connection.
The One Inside features three interwoven narratives, each told in the first person. The first features a 60-some-year-old man entangled in relationships with a couple of women and is set in the relative present. This narrator is an actor who lives in New Mexico but travels across the country regularly for film shoots or recreation. The second narrative is told from the perspective of a teenage boy living in agriculture-rich south-central California in the ‘50s. He is embroiled in a love triangle of sorts with his WWII-veteran father and a local teenage girl. The third story mixes and confuses these two and consists of the actor’s surrealist dreams about his father, who may or may not be the father from the California-in-the-‘50s storyline. The One Inside is ambiguous as to whether the three narrators are all the same person, but it suggests that they are. Furthermore, the book reads as autobiographical, but perhaps that is just a testament to Shepard’s craft as an actor; he is able to plunge so deeply into the persona of a character that he makes the character seem as though they were based on Shepard himself.
These unresolved questions about the connections between the narrators and between the writer and the first-person voice(s) throughout the book are one of the pleasures of The One Inside. The book is, as it promised to be 20 pages in, an experiment in form and genre. But to discuss The One Inside solely as a puzzle about voice and narrative consistency is to ignore the best and most enjoyable part of the book. Namely, this is tremendous storytelling. It is enthralling, fast-paced and lucidly descriptive of both emotions and physical spaces. The characters are real people with distinct voices. Shepard conjures vivid, detailed images of the California fruit-and-nut fields, Kentucky horse farms and the high desert of northern New Mexico. The reader truly hears each narrator and gets an accurate sense of the various characters; The One Inside delights in summoning spaces that seem real and filling them with authentic people. It is not breaking news that Shepard was a masterful writer and storyteller, but the book serves as a refreshing reminder nevertheless.
Reading The One Inside in August 2017 brings with it a new emotional experience. Upon finishing the book, one feels a helpless melancholy in addition to all the feelings Shepard was intending to cultivate with this simple and all-too-human story. And now, Sam Shepard is no longer with us. Not only are we deprived of his immense skill as both a storyteller and actor, but The One Inside makes plain that, without him in our midst, we are also missing a most perspicacious observer and artisanal chronicler of the human experience. The book is, in sum, transformative for the reader; we see and experience the world, however briefly, as the narrator(s) in the book do and there is an undeniable thrill in seeing through Shepard’s sharp and penetrating eyes.