“Mr. Shepard, tackles the recklessness of relationships and the minute memories we all have that seem to define our past.”

Cruising Paradise: Tales
by Sam Shepard


Remember Dolly Parton’s husband in the movie Steel Magnolias? Well, that quiet grumbling cowboy was Sam Shepard. He has appeared in bit parts in movies such as The Right Stuff and Days of Heaven. He has penned several screenplays but he’s most noted for his plays. In 1979 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, Buried Child. So, you can imagine how surprised I was to see a used and abused copy of a book with his name as the author.

This was one of my favorite playwrights. There I stood, in a used bookstore in Pell City, Alabama (don’t ask what I was doing there), staring at a book written by one of my idols. I thought to myself, “He writes fiction too! What else does he do?”

The book was bought quickly. I slapped down .79 cents US (I said used bookstore, didn’t I?) and walked out. I packed up the book and mailed it to myself here in Mexico. Hint – this is a great way to get your reading material if you are here for a while and do not want to take up much space in your bags. Two months later, I brought the book down to the beach for a leisurely day at the shore. I soon rediscovered the genius of this man.

Cruising Paradise is a collection of short stories, journal entries, dialogues, memories and tales written in random places in the time of the life of the author. Some seem to be complete fiction and others autobiographical. After each story, a place and time is written out, leaving the reader to wonder if this is the time and place of the story or the time and place of the writing.

One tale takes us to Papantla, Mexico. A father takes his young son to the desert to shoot guns and drink whiskey. A story about a rite of passage, right? Wrong. The young boy sees one of his favorite actors in a bar with a couple of blonde women, eating shrimp cocktail. The young boy’s whole reality of the persona of Gaby Hayes is destroyed by this witnessing. To the child, Gaby Hayes was a “subservient gummy mouth sidekick on TV”. A story of false realities. This is the brilliance of Sam Shepard. He uses his vocal abilities to evoke surreal images of the declining of our American pop culture.

In the story “Wild to the Wild,” he tells us about his childhood friend who ordered wild animals from a mail-order catalog. The animals were kept separate in cages in the back yard. When you first begin to read the story you think about your own childhood, capturing insects and frogs and keeping them in old mayonnaise jars. Then, you suddenly realize that he is telling us this story only to reacquaint us with the fact that once, you could order animals from a catalog. Endangered animals now extinct. How much we have changed in one man’s lifetime.

In the story “Small Circle of Friends,” we learn that once someone’s parents had some friends that got together on Sundays for beer and barbecue. But, it is not some water-colored memory of nostalgia. It is a story of drinking, carousing, sexual abuse and illegal aliens. All on a Sunday afternoon.

One of my favorites, was “Fear of the Fiddle.” Here, the author meets up with a fiddle player from the Appalachian Mountains on the Lower East Side of NYC. Working as a night security guard, he and the fiddle player sit up nights taking crystal meth and playing the fiddle. The fiddle player said that the fiddle was thought to be the instrument of the devil, and then he plays it all through the night. In another dialogue, we hear a conversation of a mother and a daughter which serves only to explain why, in another story, the daughter left the husband. Throughout the entire conversation, the mother only remembers that the man took the trash out. Once again, Mr. Shepard, tackles the recklessness of relationships and the minute memories we all have that seem to define our past.

In another story, a mean bully takes his friend to a roadside motel to steal the mattress that his drunk father burned to death on. The story evokes the feelings we all have of finding mementos to remind us of those we have lost, whatever they may be.

Sam Shepard is true genius. Read this book and see why. I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to have a little glimpse into his brilliance and his ability to have us find ourselves in his words.

-November 2000