Sunny Solomon Book Review

‘First Person’ is author’s final think piece

A review of Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, actor, screenwriter and essayist Sam Shepard’s last work may be a stretch from the books I generally review, but bear with me.

As the title suggests, “Spy of the First Person” is enigmatic, haunting and not entirely accessible – until you think again about the title and pay attention to the opening paragraph. “Seen from a distance. That is, seeing from across the road, it’s hard to tell how old he is …”

Shepard continues to describe this person with uncertainty. Certain words, however, suggest a degree of powerful recognition: “Purple. Lone Ranger.” “A rocking chair.” “The baseball cap.”

The chapters are short, some no more than a single page, set out to be read almost like photographs. The voice moves between the observed and observer: “Why is he watching me?” And not long after that: “Sometimes, very often, he speaks to himself.” And then, “I see that his lips are moving. His lips are keeping him company.”

Stories told are barely remembered snatches of a past, his or his parents, or maybe his children: “The seaweed is soaking. Far in the distance two people are getting up from the beach just in bathing suits folding a huge orange towel.”

Soon, the readers understand an old man is telling the stories. A man failing in health, but a man who is cared for by those (his children?) who bring him snacks and “sort of gently lower him back down” into the porch chair.

“The past doesn’t come as a whole. It always comes in parts.” The parts include the East Coast and California, the mountains, the deserts. Is he speaking to a son when he tells of his grandmother Aubra Steagle who came to America from a foreign country?

What makes Shepard’s story so poignant is that often the stories we hear from our own parents and grandparents come in bits and pieces: treasures, regrets, colors, objects, dreams.

The observer takes note of “one gesture that is very curious, where he rocks back and forth.” He then describes facial movements: “They’re trying to tell him that things have changed.” He continues, “Now he has to ask other people. Now he can’t do without other people.”

As we see ourselves aging, to whom are we telling stories? “I can’t help feeling a similarity between him and me.” And finally, “Sometimes it feels like we’re the same person. A lost twin.”

“First Person,” Shepard’s last written work before he died of ALS in 2017, is a must-read.

Sunny Solomon is a freelance writer and head of the Clayton Book Club. Visit her website at for her latest recommendations or just to ‘talk books.’