September 2002

Mike Atherton


Great Dream of Heaven by Sam Shepard

Shepard is something of an all-rounder. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his play 'Buried Child', Oscar nominated for his role as Chuck Yeager in 'The Right Stuff' and writer of the Cannes Golden Palm winner 'Paris Texas' he is not the kind of man to rest on his laurels. Or rest at all for that matter. As an actor he was last seen declaring the mantra "nobody gets left behind" in 'Black Hawk Down' but he has also been busy writing and the result is this collection of eighteen short stories. One of them, 'An Unfair Question', was originally featured in the New Yorker but the rest are published here for the first time.

Shepard writes about men and women blessed, although sometimes cursed, with a stubborn streak. In 'Betty's Cats' we are introduced to a character incapable of compromise no matter what the cost, even if it means the loss of her home. It's a stand out story due to its simple form; an interchange of dialogue in which nothing is revealed about the characters and their surroundings that cannot be garnered from the conversation. It is here perhaps best of all that Shepard's strengths lie; he has a faultless ear for dialogue.

In 'The Door to Women' an old man relays advice on the fairer sex to his grandson, not for a minute reflecting on why he and the boy are now the only inhabitants of the house. It turns out that the advice is unnecessary in this case, but elsewhere characters could do with a little help, as they act on impulse and slowly come to accept the consequences. In 'Coalinga 1/2 Way' a man leaves his family for an uncertain future while in the title story two old friends reach yet another turning point. No matter how far along the road you go it seems that life always has something new to throw at you.

Along with his skilled handling of dialogue Shepard shows a keen eye for detail. There's nothing better than for this reader to sit down on a crowded dirty London tube-train only to open a book and find himself out in the San Joaquin Valley or sat in a diner in South Dakota. Shepard pulls this off with a seemingly effortless turn of phrase. One moment he has you wrapped in the anxiety of a gas station clerk and the next in the thrill of looking at the "giant splash of the Milky Way" as a young boy realises that there is more to life than his father believes.

All readers of short stories have to have one favourite in a collection and for me that honour goes to 'Living the Sign' in which a simple philosophy is found in the dullest and unlikeliest of places. A good short story is a pleasure to read and a great short story demands more than one reading. I've read this collection cover to cover twice and have dipped into it at random many times since then. It has yet to disappoint me.

Collections like this can sometimes be a pretty mixed bag but with the confident hand of Shepard you are guaranteed a fascinating and alluring read. Highly recommended.

US Publisher: Alfred A Knopf
ISBN: 0375405054 (Hardcover)
Due October 15, 2002
Price $20.00