Sam Shepard is a writer best known for his work in the theater. A prolific and extremely significant playwright, Shepard has fashioned a career out of the stuff of America—particularly the stuff of western America and of his own experiences in that landscape. In plays like TRUE WEST (pr. 1980) and BURIED CHILD (pr. 1978), Shepard examined the relationships between the fragility of family love and the uncertainty of place. Indeed, the lives of Shepard’s characters are often marked by physical and emotional transience; love and place are unpredictable, volatile entities, as are the people who move through love and place.
The forty stories in CRUISING PARADISE, most of which are brief but brilliant flashes into experience, take on some familiar matters for readers of Shepard’s works. As already mentioned, Shepard—who grew up in Southern California—is especially interested in the desert geography of that region; the starkness, desolation, and often deadliness of that landscape provide an appropriate physical and psychological backdrop for the individual dramas played out there.
Quite often those dramas are actual psychodramas in which young men find (or lose) self-definition—for Shepard is probably more concerned with the problem of the masculine Self than with anything else. What so many of these stories suggest is that the American male is almost inevitably the reshaped image of his father; try as he might to define himself otherwise, the American man too often takes on the lineaments of his paternity. This generally is a troubled legacy, as we see here in stories like “The Self-Made Man,” “The Real Gabby Hayes,” “A Man’s Man,” and “Cruising Paradise.” Fathers cast a large, long shadow in Shepard’s world, and so many of Shepard’s characters are sons in flight from that shadow.
Shepard’s stories are not dominated by bleakness, however, even though their literal terrain may suggest a pervasive hopelessness. Shepard frequently allows his young men to pass on through to a manhood of their own, to a matured image that is defined as much by their own desires as by the often unfulfilled desires of their fathers. Readers learn much about America—and about being a male in America—in these wonderfully crafted stories.