Day Out of Days by Sam Shephard is unlike most short story collections I’ve read. It’s a place of voice. Set mainly along the rural highways of the Midwest, Great Plains, and Western states, the stories speak from and of people who have watched their towns decay, given up on their dreams and settled in for the slow passing of time. Voices fill the pages. Voices enter the readers head. At times, these voices run together, loose their form and are lost in a cacophony of sound. Still, there are instances where they stand out, and weave together a narrative that holds the reader’s attention. As in “Haskell, Arkansas (Highway 70)”:
Sunday, midday. Not many cars. Man’s out for a stroll. He comes across a head in a ditch by the side of the road; walks right past it, thinking he hasn’t seen what he’s just seen; thinking it’s not possible. He stops. His heart starts picking up a little. His breath gets choppy. He’s shaking now and he’s never understood why his body always takes over in moments of panic like this; why his body refuses to listen to his head. He turns and goes back. He stops again and stares down into the ditch. There it is. Big as life. He’s staring straight at it. A severed head in a wicker basket. He picks up a stick and pokes it likes he’s done before with dead dogs or deer.
Suddenly, the head starts to speak to the man in a soft, lilting voice. The eyes of the head don’t open; the lips don’t move. The voice just seems to be floating out the top of the skull. It’s a humble, quiet kind of voice with no accent that the man can make out. Maybe the islands. The head asks the man if he’ll kindly pick up the basket and carry it to a place it would prefer to be. A tranquil place not too far from here, away from the pounding sun and the roar of traffic.
Even the dead and speechless have a voice in the Shephard’s stories. What I like about this story is that it’s as if Shephard is speaking to the reader. We are the man by the side of the road. The head contains all the voices, all the stories. We pick them up, travel a bit with them. See what happens.
In Day Out of Days, you see a writer having fun with language and story. Not everything works. There are snippets that seem like they belong more in a writing journal than in a published book, but who cares. Overall, it adds to the effect. One result though is that this collection is slow to read. It’s best to give the voices space and let them reside within you a bit before moving on. Restless, but not aimless, Day Out of Days will leave you with a glimpse of America through the windshield of a dusty truck passing through.