Sam Shepard (Amy Sussman/Getty Images for World Science Festival)

“The One Inside” by Sam Shepard, forew0rd by Patti Smith, Knopf, 172 pages, $25.95.

One might, at first, think that a reader has fallen down some moral rabbit hole in Sam Shepard’s new book. It’s a collage/novel composed of very short autobiographical sketches, some less than a page.

Anyone too inquisitive about what’s real in Shepard’s own life will find his old Greenwich Village friend Patti Smith’s foreword guarding the gate of the novel. “It’s him” she says of Shepard’s manuscript after reading it in his house at his invitation. “sort of him, not him at all.” And then, just as she steps away from guard duty for her old friend’s sake, Smith admits “maybe” it’s real but then “who knows what is real anyway.” There is no question mark after that question. There’s a period. It’s an assertion, not a real question. “Reality is overrated.”

It’s a good thing, as Smith says, that this “loner who doesn’t want to be alone” doesn’t care “whether he paints himself in a good or bad light.” That’s “not the point. The point is to lay stuff out, smooth the curling edges.”

The stuff laid out in these small fragments of autobiographical narrative includes a lot of underage sex, involving his own  boyhood, that of his father’s (and his) underage mistress Felicity, a “blackmailer” who threatens him on the telephone with transcriptions of their phone conversations. We hear too, about his wife of three decades, whom we all know, in life, to have been Jessica Lange until their marriage went belly up in 2009.

For a book whose friend and guardian is, at the outset, so cagey about “what’s real,” anyone who knows his work as a prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, and film actor is brought up short on Page Four where “outside, they’re shooting grasshoppers, falling in great swirling cones from the belly of a rented helicopter,” which, no doubt, sounds like surreal fantasy unless you know it’s a clear reference to Terence Malick’s 1978 film “Days of Heaven.” “In the background -- winter wheat, as big around as your thumb, blows in rolling waves.” The poetic image in Malick’s film is stunning.

So is this slender and, ultimately, powerful book, with its way of “laying out stuff.”

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