True West: Sam Shepard's Life, Work, and Times

He had "one of the most extraordinary careers in modern American theater," as Robert Greenfield (Bear; The Last Sultan) puts it in True West, the admirably nonhagiographic biography of playwright and actor Sam Shepard (1943-2017). Born in Illinois to an Army Air Force First Lieutenant father and a teacher mother, Shepard spent his formative years in California and was so naive that, when he arrived in New York to forge a career in the arts, he thought "the girls in New York City must be incredibly friendly, because they all keep hitting on him." That innocent would appear in many successful films and write some of the most acclaimed plays of the 20th century, including Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind, and Buried Child, the last of which received the 1979 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

Greenfield's book is a standard linear biography that hits the usual notes: upbringing, rise to fame, relationships, inevitable decline, and so on, plus reminiscences from those who knew him. He doesn't sugarcoat Shepard's flaws, which included "drinking & bad behavior," brushes with the law, and infidelity. His relationships included not just his marriage but also his romances with Patti Smith and, more enduringly, with Jessica Lange. The bio may be traditionally structured, but it's a story worth telling, and Greenfield tells it well. Who wouldn't be interested in a biography in which the author has the wit to compare one of the subject's plays to "a weird, post-apocalyptic episode of Friends"? --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer

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