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Sam Shepard

"Indianapolis (Highway 74)"

November 23, 2009

This patch of fiction is an engaging read that works best by opposing a fundamentally tedious situation with propulsive prose. Having pulled off the highway on the verge of a blizzard, the narrator waits in the lobby of a Holiday Inn to find out if the last empty room will or won't be available.

I collapse into one of the overstuffed sofas in the lobby, facing two plasma-screen TVs in opposite corners, both tuned to the same “reality” channel, showing surveillance footage of convenience-store robberies: teen-agers in hooded sweatshirts, holding up their baggy jeans with one hand while the other pumps 9-mm. slugs into screaming victims, who claim they have no access to the safe. I ask the desk clerk if she can please turn the TVs off, or change the channel, but she says that she has no control over it. The TVs are on some kind of preordained computer system, much like sprinklers in Los Angeles or garage security lights everywhere else. I ask her if she can at least mute the sound, so that I don’t have to listen to the agonized groans of the victims or the raging insanity of the gunmen, but she says that she has no control over that, either. I pick up a travel magazine featuring Caribbean vacations from the glass table and leaf through it, pausing at every picture of a bikini-clad woman lounging beachside holding a tall icy cocktail and staring smugly at the camera. The screams and groans and gunfire from the TVs keep repeating in looped cycles and soon lose all sense of being connected to murder. I find myself anticipating the next scream the way you would a familiar lyric in a pop song. (Here comes the high, shrieking temper-tantrum sequence just after he pops off a rapid spray of shots.) I’m not sure how long I hang there in limbo in the lobby, but it feels like far more than ten minutes.

This is a familiar American hell, but the prose, as This is a familiar American hell, but the prose, as if infected by the televised violence, poses a lively counterpoint to the scene's vast dreariness.

As a short story, however, "Indianapolis" is more tantalizing than satisfying; what we have here is almost certainly a passage taken bodily from something more like a novel. The vague, dancing tone at the beginning promises a different sort of story altogether, and although it is dropped at once, we are never supplied with information about the narrator to correspond to what learn about the old flame whom he encounters in the motel lobby. If the piece were a true story, we would want to know why so much material is omitted. We would also want to know more — a lot more — about the domestic crisis that has propelled Becky Thane — the unnamed narrator cannot remember her name without a bit of help — to the Holiday Inn in her own hometown. And we would want to story to continue.

She slides the house phone toward her, looks up Becky’s room number, punches it in, then hands me the receiver. I’m holding it to my ear, hoping that Lashandra will stop staring at me and turn her back discreetly, but she stays right there, eyes boring into mine. Becky picks up.

“Hello,” she says, and the simple innocence of her voice starts me weeping and I can’t stop, and Lashandra finally turns away.

Bringing the story to an end at this point, with unexplained tears, is the next best thing, in the book of manly fortitude, to not crying in the first place. It's a stylish ruse that leaves us wondering what transcendent torment our carnally experienced narrator is suffering — but it is only a ruse.

Has "the New Yorker story" given way to a fiction sampler?

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