Spy of the First Person

Shepard, Sam

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Memoir

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy
  • Date of entry: Jan-30-2018
  • Last revised: Jan-30-2018


Spy of the First Person is a short semi-autobiographical narrative about a man with a debilitating condition.  He spends most of his time sitting in a wheelchair on his porch, goes for tests to the Arizona campus of the Mayo Clinic, and has a “handicapped sign hanging from the rearview mirror of his car” (p. 15). The man’s illness is unnamed, but we learn that his motor skills are grossly impaired: “His hands and arms don’t work much.  He uses his legs, his knees, his thighs, to bring his arms and hands to his face in order to be able to eat his cheese and crackers” (ibid).   

The story is told from various, shifting points of view.  At times we are in the head of the protagonist.  At other times, the perspective is that of a nosy neighbor who peers at the sick man through binoculars, hence the book’s title. There is a parallel narrative about an elderly couple and the wife’s gradual decline in health.  The Southwest plays such an important role here one might even say that it too is a character. 

There are also frequent shifts of tense.  It is not always clear whether we are in the past or present.  We alternate between the central character’s fantasies, memories, and observations. The effect of intertwining voices and tenses is reinforced by the brevity of the chapters, many no longer than a paragraph.  The overall impression is that while he may no longer have full control over his body, the man has retained an active (one might say overactive) mind.

Spy of the First Person
concludes as the man’s children take him to a Mexican restaurant.  The vivid description of a meal shared with his loved ones provides a sharp contrast to the inner thoughts that provide the bulk of this book.


Sam Shepard, best known as a playwright, was also an Oscar-nominated actor, director, musician, and writer of fiction.  He was also known for being private about his personal life, and therefore, it should come as no surprise that he did not publicize his struggle with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). Indeed, few aside from his family and closest friends even knew about his diagnosis.  Once he was unable to write, Shepard determinedly turned to recording parts of the book, which his family transcribed.  Towards the end he dictated the remainder.  He made his final edits just days before his death, at the age of 73, in July 2017.   

This book is an unsentimental yet moving, exquisitely observed illness narrative written by a master.  An author who was known throughout his career for dealing with difficult themes, Shepard did not flinch from them even in the face of death.


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



Page Count