Monday, October 28, 2013

Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark

I’ve read Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark in three different incarnations. First, as a pretty rough manuscript--the letters weren’t annotated and there weren’t that many photographs.  The second time was after editorial put the final touches on it and included some great photos by Johnny Dark. I actually hadn’t planned on reading the finished book, but when I held it in my hands and starting looking at what the designer had put together, I just couldn’t help myself. The end pages, the touches of color introducing each letter, and the accompanying copy of the actual handwritten letters are perfection.  I have never had the experience of following a book this closely; it’s been incredible watching this book take shape and I honestly think it is the best trade book the University of Texas Press has done.

Sam,  Johnny, and Jesse
(Shepard's son) mid 1980's
This book of letters, which covers the forty plus year friendship of Pulitzer Prize winning writer Sam Shepard and his best friend Johnny Dark (best friend and father in law of sorts, Sam marries Dark’s stepdaughter). I often describe this book as a coming of age story about two men who never really grew up.  While the letters back and forth are sometimes light-hearted, the bulk of these are introspective and brutally honest. Each man searching for some sort of success and happiness, whether it is love, work, or a sense of freedom. Shepard, to put it mildly, is a complicated man. It’s his drinking that costs him most, but when you get a glimpse of his relationship with his father, Shepard seems to be waiting for some sort of acknowledgement and love from his father, but it’s elusive. It’s clear that this is what has shaped the man he is. It’s a heartbreaker.

Jesse and Sam 1979
The letters begin just as Shepard is ramping up a career as a playwright, they cover his affair (and life long friendship) with Patti Smith, and then his decision to leave his wife and child and begin a relationship with Jessica Lange. The letters are current; in fact they not only cover Shepard’s painful separation and later divorce from Jessica Lange, but the emotional toll putting the book together takes on Shepard and his friendship with Dark. Take a look at the book trailer here.

One last thing; a documentary called Shepard and Dark was filmed while Sam and Johnny were putting the book together. It’s a fascinating look at these two vastly different but forever-linked men. I highly recommend it. 

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