...[a] remarkable, quietly devastating last book ... Spy of the First Person is, among other things, a paean to family ... This slim posthumous volume is a more coherent, urgent, and moving work of autobiographical fiction [than The One Inside]. It packs a punch, and not just because we know the circumstances under which it was written, or that it’s his last. There are things Shepard wants to say, and he knows it’s now or never ... Shepard’s ability to dramatize a scene with minimal words remains intact, resulting in powerful mini-plays ... [an] extraordinary valedictory work.
The ticklish, and ultimately unanswerable, question of how much is autobiography and how much is imagined adheres to all of Shepard’s fiction. His stories are not exact reflections of memory but more like portraits in a convex mirror—realistic depictions of a distorted version of the truth, in which an unrelenting loneliness is stretched and elongated all out of proportion to his protagonists’ other attributes ... Spy of the First Person returns to the uncanny experience evoked in all of Shepard’s fiction of being both the observer and the observed. In the midst of that standoff, fragments of the past resurface. Shepard has always been a spare and oblique writer, creating a sense of dreamy discomfort by starving his prose of basic identifying details like years or proper names ... as always, the itinerancy masks a profound feeling of imprisonment, as the scenes inevitably circle back to the old man on the porch, who has been rendered so immobile that he has to ask for help to scratch an itch on his face. Yet that appeal for help marks a small but significant change. Shepard’s wanderers have usually been on unaccompanied journeys with no departure or destination, only an ever-repeating present instant. But Spy of the First Person ends with a scene of family solidarity.
This novel’s themes are echt Shepard: fathers and sons; shifting identities and competing versions of reality; a sense that there are watchers and there are watchees in this world of dusty gravitas. The setting is the American West. The prose is taciturn. The pronouns have vague antecedents. The book is cryptic and pretentious. It is also sly and revealing ... But this novel is not simply a burnt offering, a Baedeker of dread and decay. There is a kind of parched humor as well ... Spy of the First Person did not begin to fully hold my attention until its midpoint. Several things start to happen. The novel begins to overspill its tight borders. There is an increasing, slashing awareness of not merely one human but a world in distress ... There are echoes of Beckett in this novel’s abstemious style and existential echoes. Our little bands will come apart.