Indianapolis (Highway 74) by Sam Shepard, 2009
The magic trick:
Presenting a story about a man’s struggle with his past, but then giving the reader almost no information about that past
Really good story here as we do our week in Indiana.
Today, Sam Shepard introduces us to a man who suddenly and surprisingly meets a character from his past. We watch as this interaction with Becky, a woman he lived with decades prior, has a profound impact on his evening.
What’s especially interesting is that this is a character for whom we get virtually no backstory at all. We know he’s driving down the highway with no particular purpose. We know he has five children, and when we know that in 1968 he lived in New York City with Becky.
So it’s an interesting thing to find a character who is wrestling with his past throughout the story, when the past and all the different things that connect it to this struggle remain a total mystery for the reader.
You’d think it was a fatal flaw in the story. How am I supposed to care about this guy if I don’t even understand the nature of his struggle? But that’s not really the right math. We don’t need to know about his past to care about him. In fact, the mystery surrounding the past makes it all the more engaging. The reader fills in the gaps, makes assumptions, and likely makes connections to their own experience. And that’s quite a trick on Shepard’s part.
I’ve been crisscrossing the country again, without much reason. Sometimes a place will just pop into my head and I’ll take off. This time, down through Normal, Illinois, from high up in white Minnesota, dead of winter, icy roads, wind blowing sideways across the empty cornfields. Find myself stopping for the night outside Indianapolis, off 74, just before it makes its sweeping junction with 65 South to Louisville. I randomly pick a Holiday Inn, more for its familiar green logo and predictability than anything else. Plus, I’m wiped out. Evidently there’s some kind of hot-rod convention going on in town, although I seem to remember those always taking place at the height of summer, when people can run around in convertible coupés with the tops down. Anyway, there are no rooms available, except possibly one, and that one is “Smoking,” which I have nothing against. The desk clerk tells me she’ll know in about ten minutes if there’s going to be a cancellation. I’m welcome to wait, so I do, not wanting to face another ninety-some miles down to Kentucky through threatening weather.
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