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Jesse Shepard's Jubilee King

I've always wondered, if you were the child of a dentist and also became a dentist, whether patients would compare your tooth filling ability with that of your parent, i.e. "Not bad! A lot less painful than Pops!" or, on a darker note, "You call that a crown, now your mother knew from crowns!" I don't think this happens often because even if parent and child share the same profession, child usually moves away and thus, their clientele is never the same.

Not so with artists, especially in the theater, where Barrymores, Fondas, and Douglasses keep breeding so you'll have someone to watch. As for writers, England's Martin and Kingsley Amis and New England's Rebecca and Arthur Miller come to mind.

Closer to home, fiction writer Jesse Shepard joins his father Sam on the bookshelves with his first collection of shorts stories, Jubilee King. When you read Sam Shepard's work horses, cowboys, the movie business, and humor are constant talismans. When you see his work on stage, the details create the West: barefeet and silver ankle bracelets, cowboy boots sealed with silver gaffer's tape.

Jesse Shepard is not a dramatist (yet?) but he trades on these themes. Yes the story "Night Shot" introduces us to a movie shoot in New Mexico. Yes on the first page of "Blinkers" we see the words "knee-high riding boots" and "antique boot-jacks. "Yes those are two brothers in "Nurturer by Nature," one a thinking man, one an action man reminiscent of another duo from a Sam Shepard play called "True West." But Jesse Shepard's work is more than a watered-down version of his father's. Jesse is adept at dramatizing events that happen in a matter of minutes.

"Wax" offers the hapless attempts of a suitor to bed a woman who seems only interested in irrigating his ears. At the end of "Already Gone" we see a man wrenching his torso into the window of his girlfriend's car for a goodbye kiss as he realizes he doesn't want her to leave. "He wants to tell her that she makes him a man, but that seems ridiculous. He wants to tell her how afraid he is, that he wants to mature and abandon rituals that are outmoded or false to his nature. He wants her to see his heart and blood, the driving storm of his interior, the loneliness that pushes him to be the man for her. He wants her to understand his aloneness."

The first story in the collection, "First Day She'd Never See," chronicles the attempts of a burn-out to sell his Plymouth Valiant-a car missing reverse gear. Sparing the obvious metaphorical implications, the piece is a funny stab at wine country folk (an easy target) and a sad look at romance gone bad.

Women are definitely the ghosts in Shepard's machine and throughout his work you will find women talking like therapists, women afraid to go out in the rain lest they ruin their hair, women who can't take a joke. They are the perfect foils for the romantic lurchings of Shepard's male protagonists. By the end of Jubilee King, you are left wanting for a woman who isn't so humorless. For a gifted storyteller like Shepard, this should be an easy assignment. Otherwise, he isn't in danger of imitating his father as repeating himself.

Jubilee King
by Jesse Shepard
Bloomsbury; ISBN: 1-58234-340-3
Hardcover: 183 pages, 2003

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