Sam Shepard, . . Knopf, $20 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40505-1

"E.V. made no bones about it; he was not a horse whisperer by any stretch," writes Shepard (Cruising Paradise, etc.) in the first of 18 brief stories that make up his new collection. "He could fix bad horses, and when he fixed them they stayed fixed." This terse, weather-beaten "remedy man" turns out to be so observant that he gives a bullied boy a new sense of the truly vast scale of life and of his own possibilities. Some of the tales explore how characters fail to connect with any greater vision. Ambushed by sex, buried in habit or gripped by a desperation they didn't know they possessed, they become like blind forces of nature, some of them terrifying and heartbreaking. At his best, Shepard shows us how in brief, bright moments people wake up from the suck and drag of the distractions that cloud their lives. In "Living the Sign" a young fast-food worker commemorates his moment of lucidity by posting a sign that reads, " 'Life is what's happening to you while you're making plans for something else.'" Shepard shows that consciousness calls out to us: eager to track down the employee who made the sign, a patron asks if anyone there seems "particularly auspicious? Particularly present and attentive?" In classic Shepard style, he also shows in the title story how people can fall apart as quickly and with just as much force as they come together. Like "The Remedy Man" himself, these sketches are simple but deeply intuitive and true. (Oct. 22)