Front seats for an in-your-face horror

March 18, 1993|By Ann G. Sjoerdsma | Ann G. Sjoerdsma,Contributing Writer

I once sat in the front row during a production of David Rabe's brutal "Streamers" and was sprayed with a soldier's theatrical blood. This sickening, yet somehow exhilarating, experience was not unlike reading Mr. Rabe's first novel, "Recital of the Dog," a nightmarish, stream-of-subconsciousness mixture of Kafka, Beckett, Jung and Mr. Rabe, being his usual cruel, coarse, chaotic, comical and cerebral self.

Before this first-person, present-tense novel opens, the narrator has shot and killed a mongrel dog that was bothering his cows. The dog has a name; the man does not. A New York painter in his 40s, the narrator has escaped to the country with his wife, Emily, and his 5-year-old son, Tobias, to revitalize himself.

In one of many nice ironic touches by Mr. Rabe ("Sticks and

Bones," "Hurlyburly"), the man, wracked with Kafkaesque guilt over the dog's death, experiences near-psychotic painter's block. The dog's master, a grotesque Faulknerian type called the "Old Man," flourishes artistically in a series of lost-dog posters. The posters, like lost memories and vague imaginings, draw the narrator away from home and into the woods he fears.

Hints of a sad childhood -- a father's and grandfather's abandonment, a mother's neglect, a young boy's guilt -- remain mere hints as the narrator veers from his current life's course into his ghostlike past.

He catches a chill he can't shake and wears a heavy overcoat in June. He feels the tissue separating in his brain and wonders: "Am I to be forever left outside, the banished orphan at the door?"

The narrator seeks out the Old Man (father), not to confess his sin but to become his new dog and to earn his love. But the Old Man is abusive. Scenes of the narrator's submission to the Old Man's "training" and "games" test the limits of humanity -- Mr. Rabe gives "Godot" a sick turn -- and it is no surprise that when the man finally leaves, responding to a faint call of family responsibility, he has become a monster.

The narrator progresses through delusion and hallucination toward either eternal damnation or salvation. He speaks to an "off-stage" psychoanalyst willing to draw on vectors, thermodynamics, astrophysics and psychology to explain how the man got "off on a tangent." He also comes upon the valley of heaven, where dogs first welcome him, then tear him apart.

Eventually, the narrator commits unspeakably violent acts against women -- unspeakable, in part, because they occur in fact, but not in the narrator's mind. He must be held accountable, but before he is, he must settle the score with the Old Man, who returns for a harrowing showdown of father-son love and trust, crime and punishment, with Tobias as the innocent.

Mr. Rabe's densely written, occasionally brilliant, probe of the narrator's damaged psyche, his dog's life, demands a commitment that most of us are not willing to give. It requires much patience and hard work. I enjoyed some passages, but endured many, many others.

Ultimately, Mr. Rabe's intensity, not his story, seduced me into sitting in the front row once again, with much the same result as the first time.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Recital of the Dog."

Author: David Rabe.

Publisher: Grove Press.

Length, price: 308 pages, $19.95.

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