Short Stories: A Primitive Heart
Why would a Tony award-winning playwright and successful Hollywood screenwriter want to spend even a few short weeks of his golden years reading a book of short stories, much less writing one? Maybe he was chafing at the bit, after years of dealing with the two-hour time limit or theatrical monologues.
It’s not that the six stories in A Primitive Heart are all that long, although in a couple of places they reach novelette status. By confusing prose with stage directions and description with random observations Rabe has created a fairly long-winded, and occasionally flatulent, series of character scribbles. Characters are his metier, of course, and the people he winds up creating—or at least some of them—are memorable. His prose most definitely isn’t.
The first story, “A Primitive Heart,” is a truly painful read. Maybe that’s appropriate to the subject matter. The four-odd-page journey through a lengthy miscarriage, written into the rubric of a dying marriage, leaves his narrative voice floating around from one horrifying image to the next. No one who has seen his plays Streamers or Hurlyburly would expect Rabe to approach this subject with kid gloves, but down a few shots before reading it.
Then there’s “Early Madonna,” in which Rabe tries to get under the skin of a hapless young woman who tries to get under the skin of mid-’80s Madonna. Maybe this is off track here, but not only has Rabe scripted for Sean Penn, he’s also novelized Penn’s The Crossing Guard screenplay. Writing a story about his collaborator’s ex probably means that, after years of milking the Vietnam experience for all it’s worth, he’s hurting for material. This was definitely a writing exercise, and it doesn’t work.
Then things start picking up. Once Rabe heads back to the world of hard-drinking, poker-playing guys with chips on their shoulders in a land of broken dreams, he’s back in his element. “Some Loose Change” is a quickly moving story of a couple of broke dot-com entrepreneurs who decide to give a money-grubbing slimeball what he has had coming to him all along. There’s lots of dialogue, and there’s a great scene when they hold him over a lake chained to a stop sign. It’s not great literature, but it lets you know that when it comes to guys fucking one another over, Rabe’s still got his finger in the wind.
“Veranda” and “Holy Men,” meanwhile are limp but passable meditations on the attempts of older, divorced, hard-drinking men who are trying to repair broken ties with their sons and their priest, respectively. In both, he sports a sharp eye for characters, but the prose itself is a series of wordy monologues that hit their targets, but spray everything else in the room as well.
Don’t get me wrong—the stories in A Primitive Heart aren’t written by an incompetent hack. Rabe’s résumé speaks for itself. But he should keep his day job.