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Fetch, Speak, Play Dead : RECITAL OF THE DOG: By David Rabe (Grove Press: $19.95; 308 pp.)

April 04, 1993|Peter Filkins | Filkins writes frequently on contemporary fiction for USA Today and the New York Times Book Review. He teaches at Simon's Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, Mass

"If you've never murdered a dog," cautions the narrator of David Rabe's first novel, "or done any of the other things I've done . . . then you will have to believe that when these things happen, they happen the way I've said." Such is the challenge the award-winning playwright poses for himself in "Recital of the Dog," for in leading his reader through the gruesome world of a painter who goes mad after shooting a dog, the author must try to make enough sense out of the man's complete derangement to hold our attention, while also taking us on a convincing journey through madness, murder and mayhem.

In fact, the author of "Sticks and Bones" and "Streamers" succeeds quite well at this difficult task. Despite a flaw or two, "Recital of the Dog" is a novel as well-crafted as it is brutal, as obsessive as it is superbly controlled. Reading it, one experiences a harrowing realm that few of us would wish to come close to, but which Rabe makes comprehensible, if not meaningful, through his conscious artistry.

"I'm trying to transform into words this knot of sensation and emotion that feels essential, like a prerequisite to understanding anything," thinks the artist early on, and it's a theme the book returns to throughout. Stymied in his work after having moved his wife and child to the country, one morning the painter shoots a dog that belongs to the "Old Man" next door and that has been harassing his own small herd of cows. As the Old Man tacks up drawings of the dog around town, the artist becomes increasingly distressed at the sorrow he has caused him, though he cannot bring himself to admit just what he has done.

Instead, the artist becomes obsessed with the Old Man, projecting onto him his own ambivalence toward an absent father and domineering grandfather in childhood. This distress increases as the painter gets to know his neighbor, the two of them soon entering into a sadistic friendship in which the narrator becomes the Old Man's dog, fetching his paper and withstanding an endless cycle of affection and abuse. Rabe even has the narrator go so far as to let the Old Man walk him through the woods on a leash, the artist discovering in his macabre role that "the noose is suddenly precious, a necklace emblematic of our connection, my salvation."

However, the painter also realizes that his "mind, like a kite broken loose from its tether, is tumbling through a space that has cast all ordinary answers into disarray." Yet, as much as the artist loses his moorings, "Recital of the Dog" does not. Rabe's novel succeeds most in how it maintains a sense of pathos beneath the artist's madness, as well as within the sick relationship with his tyrannical neighbor. Spying on the Old Man in the basement as he draws yet another series of posters for the missing dog, the artist comes to understand "his underground grief," just as he realizes an "irrefutable connection running from the Old Man's suffering" to his own deranged sorrow.

Unfortunately, Rabe has his narrator sever the connection with the Old Man halfway through the novel in order to move on to even more disturbing behavior. Possessed by moonlight, the painter looks down at his own home and concludes that "human life is impossible," resulting in his growing suspicion that his wife is trying to kill his son. Hence, trapped in his own bizarre logic, the painter feels compelled to stalk other women, eventually killing three. His and the novel's obsession turn gruesome as his nightmarish fantasy transforms into bloody reality, the painter thinking, "What does it matter if I am ignorant of the thoughts underlying the thoughts I'm thinking, the words I'm uttering, as I smile at the people to whom I'm speaking? Butchering multitudes, I will grin."

As chilling and yet readable as Rabe's account of the artist's butchery is, it does go on too long, lacking within it the shapely tension of the relationship with the Old Man as both friend and tyrant. Though it seems right that the painter feels that his life is "a cascade of events, a flux of light, a storm of sensation, but no story there," the reader sometimes needs more of a direct causal relationship in order to remain engaged. Without such links, "Recital of the Dog" risks succumbing to the same judgment the artist makes about his own loss of control: "Of guilt and remorse I could make my themes of bloody aftermath my inspiration. From these effects, I could reap my gory and aesthetic harvest. Or so it promised and then swam away."

Nonetheless, Rabe has written a dark and powerful novel. "You have to learn to live in the woods no matter how much you fear them, no matter how strange they are, no matter how sick they make you feel," thinks the artist when faced with the bloody tangle of his own mind. "Recital of the Dog" demonstrates again Rabe's talent for leading his audience into the murky haunts of the human psyche and back out again, his own artistry remaining a sure and dependable guide along the way.

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