A Primitive Heart: Stories

A Primitive Heart: Stories by David Rabe. Grove Press, 2005; $24; 287 pages


David Rabe is one of the finest playwrights in America, possessed of a muscular voice, singular gift for dialogue, sly wit, and fearlessness in depicting the savage side of humanity. A Primitive Heart is a powerful book, a collection of stories that moves into areas untouched in his previous work, cutting to the quick of American manhood and revealing the distance within the most intimate relationships. A Primitive Heart shows David Rabe to be a fiction writer of range and versatility. Whether he is writing about a marriage shadowed by the unacknowledged discord of a risky pregnancy, about a group of men whose attempt to settle an account launches them toward unexpected violence, or about a young journalist who believes he's escaped his Catholic roots, but is forced again to confront them by a priest who once was his mentor as a writer, Rabe's strong, true voice tenders an inimitable portrait of America and offers a benediction to her struggling souls.


From powells.com: The primitive heart of the title refers, literally, to the not-yet-fully-formed organ of an ill-fated fetus, but all the characters in playwright David Rabe's story collection are suffering from emotional malfunctions that render them less than fully human. Take Daniel, the father of the unborn child, who always did the sort of things male characters ensconced in "muscular prose" do (in a flashback, pre-pregnancy confession of infidelity, he "demanded details, received them, then broke several pieces of furniture"). But with his wife's pregnancy imperiled, he goes beyond garden-variety alienation, turning from her to the comforts of scientific fact and lucrative stock trades.

From Publishers Weekly: Playwright Rabe (Hurlyburly, etc.), in this collection, navigates the troubled lives of men set adrift by economic hopelessness, traumatic childhoods, and their own inability to connect. "Veranda" describes both the failed beginning of a new relationship and a failed attempt to make amends to a child for the end of an old one. "Holy Men" and "Some Loose Change" stand out as powerful evocations of contemporary manhood, the former in a successful writer's fraught reunion with the Catholic priest who mentored him, the latter through the attempts of a group of boozy dot-com casualties to even an old financial score. "Early Madonna," the only story with a female protagonist, features an aging club kid attempting to escape the shadow of her brainy younger sister.


David Rabe was born in 1940 in Dubuque, Iowa, to a father who worked as a teacher and meatpacker and a mother who supplemented the family income with a job as a store clerk. Rabe, raised in the Roman Catholic church, received his B.A. in English from Loras College in Dubuque and his M.A., also in English, from Villanova University in 1968."Did you go to Vietnam?"

"I did. I was drafted in '65. I was taking deferments to stay out, and I thought, 'Well, I'll go in.' I was in basic training when the drill instructor started talking about Vietnam. I remember people saying, 'What? Where?' I was not in an infantry unit. I was in a hospital unit. So, relatively speaking, I had it easy [Mr. Rabe has written three plays about the Vietnam era]." Rabe is author too of In the Boom Boom Room (1973-74) and Hurlyburly (1984).

"You got to see the damage."

"I got to see a lot of damage. But I wasn't in that terrifying fog in the jungle."

Mr. Rabe's second wife and mother of the couple's two younger children (Mr. Rabe is father to three) is actress Jill Clayburgh. The family lives in Connecticut.

"Did your parents read to you?"

"Not all that much. Some," said Mr. Rabe. "It came pretty much on my own. Although years later, certainly there was some reading to me, yes. But we were poor; there wasn't much money. At one point in his life, my father taught high school history and that's when he was happiest, I think, but he couldn't make a living, and one thing led to another. He worked in the meatpacking house, which was far from his dream.

"It was a rough life. He was college-educated but had stepped right into the Depression. Got knocked around for years and was part of the WPA [Works Progress Administration]. He was working as a surveyor when he met my mom."

"He must have been lonely. Your dad."

"At one point he certainly was. He was a secretive guy on some level. We had a lot of communication in and around sports, and later when I started writing, he started telling me that he had written earlier in life, but I didn't know that, at least consciously, when I was in college and started writing."

"He must have been enormously proud of you."

"He was. It was difficult to share because I wrote things that were not his cup of tea. There was tension between us, because he loved the sort of success and acclaim that came early in my career, and I was a little troubled by the fact that I didn't think he appreciated the actual work. But we were pretty close. It was all tricky, though. As I'm getting older myself, I sympathize with how hard it must have been for him to work in that place, when he aspired to be elsewhere."

"And," I said, "handling that cold raw meat all day."

"It's a brutal world to be in. I'd go down sometimes and pick him up after work, and you can smell it, and he lived in it, day in and day out."

When Mr. Rabe asked me how I'd come across his book, I explained that I recently interviewed Deborah Eisenberg about her new short-story collection, Twilight of the Superheroes . As our talk ended, I asked what she currently was reading. "David Rabe's new book," she said, and went on to praise its subtleties and depths.

Mr. Rabe allowed as how he'd known Ms. Eisenberg and her companion, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, "fairly well, but I've known her a little better, off and on for many years." Mr. Rabe said he was pleased to hear that I was interested in his book. "It's been hard to get any kind of notice for it -- you know, it's a book of stories and..."

"And who cares?"


"Also," I said, "the stories' subjects are difficult. In the story, 'Holy Men,' where a student visits his Catholic priest/teacher, the student discovers, 'You may think you've left the Catholic church, but you've only gone somewhere else.'"

"I'm afraid that's true."

"Your stories have high moral expectations."

"You do what you do. It's not that I expected them to be bestsellers, but it's been hard to get anybody to pay attention. Several reviewers wrote what I thought was not just favorable, but they really seemed to grasp what I was trying to do."

"I'm amazed at how publishing houses now put books out and don't even buy the smallest advertisement."

"No, they don't do anything. I think that what's happened is that I have a long history in the theater, in the arts, and the publishers felt that would guarantee me some notice in The Times, both in the daily and in the Sunday Book Review . It doesn't seem it's going to, so I thought that once that happened, if I got something good in either or both, then I could pressure the publishers to do something. But it doesn't seem that may happen. Anyway, that was my little dream."

"The stories," I said, "moved me, as did Ms. Eisenberg's, perhaps more deeply than I wished for them to do. So many people who attend MFA classes tend to write stories where two characters, or even one, appear on the page and something small happens. A minute psychological shift occurs from page one to the last page. Then sunshine gilds a green hill. And that's it -- a manufactured epiphany, a lump of cheap grace. In your stories, characters struggle and suffer and rip at their guts to get at the change and/or discovery between or among them. The action rides out not as much from a psychological base as it does from a philosophical or metaphysical center. As in the first story in the collection, 'A Primitive Heart,' the reader encounters human behavior of the kind that happens in houses in, say, Connecticut, rather than on Broadway stages."

"In all the stories I made a personal effort to come to grips with something I know. I've only had a couple published for that very reason, because they're long and difficult in that way. For the most part, even the shorter ones are a bit difficult."

I said that I admired the way in which Mr. Rabe bored deep into other minds and revealed those minds' thoughts on a page. These revelations arrive in the reader's mind as whispered secrets, as fans opening. This way of telling a story is so different from the way in which stories are told on theater boards. "How do you manage such different ways of writing?" I asked.

"I don't know. I think it's partly why I am leaving the theater, or whatever I've done. It's a long story, but I think part of the reason I am less interested in the theater at this point, is that I've wanted to do this kind of thing and can't really.

"I had started some of the stories over the years and other ones too. I started a novel or two and never finished. I finished one but...I just decided that it was time, I'm better focused, and so I've shifted. I was drawn to try to do what you simply can't do in the theater, effectively, or at all.

"I'd written a play, many years ago, and I can't get it done. It's a play, but it's kind of an inner drama of somebody. So, that is something I've wanted to try to do or felt pulled to do whenever I sit down to write."

I read to Mr. Rabe from his story, "Veranda": "You write here, 'I'm trying to grasp her interior, as one would read an animal through its gestures, or the eyes of someone speaking a foreign language. Content is there, but it is blocked by my ignorance. I'm trying hard, though, and then I feel I am about to uncover what I need, or be uncovered myself. I sense an omniscient, looming, unrelenting spotlight rolling over the ocean, moving through the black of the surrounding city. It haunts the creases of the streets and alleys beneath the trees, probing into other bedrooms, corners, hallways, seeking me.'"

Mr. Rabe laughed. "That's good. It's fun to hear. To hear someone read it, isolated like that. I may do another play in my life and I may not. I can keep going. I've always had to make movies to make a living, so that I'll probably have to keep doing them off and on."

"You have to send the kids to school."

"I'm almost done with that, actually. I have one to go for two more years. It's brutal. So much money. I had two of them going for a while to a private school or college, just mind-boggling. We managed, but it was hard. Fortunately I can throw my hat into the ring in Hollywood. It's a waste most of the time; most screenplays don't ever get made, but I do get paid well. I had to do more of them than I wanted, but it's brutal with two of them going like that. The private schools are almost as much as college."

I asked, "If we were sitting around and you were talking with intelligent people, and someone asked you to explain the difference between writing for the theater and writing for the intimate interior of a book, what would you tell them?"

"I think I'd have to be extremely personal. My own theatrical work was never 'realistic'; it always had a kind of metaphor at the center. It was a metaphoric, unifying factor, plus a theatrical thrust. I was trying to figure this out, and I said to someone recently that in my case the theater -- even if it was an intimate set of characters and scenes -- was a place where I felt I would yell, or, speak loudly, whereas the stories are hushed and quiet. No matter how crazy the stories might be, they are intimate and almost whispered. I never had an impulse to write a play and then said, 'No, I'm going to make a story out of it.' Or vice versa.

"These stories have always occurred as stories. No way, I thought in the aftermath of 'Holy Men,' did I say, 'Could you make that into a play?' You'd have to do a stylized thing, so much of the stuff is unspoken, or got spoken in a stylized way. It couldn't be done really. It would become something else. I think that's probably true of all of them."

"A play's success," I said, "is dependent in part on the response of the people around you. How you perceive the play, and how you take it in -- if the people laugh, if they sigh, if you smell their sweat.... It's a group experience. A novel, and even more a short story, is an individual experience."

"I think that aspect of the theater has always been hard on me. Something I was never comfortable with was the presence of the audience. I used to always say, 'The fun stopped when the audience showed up.'

"People say, 'Why aren't you sitting in the audience watching?' Because I don't. I have to find some sort of bomb shelter to sit in, whether it's up in the balcony or in the booth, with a person calling the show, or the stage manager, or I have to find some little corner, or standing way in the back if there's no corner. Being in their presence, in their midst, is almost intolerable. When I was younger, it was intolerable."

"When did you start writing plays?"

"I was drawn to it and I loved it for many years, although I didn't ever like production. I never liked audiences much. In 1971 I had my first play done in New York."

"Your beginnings, in church, seem to have stayed with you. When one reads your stories, one recognizes that the questions the Catholic Church poses have stayed with you."

"Well, that's probably true. I have no interest in removing that part of myself -- the questions. It's the answers that need to be removed. It's the answers they -- the Church -- gave, and the certainty of their answers, and the sort of guarantees of punishment and whatever. It's also possible to say that it was just my nature, which is why the Church had such a hold on me; it was my nature to be imaginatively drawn to those questions. It's possible that that's why the Church was my life, because I was, in fact, prone to wonder about those things anyway.

"There are times that I wish I had more certainty. I spent one-third of my life in an ashram and was drawn to that. I still am, to some extent, drawn to that point of view, of the meditative Eastern solution."

I said, "That's a lovely few paragraphs when they arrive in the darkness of the story ['The Holy Men']."

Rabe writes, "The only consolation I knew of the kind he meant had found me in a place antithetical to the church, a place the church would have condemned as an occasion of sin, the working of the devil. In the ashrams of an Indian guru there had been strange but undeniable events that seemed to bring with them upon occasion a kind of spiritual embrace, a kind of mysterious acceptance of my entire being."

"And that was comforting and helped me actually, I think," said Mr. Rabe. "I don't quite have the same allegiance to it I had back then but I've never fully lost it either. But, it's not built in the same punitive way. It doesn't have that side to it. At least the part I ran into and the experience I had was much more openhearted and generous and welcome."

"Did you know a priest like Fr. Lilius in 'Holy Men'? You must have."

"I did. Yeah. He was in fact, instrumental in my life and helped my life early. As a creative writing teacher he was wonderful."

"The first story, the title story, 'A Primitive Heart', seems filled with rage. The words burn the page."

"Someone else was saying this to me. I don't see it that way. I wouldn't quarrel with that interpretation, but I don't see it that way."

"How do you see it?"

"I don't know exactly, but it's not rage to me as much as it's an attempt to negotiate difficult terrain and hold onto a sense of self. I feel like the keys to the story are in the moments where there are events where the characters feel certain as to what they're up to, and then parallel or accompanying that, there are pre-conscious thoughts."

"Hence the title? 'A Primitive Heart'?"

"The way that that stuff is so ephemeral and so important to who we are in ordinary and extreme circumstances is what the story is about to me -- and how it functions, suggests or leads to an awareness of that in how we live."

"There's so much suffering."

"Subliminal, hidden suffering, yeah."

"You must live a lot in that part of your mind, where the stories are."

"Yes, that's true."

"Your narrator's thoughts in 'Holy Men' inhabit interiors and drawers, those book cases in the back of that convent, where dwells a covey of women, separate from the world of men.

"It's not so much in my life now, certainly, but when I grew up as a Catholic, we were separate. They might be in the same classroom, but you had nothing to do with them -- girls. Even as a teenager we were divided. As a child, all through school, we had nothing to do with the girls. We were organizationally divided. You might be in the same classroom but you did nothing together. You didn't do recess together. You didn't do gym together; you did nothing. We boys spent a lot of time out in the woods."


"Yeah. At a certain point I got sick of that, but I did it for a long time."

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