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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.

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