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Recital of the Dog.

It is sometimes observed that a mere butterfly can create enough stir in one short, erratic flight to start a chain reaction that will change the history of the world. The hero, if that's the word, of David Rabe's Recital of the Dog (Grove Press, 308 pages, $19.95) shoots the dog of the title and starts a chain of events only slightly less cosmic. Anyone who doubts that actions have consequences, and that bad actions have infernal consequences, should read on.

A painter whose name we are never told has moved from New York to the country. Feeling like a farmer, he buys a few cows. The cows are harassed by a dog. Somewhat unreasonably, he shoots the dog, who, in the act of dying, makes a big impression: "I thought, as I watched him recoil, smashed and yelping, that I might paint him. He was a study in fierce but failing optimism. If desire could have saved him, he would have run from that field."

The dog's final shudder causes reverberations in many directions. Logic is an early casualty. The painter proposes to paint the beast, a gesture that vacillates between aesthetics and atonement. Each time he tries, however, the brushes fall from his hands. This and other vicissitudes leave him "adrift, my spirit caught in an aimless trance."

Like Francis Thompson hunting every which way for the Hound of Heaven, the painter turns wisfully to the cows, who were, he says, "complicit in my predicament." They had seen him do the foul deed and had not, as far as he knew, told anyone. He strolls among the cows. When they lie down, he lies with them. "If not exactly happy, I do at least feel hopeful amid their mooing stink and bulk. I lean against a dowdy hip. ... Their brown eyes peer into mine with a benign absence of comprehension."

If your marriage is already shaky, you don't want your wife to find you amid dowdy cows. The painter, to cover up, tells his wife he plans to make cows his subject. She is skeptical. She asks about the dog. This is distrubing since she's not supposed to know the dog is dead. Every exchange is a dance of distrust flirting with disaster: "Now we peer at one another out of irritation most of the time, a cynical bewilderment building up behind almost every exchange."

Later, driving around in his battered Chevy, the painter comes across an old man, thereafter known as the Old Man, former owner of the dead dog. The Old Man keeps popping up, usually engaged in nailing up handbills on which he has drawn the dog, even offering a reward.

This is a first novel by Rabe, who has written plays with such catchy titles as "Sticks and Bones," "In the Boom Boom Room" and "Hurlyburly." In the novel, as in the plays, a surface flippancy seems to be the writer's insurance against failure in some more serious search.

Unable to paint because he can't hold on to the brushes, the painter gradually becomes disoriented, confused. At one stage, "I'm having a vision, I realize, and before the startling sweep of its assertions the real world has been brushed aside."

Guilt seems to be at the heart of it. As so often happens, guilt generates stealth and surreptitiousness. He takes to visiting the Old Man's field, observing the Old Man's house. Not wanting to have to explain this to anyone, least of all his wife (they have a child to be looked after), he does it in the dead of night. "Some imminent event will soon clarify my purpose," he tells himself hopefully.

He goes to visit the Murphy place, where the dead dog was born, an eerie trip for an out-of-control New Yorker. Paranoia now walks with him like a shadow: "Even in the most persuasive moments of my distress, I was not free of a haunting sense of disproportion, a nagging incongruity."

"One thing leads to another" is not such a popular cliche for nothing. There was, in other words, more to come.

Back in the late-night field, he is confronted by the Old Man, "his shotgun leveled at my belly." The old geezer seems surprisingly friendly, invites him to his house, talks of his dog, whom he expects to return at any moment.

This scenario sends our hero into further paroxysms of guilt. He digs up long-lost memories of a grandfather and father and a dog who was the bone of some ancient contention. So he has a moment of illumination: "In this old farmer and his need I can find and meet my deepest ends, blotting out his memories of his dog with the birth of an affection unequaled in his history. He will open his heart to me, and upon this achievement I will stand triumphant, the natural order defied, my sins absolved, the dog replaced, the heavens and my dead grandfather made again my friend, my father reclaimed."

What would a red-blooded American painter do as a first step to bring this idyll about? He fetches the newspaper and takes it to the Old Man in his mouth a la dog. The Old Man, at first perplexed, pats his head. "I though my days were over," the Old Man says. "Now you come along. My dog is gone and you come along ... we'll have a good time."

A good time is not what they eventually have. The Old Man begins treating the painter like a dog, and the painter responds by acting like one. The Old Man belts him. It's unclear why. It may even be because the younger man is acting like a dog, but you can't argue with a man who thinks being a dog is the best way to go.

Our man does, however, take a moment to phone his wife because you can't that easily knock the husband out of the would-be dog. He is unable to make peace with her. "You're such a bastard," is one of her more descriptive responses to his efforts at explanation.

Future generations will look back and decide whose was the greatest shame: the writers who wouldn't risk writing anything novel or the readers who wouldn't read anything outside the familiar, banal formulas. At a time when most "successful" novels are peopled by ruthless rich men who run the world and gorgeous women who are the most gorgeous in the altogether gorgeous world, it's encouraging to find a good book in which a dead dog and a crazy curmudgeon dictate the terms.

Rabe risks concocting a wacky world in which some of the elements slip and slide at times. We may be tempted to say, "How wacky!" until we realize that, for sheer weirdness, it limps behind the main event -- "normal" life as we know it.

The berserk painter makes every imaginable effort to please his new master. The Old Man beats him. The painter tries to run away. The Old Man puts a rope on him until he's trained, then makes another set of handbills, still believing the real dog will somehow come back. The Old Man plays a cruel game of catch, our hero replacing the dog.

It is just a man and his new dog, or a string of metaphors? Do the shenanigans sound familiar in an awry world where we do the damnedest things to get ahead, to cover up, to ingratiate, to win?

"It seems to me that I'm lucky he plays with me at all," the painter rationalizes. "Considering the way I endlessly annoy and disappoint him, I don't know why he does it."

If the writer spells out the meaning in the novel (the argument goes), it's not arty. If the writer risks being oblique and hinting at more elusive insights for which there are no ready words, then it's too arty. And human nature being cantankerous as it is, it's often the same people making both arguments. And, truth to tell, most people prefer to read just for fun. And they have every right to do so.

And, furthermore, those most likely to plumb "significant" novels for significance are those who least need such books because they're probably intuitive and have already detected the desired significance and cosmic admonitions in the day's headlines or in flowers or in the faces of people on the bus.

Thus the argument dances around in a ring, and which end of the argument one favors probably depends on which kind of novel one is reading.

Rabe, meanwhile, salts and peppers his story with dire allusions and apocalyptic hints, but the refrain that keeps coming back is that even the cosmic is caused by something as incidential as the butterfly's flight.

The war in Bosnia is not the inevitable confrontation of immovable objects and unstoppable forces that sprang full-grown into existence. It's a collection of yesterday's whims and history's pettiness come home to roost. One man wanted power, another held an old grudge, another was a bully -- small considerations until one thing leads to another.

The same is true in South Africa or Sri Lanka or Northern Ireland, where things would now be so different had not a hot-head named Dermot MacMorrow from Leinster, in the year 1179, in a fit of pique invited over a band of ruffians from England to settle a local row, thinking the thugs would leave after a weekend or two. But, one thing leads to another.

And the marriage that breaks up is not broken by cosmic forces, at least not usually, but by a thought, word or deed that by itself, if it didn't lead to anything worse, would be of small consequence.

What we usually call crazy is when a bunch of quite sane circumstances come together in the wrong mix. Thus can a dog be in the wrong place at the wrong time -- even when dead.

The painter ruminates: "From the door where memory opens to find me toddling down a hallway to start off toward this present moment, I see myself as somehow awaiting the arrival of an old man in order for us to live out these hours together. ... Who can deny secretly pining for an ancient escort, a mentor, an elderly guide?"

So he got a crazy, old guide? Maybe. Or he might have, if he had not shot the Old Man's dog?

When the Old Man drops off our hero at his own home, the latter looks down on the neighborhood, a bit like Jesus looking down on Jerusalem:

Rings of pain are leaping out the windows. Loops of anguish like loops of the most ferocious light are radiating out into the vestiges of night, and not a house is exempt from this phenomenon. ... From the dominion of this hill, I can see that human life is impossible. It cannot be lived appropriately for it is covert in its most essential elements and procedures. In all its central points it is unknowable. ...

Every task and issue, every chore and obligation that is imagined to be a priority each day, the urgent duties and desires, are all nothing but a veneer. They are nothing but the most superficial reflections and misapprehensions of these hoops of pain that lie concealed beneath every breath and thought.

The insights of a philosopher or the ramblings of a novelist with writer's block? Perhaps that depends on how one thing leads to another. The wanted dog on the poster, for example, has taken on a more scary mein: "Something monstrous is on the loose."

So our man buys a gun and a knife. Like the people of David Koresh's Waco, he could have bought something less lethal. How were any of them to know how one thing would lead to another?

He arrives home and finds his wife has sold the cows. He needs to confront her. He needs practice for that. He will practice on other women. Surreptitiousness returns. He begins clandestine dating. In the bars, "all the songs are about me."

And about us all. It doesn't turn out well. The story, not the novel.
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Author:Farrell, Michael J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 28, 1993
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