Brightened sometimes by compassion or deft psychological insight, this collection mainly induces headaches brought on by convoluted, show-off prose and plotless ambivalence. Hurlyburly playwright Rabe would do better to stick to penning plays.
Recalling slightly the noir lyricism of Hemingway’s “The Killers,” the story “Some Loose Change” finds boozy losers Red and Macky seeking revenge on a real-estate bigwig who’s reneged on a debt. There’s mood aplenty in this lean tale: cut-rate strip clubs, busted Fords, Vietnam vet paranoia and the kind of dialogue that’s generally categorized as “taut.” And there’s real poignancy in “Holy Men,” wherein a young writer and lapsed Catholic returns home to visit his priest and mentor. In college, he’d tried out mildly experimental work; the good father encouraged it, provoking the ire of his order’s superiors. After suffering a nervous breakdown, he’d been banished from teaching and exiled to ecclesiastical Siberia, ministering to aging nuns. And the writer blamed himself for the priest’s collapse. While he can’t resist the reference to the Inquisition that’s obligatory in angry ex-Catholic fiction, Rabe carefully renders the provisional reconciliation of teacher and student, a moment of genuine grace. But even the best of his stories seem written as though someone had misread a thesaurus. “Guilt brought on a threatening regression whose only counteraction was to escalate the severity and terms of my quarantine” isn’t atypical of his tortuous style. The title story meanders through upper-middle-class malaise to a wishy-washy conclusion; “Early Madonna” goes on and on about a girl’s fixation on the pop star; “Veranda” deals with a neglectful dad and attempts to be heartbreaking, but manages mainly to annoy.
Tedious, prolix tales: Unsympathetic characters may have become a staple of the self-consciously iconoclastic story. But they sure are hard to take.