Review: David Rabe's 'Dinosaurs on the Roof' gets heavy at times

Playwrights rarely succeed as novelists. There's Samuel Beckett, of course, but a lot of his plays read more like novelistic prose than drama anyway. Michael Frayn's novels have their fans, although I couldn't finish Headlong, his ponderous tale of an art historian and a supposedly lost Bruegel painting. Chekhov is probably the exception who proves the rule, since many readers who are also theatergoers find his short stories even greater than the plays. Sam Shepard's two volumes of short fiction are worth dipping into.

David Rabe is the latest playwright to cross over with Dinosaurs on the Roof, a hefty tome that harkens back to his Midwestern roots. It's a far cry from Rabe's stage works, such as his trilogy about the Vietnam War (including Streamers, one of the great plays of the '70s) and the druggy Hurlyburly, about Hollywood wheeler-dealers.

Dinosaurs, set in Belger, Iowa (Rabe grew up in Dubuque), chronicles one long day in the lives of two women: Janet Cawley, an ex-elementary schoolteacher adrift after her divorce, and Bernice Doorley, a friend of Janet's late mother. Bernice has fallen under the spell of a preacher who has his congregation getting ready to be swept up in the rapture at midnight.

The narrative alternates between the two women, each becoming unglued in her own way. Janet is more interesting, with her artful takes on jogging, Sarah McLachlan songs and (shades of Hurlyburly) getting high on crack. Cranky old Bernice soon becomes a bore, and I found myself skimming the chapters on her to get back to Janet. The women come together in a tedious account of the death and burial of Bernice's dog.

Playwrights don't do much descriptive writing (except, perhaps, in stage directions), and Rabe crafts some finely observed passages on the flat Iowa landscape. But he also indulges in page after page of banal, pointless dialogue that would never make it into one of his plays.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

Dinosaurs on the Roof

By David Rabe

Simon & Schuster, 484 pages, $26

Review: David Rabe's 'Dinosaurs on the Roof' gets heavy at times 08/02/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 4:30am]

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