Dinosaurs on the Roof

One-third of the American population believes in the Rapture, or so we are told. This statistic is thought-provoking on the practical level as well as the theological one. How do such people go about their daily lives? With the firm conviction that they will soon be borne bodily to heaven, how much emotional energy will they commit to the earthly tasks that must necessarily seem trivial and transitory?

This is the kernel of David Rabe?s Dinosaurs on the Roof. The author of dramas like Hurlyburly, Streamers, and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Rabe has long been one of our country?s foremost playwrights and screenwriters but has written relatively little fiction: this is only his second novel, but its dark humor has much in common with his well-known plays.

Set in the author?s native Iowa, the novel opens with an arresting scene. An old lady, Bernice Doorley, knocks on the door of her younger acquaintance Janet Cawley and asks her a favor: she expects to be whirled up in the Rapture that very evening, and hopes that Janet will agree to take care of her pets after she disappears. It appears from a short afterword that Rabe has appended to the novel that this is an actual anecdote he heard while visiting his home state, and needless to say it set his imagination clicking: the resulting character, Bernice, is a fine comic creation whose trains of thought during the course of the 24 hours covered by the book?s action, meticulously recorded by the author, highlight all the moral and physical inconsistencies of Rapture belief.

First of all, there is Bernice?s undeniable corporeality, dwelt upon in sometimes gross detail. How will the magical takeoff actually be worked, she wonders? “Try as she might, she could not sidestep the notion of the whole bunch of them airborne and arriving somewhere the way people traveling anywhere did, famished and in need of a bathroom, because they were supposed to have their bodies, weren?t they?” Her pastor, the glamorous Reverend Tauke, has assured everyone that when the time comes it will be all right, but Bernice can?t help worrying about such things. “It was hard to know how her body would fare after all the hoopla and show coming up. But the likelihood was it would be gone, or changed so much from what it had been, it might as well be gone. Probably not a lot of peeing in heaven, even with all the bodies raised up. But bodies, still. Could there be all this plumbing and flushing in that big high place?” Likewise, she broods about her wardrobe for the big event. The baby-blue pantsuit is the most comfortable thing she owns, but will it look respectful enough? Will she need to wear her orthopedic shoes?

We laugh; but little by little we realize that this is not so much a comedy as a serious novel, dealing with issues of responsibility, forgiveness, and the unspeakable cruelty we all inflict, one way or another, on the people we love. Bernice has chosen Janet as a pet-sitter because the younger woman is the daughter of her late friend Isabel. Janet, recently divorced, is going through a species of nervous breakdown. Her treatment at her mother?s hands is responsible for many of her emotional problems; Bernice knows this, but has succeeded in suppressing the knowledge and blaming Janet for everything. And then there is the little matter of the way Bernice has treated her own daughter, Irma, which doesn?t bear too much thinking about.

The 24 hours covered by the novel see both Bernice?s and Janet?s troubled lives come to a crisis, as Janet toys with the idea of suicide and Bernice tries to suppress the unwelcome notion that “there wouldn?t be a lot different about this night if she was waiting to die instead of waiting for what she was waiting for.” As Samuel Johnson famously remarked, the prospect of imminent death concentrates the mind wonderfully, and visions of the impending Rapture become increasingly irrelevant, not to say selfish, as Bernice begins to understand the scope of her neglected earthly responsibilities — to Irma, to Janet, and not least to her aged, helpless dogs. It will not be giving too much away to reveal that in the end Bernice does see Jesus; but the message he imparts to her has nothing to do with the Reverend Tauke?s fevered fantasies.

Though he is a longtime resident of the East Coast, Rabe has slipped back into the speech patterns of his native Midwest with panache. He understands the disturbing fact that the language a person has at her disposal molds her thought patterns and her vision of the world: Bernice speaks and thinks in clich?s, which badly impede her attempts to make moral distinctions. (For example: “Bernice felt like she?d been holding her tongue for years. She wanted to wipe the slate clean. Maybe it was late in the game, but she could still bring out a fresh deck.”)

As the above citations indicate, Rabe has done a superior job of giving life to Bernice. He has been somewhat less successful with Janet: her plight and pain are evident, but not her personality, and her voice is not especially individual. Rabe excels at dialogue — unsurprisingly, for a playwright — though he can?t resist showing off occasionally. His prose, on the other hand, is uncertain, with a tendency to clotting and crowding; the book is overwritten and repetitive, giving away the author?s lack of experience in the genre. Whatever its faults, though, Dinosaurs on the Roof is an intelligent piece of work, with a plot that functions as an apt focus for the theme of redemption — of both the spiritual and worldly varieties.