I would assume being a playwright helps constructing a novel, but they are two completely different skills, yes? Then why do so few storytellers think in terms of both stage and written page? At least in terms of structure there should be a major overlap—conflict and character at the heart of both forms. Right?
Which brings us to David Rabe, who won the Tony Award for Sticks and Bones. Wrote Hurlyburly. Wrote the screenplay for The Firm, based on John Grisham’s novel.
Rabe’s novel “Girl by the Road at Night” is a showcase of editing and restraint. It’s quick. It’s a body blow. It’s brutal, tough, agonizing and painful. It’s unflinching. Some novels get under your skin and this one did for me.
At the core of “Girl by the Road at Night” is Pfc. Joseph Whitaker and his desire for human connections amid the war as he and other soldiers numb themselves to reality. Yes, you’ve read this story before. In the hands of David Rabe, the story feels new. In part, that’s because there is nothing routine about the details Rabe selects. He paints carefully. It reminded me heavily of Nick Arvin’s gem, “Articles of War.” That quick novel is set in World War II but the writing in both novels projects the sense that the words were chiseled carefully—but effortlessly—from stone.
“Girl by the Road at Night” is told in two halves. First, Whitaker in the United States, waiting to be shipped to Vietnam. “He feels like a man who’s been ordered to leave the earth, his destination the moon.” He yearns for a married ex-girlfriend and barges into her life. He gets tangled up in anti-war protests around the Washington Monument, his mind on finding an opportunity for sex as much as anything else. The second half follows Whitaker during the war (though the war is off in the distance) and his relationship with the prostitute.
Throughout, Whitaker is not in control. He’s impulsive and focuses on his needs like a top-notch zealot. “He’s like a dull lead ball in a pinball machine bouncing from flipper to flipper to pillar to pillar to wall to hole, lighting up little, scoring nothing. Zilch. He feels bad. Bad about who he is, where he is, what he’s done. Bad about everything.”
The protests around the Washington Monument are confusing. The rules of engagement (and recreation) in Vietnam are confusing. The rules of getting close to a prostitute are unclear. Whitaker tries to step up, find leverage. But he just keeps bouncing. “He is in a silver sea headed into a horizon he cannot find.”
The prostitute, Quach Ngoc Lan, is fully rendered and so are her surroundings. She lives in a “burgeoning jungle; think of incessant heat and dirt pressed into the substance of skin, calluses that go to the bone, seasons possessed by rain followed by seasons of dust.” (I had flashes of Robert Altman’s film, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and its de-sanitized Western scenery.) Speaking directly to readers, Rabe invites us to consider Lan’s life and “think of being as small as a thin child, forever.”
The contrast is striking between the two environments of Whitaker and Lan—their concerns, wishes, needs, privileges. Rabe doesn’t skimp on detailing Lan’s environment and that brings power to the entire story.
“Down the road that runs in from the fields before her a laboring, ponderous silhouette approaches, the thick-horned heads of water buffalo yoked together in wood. High on top of the wagon sits the farmer. Light yet lingers at the tip of the conical straw hat he wears. Low oblong shadows of pigs follow, while the shape of someone thin and short trails all, lifting now the length of the wooden staff. Lan’s breathing falters with an alien, unwanted ache that makes her shake her head, touch two fingers to her brow; yet it continues within her, changing the expression of her eyes. Having ridden in such carts, she wants to be in one again.”
The connection between Whitaker and Lan is human, palpable and poignant. Philip Caputo (writing in the New York Times) called the climactic scene a “masterpiece of compression” and it’s hard to disagree.
I also loved this line from a Los Angeles Times review: “Not for a moment does (the book) confuse armed conflict with glory or forget the disorienting isolation of being far from home and family amid an ever-changing cast of strangers, a circumstance that applies to the girl in the story as well as the boy.”
For me, “Girl by the Road at Night” is a masterpiece of compression, two deeply contrasting worlds boiled down to their essence.