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Book Review: Fun with Problems by Robert Stone

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American fiction has some experience with patricians and highbrows, and even more familiarity with the self-made, the upwardly mobile, and the noble poor. Then again, in more recent years, a sleazier kind of protagonist has emerged, bred in the fictions of Raymond Carver, Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk and their followers, where the squalor is laid out for full immersion, a literary equivalent of a mud bath for those not too squeamish.

But Robert Stone, author of the short story collection Fun with Problems, has his own distinctive twist on this equation. He is the master of mixing opposites, the connoisseur of the wickedly twisted masquerading as the sweetly sophisticated. His characters will often surprise you, and seem to do a good job of surprising themselves — although it’s rarely a pleasant surprise.

What a titillating formula! Here we encounter a woman attending a Mahler concert, who is also a doctor and engaging conversationalist; but a few pages later she turns into a psychopathic and dangerous scam artist. Elsewhere we meet attorney Peter Matthews, whom we follow as he attends Shakespeare Cymbeline, and watch as he chats knowledgeably about playwright Clifford Odets on a first date…. before slamming his lady friend with his fist—all this a prelude to seducing and abandoning her. In the final story in Fun with Problems, Stone presents us with James Duffy, respected academic and artist — that is, when he isn’t getting drunk, out of control, and arrested for assault.

The opening of the latter story, entitled “The Archer,” perfectly captures the volatile combination of intellectualism and violence that permeates these unpredictable tales. “It was said of Duffy that he had threatened his wife and her lover with a crossbow. His own recollection of that night was scattered….[but] each autumn it was revived, like a solar myth, for a new generation of art students.” Others have written more poignantly about dissipation and the dangers of substance abuse. Others may aim lower or higher in their character portraits. But only Stone can mix up drunkenness and marital infidelity with a medieval weapon and student orientation chatter.

The title of this collection comes from a rehab videotape, which happily tells its down-and-out audience: “Overcoming difficulties can present spiritual opportunities. It is actually possible to have fun with problems.” Yet the characters who populate these stories may be having a bit too much fun with their problems, at least judging by their inability to stop repeating them. On the scale of various twelve step programs, these folks find it hard getting beyond step number one. Yes, that’s the one about admitting you have a problem.

Stone brings some unique credentials to his accounts of substance abusers and rule-breakers. A high school dropout from Brooklyn, he associated with the Beatniks backing the 1950s, went on the road with Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey in the 1960s, and became one of Kesey’s famous Merry Pranksters. Along the way, he journeyed everywhere from Antarctica to Vietnam, the latter serving as a setting for Stone’s best known novel, Dog Soldiers, which won the National Book Award back in 1975. “You can't know too much,” he has commented with regard to the craft of fiction, “and you can't experience too much — to the degree that it doesn't destroy you.”

In the longest story in this collection, appropriately called “High Wire,” we follow a screenwriter who is “selling scripts like crazy,” yet puzzles over his deepening drug and relationship problems, quagmires of self-absorption that seem to run counter to his self-image as cultivated and an exponent“of the examined life.” He has a wife and a lover, and he betrays both in more ways than even he can comprehend, for all his savoir faire. “As for root causes,” he offers in a revealing aside, “I couldn’t have cared less.”

Stone, who describes himself as “a middle-class guy with a family,” doesn’t allow his characters the comfort of settling down. If you are looking for tales of redemption, Fun With Problems will not give you much satisfaction. The opening quote from the rehab video is misleading, since lasting rehab is in short supply here. Yet the same morbid curiosity that leads us to gaze at car wrecks will keep you involved in these gripping accounts of smart people who don’t really care to wise up.

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About Ted Gioia