BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Robert Stone
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
In this collection, Stone is at his best when he’s dallying. Whether it’s an old lush sitting around, freaking people out, or a foolhardy suburban warrior stumbling drug-addled toward some quixotic goal, Stone excels at the second act. He runs into problems after that.
For most of these stories, Stone uses an odd pattern to build twisting, dogleg plots. We start with a man, a lawyer or a writer or a professor, who’s an incorrigible womanizer and a drunk or a druggie. After a length of time establishing a premise (and dallying magnificently), the story veers off in some wild way and leaves that premise—and often the main character—behind.
Sometimes the veering off involves a new point of view, sometimes a new location, sometimes an entire set of new characters. A couple of the stories here, most notably the title piece, “Fun With Problems,” succeed (more or less) with their cutback plot twists. More often, though, the narrative runs off the track, gets lost, and then lays down and dies.
So, while Stone’s writing, and especially his dialogue, are characteristically excellent, Fun With Problems is unsatisfying because the stories’ arcs so often bewilderingly abandon their first halves.
In an interview in the Boston Globe about this collection, Stone says, “I was writing about some hard places of the spirit and I couldn’t seem to get these people out of the troubles they were in. I couldn’t find them the way out.”
I don’t put a lot of stake in what writers say about their own work, but in this case, Stone’s words are cuttingly honest and accurate. Frustratingly (never quite redeemingly), the troubles Stone puts his characters in are often the source of the collection’s best prose.
In “The Archer,” for example, Duffy, an unbalanced art professor with his life in ruins, flies down south to deliver a guest lecture. As his plane lands, there’s this dalliance:
As the aircraft, jammed to within a single breathing expanse of claustrophobia, swooped low over alligator-infested pastel swamp, Duffy was already thinking with loathing of the subject of his Pahoochee lecture. … The interior of the plane on landing seemed so impacted with flesh that it would have required only one neurasthenic’s psychic break to be transformed into a thrashing tube of terror, a panic-driven, southbound rat kind of tourists head for the offshore ooze.
Once Duffy arrives, there’s this:
He bent to drink from the faucet; the water tasted of baitfish and the Confederate dead. … In desperation he took a sip from his liter of booze. Nothing good came of it, neither comfort nor light.
But when it comes time for Duffy to take action instead of pontificating impotently (if sublimely) on despair and doom, Duffy can’t manage to do much of anything meaningful, and the story ends with a limp collection of failed epiphanies.
Also among the actionless is Eric Floss, the first protagonist of “The Wine-Dark Sea.” Eric, a freelance journalist, who travels to Steadman’s Island, off the coast of Connecticut, to try to report on a bizarre summit called there by the Secretary of Defense. He stays with an ex-girlfriend’s sister and her husband, and after he drunkenly mocks and argues with them (another awesome dalliance), the perspective switches to the husband, and then to the Secretary of Defense, in whose head Eric Floss is a meaningless speck in the distance. Eventually problems abound, and the story limps to an uninspired conclusion that straddles all three men, but fails to affect or move or change any of them.
In the story “Fun With Problems,” the lawyer Matthews is visiting his mentally deficient client in jail. He looks over at another inmate, a sociopath named Brand, whose visitor is an attractive young woman:
Matthews watched them. The woman was laughing at something Brand had said, and Matthews felt a rush of what he thought might be a very basic form of sexual jealousy. Here, safely confined, we had self-selected alpha man, recognizable by his readiness to snap off your digits on a whim, exchanging a few sexual signifiers with the condescending female of the species. It wasn’t pretty, but it was the real thing.
That excellent passage is one of the best of the story, and the scene simmers with layers of tension and intense character. Soon after, however, we’re transported from the jail, and from the client and Brand, so Matthews can pursue Brand’s attractive visitor. While this story is my favorite of the collection, it too suffers from an ending that seems to belong to a different story.
I won’t go through every story in the interest of saving space, but the same goes for almost all of the other stories in Fun With Problems. In this way, a collection with more than its fair share of brilliant passages—and a writer’s clinic on dialogue—comes up short when it’s time to stop wasting time.
Similar reads: Bear and His Daughter, by Robert Stone; Gallatin Canyon, by Thomas McGuane