Last year, about this time, I began reading the works of Robert Stone to prepare for reviewing Child of Light, Madison Smartt Bell’s new biography of the author. Covid was descending upon us: the sense of something bad and unforeseen yet ineluctable happening, which we wanted to look away from but could not (unless you were a huckster of magical thinking). It was an appropriate backdrop for reading Stone’s work.
Though I want to focus on the brightening humor in some of the stories in Stone’s last story collection, Fun with Problems (2010), an introduction to Stone’s writing philosophy is in order. This can be found in the collection Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel (1989), part of The Writer’s Craft series edited by William Zinsser. Stone begins his contribution (originally a lecture) taking issue with William Gass’s essay, “Goodness Knows Nothing of Beauty,” originally published in Harper’s in April of 1987. Gass’s essay, Stone says, “is characterized by paradox, alliteration and a faintly decadent naughtiness suggestive of intense sophistication.” According to Stone, Gass has an “antinomian vision,” in which “morality and art are independent and even in opposition.” Morality looks like the Mormon Tabernacle, but “Art is like a black panther. It has the glamor of the desperado.” Some artists like this for a simple reason: “it’s fun.” Stone mentions Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset, Oscar Wilde, and James Joyce when he writes from Stephen Dedalus’s point of view.
But, Stone says, if you write about people, you have to write about morality. We in the West, he contends, are, whether we like it or not, People of the Book—that is, of the King James Version of the Bible—and so we believe deep down, without even thinking about it, that human life has significance. “What people do on earth matters, because earth is really the only place where things are happening.” He adds shortly thereafter:
There are two basic facts in life. We are out here in this stuff, whatever it is, whatever it’s called . . . Thursday. And we are not alone. Fortunately, we have each other. Unfortunately, we have each other. At which point, politics necessarily commences.
Stone relates how, as a journalist in Vietnam, it was hard for him to write truthfully about the war. Even when you tried to tell the whole truth, he says, “one always seemed to be cleaning it up.” But this was okay, he finally decided, because we aspire to be better than we are. “Moments occur when we amaze each other with acts of hope, acts of courage that can make one proud to be human.” Furthermore, we need to “idealize ourselves.” Otherwise, “we would never be capable of the extensions of ourselves that are required of us.”
Stories, that is, serve (but are not limited to) a moral purpose:
Storytelling is not a luxury to humanity; it’s almost as necessary as bread. We can’t imagine ourselves without it. The self is a story: our individual, brief place in history is compounded of stories—stories that we shape inwardly and outwardly to make them more agreeable.
At this point, I have to pause and note that, having read all of Stone’s fiction and nonfiction in print, as well as a book of interviews with him, I hardly think anyone would ever accuse him of having made his stories “more agreeable.” And yet, upon further reflection, I see a deeper truth. That is, though at first glance you wonder how Stone can say he has shaped his stories “to make them more agreeable and hence more useful,” when they include realities such as child killers, murderous policeman, speed freaks, terrorist bombings, and corrupt Federal drug agents (to name the first few things that come to mind), after you have read them, through the wringing-out process—or, as Arthur Miller might say, the chickens-coming-home-to-roost-process—which is art, you do feel exalted. Perhaps this is the catharsis of pity and fear Aristotle theorized about, or as Schopenhauer said, “Then, shuddering, we feel ourselves already in the midst of hell.” But then the tragedy is over, we have seen the worst; some have died, but some have lived. As Albert Camus wrote in The Rebel, “Even if the novel describes only nostalgia, despair, frustration, it still creates a form of salvation. To talk of despair is to conquer it. Despairing literature is a contradiction in terms.”
Stone goes on to say that writers “discharge their social responsibility by writing as well—or to employ a Hemingway locution, as well and truly—as they can. The writer who betrays his calling is the one who, for commercial or political reasons, vulgarizes his own perception and imagination and his rendering of them.”
Then, after describing how “meretricious” work makes us lonelier instead of bridging the gaps between people, Stone says something essential to his whole enterprise:
Above all, you must not sentimentalize. Sentimentality is the great enemy of genuine sentiment. Commitment can be useful because it brings a degree of passion to bear. But it’s also dangerous. Nothing is free in the world. To be a contented partisan of one side or another, you have to sell something. In exchange for your contentment you have to give up a measure of critical judgment. Because so much of serious politics in this century [the 20th] consists of violence, this can be a morally enervating exercise. Moral enervation is bad for writers.
This seems to me another way of saying that you cannot be a good writer and follow the party line. You can be a partisan: Stone was a committed liberal (not neoliberal) Democrat, and you can read his political essays in Bell’s collection of Stone’s nonfiction in The Eye You See With, wherein he excoriates the GOP and seems prophetic about the Trump era. Yet the point is to not be a contented partisan. “In exchange for your contentment you have to give up a measure of critical judgment.” Which is also dangerous for writers.
With Stone’s philosophy in place, I embarked upon my journey into the author’s work. But as fate would have it, I started not at the beginning but with his final story collection: Fun with Problems. I read this book first because it was the only one I owned at the moment, but in a way it was fortuitous. It gave me a taste of a more mellow, dare I say, sweeter, Robert Stone than you will find in most of his other work.
For the world Stone portrays is a grim one. “Grim” was one of his favorite words. And though his work interrogated graft, power structures, greed, and bad government actors, as a whole his fiction dwelled on alcohol or drug-addicted people. The reason: Stone was himself was an alcoholic and drug addict, who may have tried suicide twice—the evidence is inconclusive—and who was in and out of rehab for most of his adult life. (Contributing to this predilection was a childhood absent a father whom he never met, and a mother, who, although well-educated and loving, was also most likely schizophrenic.) During one rehab stay in 1999, he heard the following in a video: “Overcoming difficulties can present spiritual opportunities. It is actually possible to have fun with problems.”
The phrase not only lends itself as the title for the collection, but also the first story in the book. Though it and the story that follows, “Honeymoon,” are neither mellow nor gentle; they portray Stone’s usual grim realities—addicted people running from life brought face to face with life despite themselves and forced to make choices. They don’t glint with the humor you find in the stories that comprise much of the rest of the collection. In fact, one might read this as an arc of development of sorts: the first stories a bridge to Stone’s work that precedes Fun with Problems, with the remainder—particularly the final four in the book—serving as a kind of evolution of his interests. And although he returned to grimness with his last novel, The Death of the Black-Haired Girl, you can still see how this mellowing reveals itself in his last posthumous piece, “Coda,” which we’ll get to later.
Where we first see some of this shifting taking place is the third story in the collection, “Charm City,” which is about a middle-aged man, Frank Bowers, who is seduced by a mysterious woman, Margaret, whom he meets at a museum. “Seduced” is not quite the right word; she buys him a drink, flirts, says she needs a ride; lustfully encouraged, he detours to a second home he and his wife have, but Margaret, after she’s looked appraisingly around the house, says she can’t go through with it—“Another woman’s bed!” Bowers takes her back to the city and then we switch to her point of view.
This is where the humor kicks in. Margaret is a former psychiatrist now turn meth and antiques dealer. (One wonders if Stone is revenging himself on a former shrink.) The “seduction” was really for the casing of Bower’s house. Margaret is aided in her crimes by her daughter, Cordelia, and Cordelia’s boyfriend, Donny, aka Slash. (Slash calls Margaret, “Slim.”) Bowers and his wife have a big surprise waiting for them the next time they go to spend a weekend at their second home.
The humor continues with “The Wine-Dark Sea,” “very loosely based,” Bell writes in his biography, “on a 1972 episode when some outraged citizen had tried to hurl Secretary Robert McNamara into the drink.” Reporter Eric Floss, “a freelancer whose demonstrated unreliability had limited his prospects of journalistic advancement,” ensconces himself at the cottage of an ex-girlfriend’s house on fictional Steadman’s Island off the Connecticut coast because the Secretary of Defense is having a meeting there. “The Secretary liked to summon his political retainers to remote and inconvenient meeting sites to inform them of his wishes . . . .” The Secretary has a psychotic episode, throws a ferryman off the ferry, and the locals band together to make sure the true events get told, as opposed to the Secret Service who want to cover up the whole thing. The story ends up as a farce, and though Stone has a great talent for farcical episodes, it’s not really his gig to end on a farcical note as he does here. That is, Stone includes farcical episodes in some of his earlier works, especially in previous novels such as Hall of Mirrors and A Flag for Sunrise, but to start with grim and end with farce perhaps shows Stone is pointing out the absurdity of a certain kind of politics, or way of doing things, and that they don’t really affect life in a deep way: they are beside the point. This, in itself, it seems to me, implies that Stone has begun to relax his usual viewpoint, seeing the absurdity in this aspect of politics and human nature, rather than feeling the need to punish or mete out justice of some sort to the characters. Not that Stone has ever seemed to hate his characters or want to judge them. Rather, he observes them doing stupid selfish things and then the universe judges them. But in this case the universe couldn’t be bothered.
“From the Lowlands,” the next story, brings to mind Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but with a slightly different twist. There’s the same sense of increasing foreboding and dread you find in O’Connor’s story, but Stone succeeds in ratcheting it up even more. Robert Stone does dread better than anybody, but in this story he also keeps you laughing in a grisly sort of way. The effect is to create tension in the reader, who feels dread in the pit of the stomach, but because the character involved is so pitiable and unaware, also looks forward to karma coming around sooner rather than later.
Here is the character, Leroy, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who has made a lot of cash, married and discarded wives, jettisoning friends and business partners as needed to stay on top. He’s built a mansion in a desolate isolated canyon, and the story describes a day—most likely his last—of his life. He remembers his rise to success, excuses himself for his hard decisions, pats himself on the back for his ruthlessness. If not him, somebody else, so why not him?
Leroy drives into the local village for supplies, and, after creating a scene by giving a boy a candy bar without telling his parents, dropping by the post office to pick up his mail, and inwardly mocking an older woman neighbor who used to ride her horse down his canyon but now says she doesn’t because you have to be “wary,” drives back home pondering the wanted poster of a killer named Alan Ladd. Storm clouds gather in the sky “like an angel army.” He stops and chats with a construction crew building a house that bothers him by its proximity to his own, but it doesn’t go well—“Anything I can do for you guys?” . . . . “Yeah. Make us rich.”
Leroy arrives home, prepares supper and phones an old flame, Ilena, a Romanian woman. You suddenly realize how lonely he is.
“I’m opening your caperberries. Thinking of you.”
She laughed charmingly. “Don’t be so stupid. You make me pissed off.”
“If you don’t come,” Leroy said, “I’ll make you sorry.”
“Ya? I don’t think so. How about: Fuck yourself, dollink.”
They continue talking and she mentions that she knows the nickname he has given her; Lewis, a business associate of Leroy’s has told her Leroy calls her “Strangepussy.” “That nitwit,” Lewis replies, but before she, cursing in Romanian, hangs up, he says, “Please, Ilena.”
As the thunderstorm is about to break, Leroy’s rage at all the losers he’s left behind wells up, and, brought to a boil by Ilena, he stomps out to his patio and bangs repeatedly on a metal table, summoning thereby his final confrontation, but with something more deadly than Alan Ladd. The humor comes from the contrast between how Leroy thinks of himself as this grand business schemer, and yet deep down he appears to be a petulant little boy wanting his way all the time. He thinks of himself as being the strong individual, that he needs no one, when, in fact, he is desperately lonely and needy: he needs people to use and push around. He has lived like an animal with a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, and that is how he will die.
The humor in “From the Lowlands” flashes like lightning through the story, but in “High Wire,” the next story, the humor glows more like a warm autumn day. Doomed love is the theme, but there is a paragraph in the story that illustrates Stone’s masterful mordant touch. The narrator, Stone’s only example of the use of the first person, describes a trip to visit the story’s heroine, Lucy, who is now living with a guy named Scott:
Scott was under the impression that he could play the guitar. He plinked on one for us as we watched and waited. Lucy avoided eye contact with me. As Scott played, his face assumed a fanatical spirituality and he rolled his strange eyes. Watching him doing it induced in the beholder something like motion sickness. In his transport he suggested the kind of Jehovah’s Witness who would kill you with a hammer for rejecting his Watchtower.
This laugh-out-loud humor (at least for me) is an aspect of Stone’s work I have seldom heard mentioned. Again, the humor comes from the contrast between Scott’s notion that “he could play the guitar,” and the obvious fact that he cannot; and that Lucy knows this and won’t look at the narrator. Scott plays plinks on his guitar as if it is a spiritual experience that might transport the listener when what it really does is make the listener feel nauseous. Bell mentions this humor a couple of times in his biography of the author, but perhaps without enough emphasis. Robert D. Richardson, late husband of Annie Dillard and author of profound biographies of Thoreau, Emerson, and William James, noted it, however, in a reminiscence of Stone for Lit Hub. He describes Stone in Key West reading aloud “Aquarius Obscured,” from his first collection, Bear and His Daughter, which is about a drugged-out woman, Alison, who visits the aquarium and encounters a talking Fascist dolphin. Richardson recounts that the audience had been “laughing uncontrollably” during the event. And in the remembrance, he calls the story “a comic masterpiece,” quoting how the dolphin tells Alison, “Your civilization has afforded us many moments of amusement. Unfortunately it must now be irrevocably destroyed.”
Perhaps Stone’s humor is forgotten because in his novels, which he is best known for, the unfolding tragedy swallows up the funny scenes. Whereas, the humor makes more of an impact—and can play a larger role—in the short stories. This is especially true in “The Archer,” the final story in Fun with Problems. It is the funniest, most hopeful story Stone ever wrote. Duffy, an art professor whose wife, Otis, has left him to marry a student, Prosser Spearman—Stone is a master of character names—is at wit’s end in his life. The first line is another classic: “It was said of Duffy that he had threatened his wife and her lover with a crossbow.” But all that is over as we follow Duffy on a trip to “Pahoochee State University on the Gulf of Mexico” to deliver a lecture. “As time passed,” after the divorce, “Duffy increasingly took up the academic craft lecture circuit to escape the heart of the dark New England winter.”
Unfortunately (or is it?), Duffy is a big drinker and makes a scene at a restaurant while eating with his host professor and his family. Duffy claims, raucously and insultingly, but also uproariously and wittily, that the food he is served is not genuine crab:
“‘It’s some rotten thing out of a tube. Made by people who hate us and think we’re stupid . . . . Because Americans are moronic cupcakes who could be induced to eat their own shoelaces.”
The host professor’s wife gathers the kids and leaves as Duffy rants on; the waitress, Staci, cries; the cook, whom Duffy calls “Chef Boyardee,” comes out and tries to kick him; and eventually the police arrive. Duffy, instead of delivering his lecture—“Contemporary American painting, more or less, and how it had got that way”—gets thrown in jail.
He calls Otis and Prosser, and with a mixture of bonhomie, threats, and begging, not to mention a few lies (about how much money he needs for bail), wrangles the funds from Prosser, though because of the terms of his release, he has to remain in Pahoochee for the weekend. There, stuck in a motel for three days, Duffy manages to not drink, using his time instead to get a haircut and beard trim, buy some art supplies, and spend a Sunday on a bench overlooking the beach and sketching in crayon the unfolding day.
There was lots to look at if you were not in a hurry, if it did not bother you that you had seen it before, if you were observer enough—well, he thought, let’s say artist enough!—to look it all over one more time.
He draws the college kids playing volleyball, “a passel of extremely self-conscious punks,” “a grove of suffering palm trees, a memorial plinth, an abandoned sandwich sign advertising a psychic.” He gets down the tourists coming out of the casinos, arguing couples, panhandlers, cops, hookers.
. . . the evening was lovely, gathered up as it was in sea and sky. Its transcendent light resisted all the defacements organized Pahoochee could inflict on it. Duffy kept drawing as late as he could. When the beach lights and tiki torches and fluorescents came on, he colored them into the rest.
The next day, looking for a cab, Duffy encounters Staci, who doesn’t recognize his sober, barbered self. He introduces himself, rips his sketch out of his sketchbook, and gives it to her. He tells her he is James Duffy and that she might be able to sell the sketch. The scene is saved from sentimentality when Staci tells him she never intended on going to the lecture anyway, and Duffy considers trying to get her to pose nude for him. “That,” he decides, “would never do. If he presented such a notion, she might even suffer a ghastly attack of recovered memory.”
Duffy has wrested a gesture of healing of sorts from his ex-wife and her husband; tried to make up to a young woman whom he had upset with his drunken rant; and himself made a work of art instead of just talking about the work of others. And in being forced to slow down from his frenetic hard-drinking obsessions with the faults of others—Otis and Prosser, American artists, the provincial aspects of everyday culture—and simply sit on the bench with his art supplies, he’s finally been able to simply observe life. To appreciate it for what it is, rather than what he thinks it should be. In short: to quit being a critic. To be an artist instead. And, in doing so, he is able to also take compassion on himself.
The feeling I had when I finished this story was one I would describe as sweet. The only other time I felt this way reading Stone was when I read his last piece, posthumously published, “Coda.” In it he speaks of his youthful admiration of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel—his mother had told him to read it and On the Road—and how he lives “in hope, as may surprise some.”
Meaning of life? As Chico Marx once remarked, “There ain’t no Sanity Clause.” Perhaps it was rash of me to describe the fisher of Leviathan as a GIANT INVISIBLE BABYLONIAN PAPERWEIGHT. I propose to go on serving, to serve better. God must, in appallingly stranger mercy, understand that he is the one joke by which we live and that he, agent or principal, is at the center of it.
As Bell comments, “In this last text he seems more to be talking to himself, or maybe he was praying.”
Though Stone, like Faulkner, was a better novelist than short story writer, his best two or three stories approach Hemingway territory. Fun with Problems shows Stone letting more light into his dark vision. Sean O’Faolain, in his book, The Short Story, wrote, “What one searches for and what one enjoys in a short story is a special distillation of personality, a unique sensibility . . . .” In Fun with Problems, Robert Stone was lightening up a little (not too much) and he was a bit wiser for it. And that is our blessing.