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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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
almost always 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.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.
Fun with Problems

by Robert Stone
Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

Visit his web site at
www.tedgioia.com

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