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Current Reads

Fun, Stone-Style

A second story collection from one of our greatest living writers.

Book Cover Robert Stone, who some commentators credit with being “one of our greatest living authors”—an assertion with which I would not argue—has a new (his second) story collection, Fun with Problems (Houghton Mifflin).

If you know any of Stone’s work (Dog Soldiers, Prime Green), the word “fun” will raise a red flag. Fun is not exactly what the characters in Stone’s fictions are about. The collection’s opening epigram is taken from a 1990 rehab video and is a tipoff to the kind of fun Stone has in mind: “Overcoming difficulties can present spiritual opportunities. It is actually possible to have fun with problems.”

As novelist/critic Alan Cheuse points out, “We follow Stone’s characters all the way to the bottom because of the stark and marvelous skeins of sentences that carry us in these descents, sentences made of language as sharp and compelling as Stone’s dramatic insights into the painful interior states of his characters.” Which, I should affirm, is an insight as worthy as the writing it explicates.

Five of these eight stories have appeared previously in venues as variegated as Playboy, The New Yorker, and Open City. “High Wire” (Open City #25), the story of an addiction-dependent, on-again, off-again romance between a Hollywood writer and an actress on the edge of success, is my favorite, mainly because this short fiction skillfully encapsulates a decades-long relationship without truncating or diminishing it. Antonya Nelson calls it a tour de force. One of the good things about Stone’s new opus is that someone was creative enough to have gifted fiction writer Antonya Nelson ruminate on it. Her piece is an outstanding example of what we should expect from writing about writing. After a concise discussion triangulating Stone with Hemingway and Raymond Carver, and a razor-sharp unpacking of Fun with Problems, she concludes:
It’s true you might resist wanting to know the people in Fun With Problems or, maybe more tellingly, seeing yourself in them. You might turn away from the uncomfortable truths you don’t wish to receive, from the mature, dissolute, ultimately heartbreaking rites of passage that fill these pages. But a genuine coming-of-age story demands that its subject resist the experience. No book is for everyone, but some books can be fully taken in only when the reader is ready. Fun With Problems is a book for grown-ups, for people prepared to absorb the news of the world that it announces, for people both grateful and a little uneasy in finding a writer brave enough to be the bearer.
Excellent all the way round.
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