Over the past few weeks, I have been working my way through Fun With Problems, a collection of short stories by Robert Stone. These stories exist in the darker side of humanity, revealing layers of complexities of the human psyche. Characters are dreadfully flawed, typically with an abused substance lending to their conditions. Relationships are equally complicated, usually broken, as each character works through each other’s issues, whether as casual acquaintances or lovers, showing that every action contains a consequence.
I am drawn to complex personas in any story regardless of the medium – that includes premium cable channel serial dramas – I have never liked shallow characters that can be simply labeled as good or evil, I feel ripped off. Equally, being a visual person I am attracted to vivid descriptions of environments and settings. When these two qualities of a story play off each other, they strike a visceral nerve leading to a serotonin rush like no other.
In the title story, “Fun With Problems,” we find Peter Matthews, a divorced lawyer on in years who lives a solitary life in the Massachusetts countryside, a place he hates. He lives there because of the opportunity to make a living off the criminal element in the nearby rural areas that result in kids landing in the local jail, such as his incarcerated client he’s on his way to meet.
[The Hamptom] Valley was his native place, and he had been watching it all his life; its preachifying and its secret horror. The recently arrived professionals, academics and technologists, had brought to Hampton a self-conscious blessed assurance, unaware of the beatings, arson and murder that thrived in the hills around their white-trim shutters. Matthews knew the place’s black heart. It was his living.
A drunk in recovery who has not actually recovered, he inflicts his apathetic negativity on others as it fuels his meager egotism and depression. The dreariness of falling sleet and snow on a bleak town paint a vivid portrait of Matthews’s mind during his drive to the jail.
The famous jail, the red brick rat-house minarets attached to a new wing of frosted Martian glass, stood beside the river between a pair of old paper mills…. There were also a few shabby offices, headquarters to some social-services organizations. These were relics of the age of concern, grown decadent with underfunding, long on ideology and short on practical solutions. One scarred band specialized in raiding the migrant-pickers’ cockfights. A crazy poet did children’s theater the children dreaded.
Matthews, reminiscent and longing for his happier, earlier days with his ex-wife in the 1970s, much like the jail that houses the delinquents he serves, is the relic of the age of concern who has grown decadent. The prison conference setting further paints this portrait.
Matthews and his client conferred in a chapel in the jail’s old wing, a relic of gentler days. The chapel had been temporarily divided by partitions of wallboard and Plexiglas that reaches a third of the way to the ceiling and were being slowly vandalized.
It is in this setting he finds his quick fix, a younger woman who happens to be a psychologist, who was also on the wagon, whom he can corrupt with alcohol to gratify his loneliness, and wanton needs. All of this playing a more significant role than his responsibility to his wrongly incarcerated client.
In the last story of the collection, “The Archer,” we meet Duffy, a well-established and somewhat eccentric professional artist who teaches at a New England university. He was reputed to have threatened his ex-wife and lover, a fellow professor, with a crossbow. Over-consumption of alcohol plays a central role as he copes with the heartache and daily reminders of what he once had. He travels to a college town on the Gulf of Mexico as part of his lecture circuit to escape the sorrowful New England winter and the reminders of all that he had lost – his home, his wife, and his life. The following scene captures his edgy, fragile psyche brilliantly:
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 king of tourists headed for the offshore ooze.
Throughout the story Duffy make a series of observations of the town suiting of an established painter, one who sees the overall scene and zooms into the grittiest details as a sort of self-portrait. Each observation connects to a previous one, I noticed, painting a grand picture of the town. He describes the town as “layers of stuccoed box bungalows leaning on thin concrete walls lit by tiki torches, enclosing tin pastel swimming pools.” The descriptions often carry themes of religion, redemption, and morality, reflecting his thought-process and overall sadness. Note the tiki torch and plane references in the following excerpt in a later paragraph:
The doomed palms with their spiky crowns reminded Duffy of a crucifixion. Insolent posters were affixed to their suffering trunks with cruel nails the size of industrial staples, threatening passersby with the judgment of Christ. Artificial palms stood at intervals among others like Judas goats at a slaughterhouse to encourage and betray the doomed natural ones. The tiki-torch fuel, together with road stench and beach barbecue pits, gave it all the aroma of a day-old plane crash.
Throughout the stories in Fun With Problems, the scenery is lush and complex, filled with people and things representing the good and bad of society living amongst each other, its ambiguity displaying both flaws and beauty externalizing the protagonists’ personas. After finishing the book, I had read in Stone’s biography that he is known for writing about characters with complex psychologies, an attribute that I was pleased to discover during my own course as a reader.
4 thoughts on “Writing Craft: Fun With Problems by Robert Stone”
Nice review David. I'm going to add this book to my list!
David, this is a terrific, in-depth post. Clearly, you have engaged deeply with Stone’s stories. As a writer yourself you can’t help but benefit from this engagement, because I really feel Stone is one of America’s best. Your summary of Stone’s basic themes is quite perceptive, in my opinion. There is no doubt that most of his protagonists can trace their problems, at least in part, to substance abuse – although in most cases the substance abuse itself is merely symptomatic of a deeper problem. The title of this collection is clearly not accidental! I think you’re absolutely dead-on to suggest that “every action contains a consequence.” Stone is a classic storyteller in this regard, with a rigorous attitude toward causality and a deeply moral worldview, in which his protagonists' crimes of commission and omission rarely go unpunished.I also think you hit on something central about Stone’s writing technique; that is, the way he uses place description to reflect and refract his protagonists’ tortured psyches:“. . . the scenery is lush and complex, filled with people and things representing the good and bad of society living amongst each other, its ambiguity displaying both flaws and beauty externalizing the protagonists’ personas.”Because it’s essentially my job to find something to argue with you about, I would have liked to have seen a slightly more (from a writer’s perspective) pragmatic analysis of how Stone accomplishes the near-miracle of, as you rightly call it, “externalizing the protagonists’ personas.” How does he pull this off? Can you find more specific elements of place description and tie them to specific elements of a protagonist’s character? More importantly, can you see yourself using similar techniques in your own writing?But these are mere quibbles. In the end, I think you’ve captured the essence of these stories, and given us some useful insight into what makes Stone’s writing tick. If you enjoyed Fun with Problems, you might like Stone’s other collection, Bear and his Daughters. I’ll have a craft analysis post coming up on some stories from this collection in the next few weeks at http://weedlit.blogspot.com/. Or if you’d like to read one of his novels – which are highly entertaining page-turners as well as often terrifying psychological portraits – you might want to try Outerbridge Reach, Red Flag for Sunrise, and Dog Soldiers – all of which, in my view, belong in the very top rank of contemporary American novels. Well done. Looking forward to the next one!
Thanks Derrick. I think you will appreciate the characters and subject matter in these stories.
Thanks Tim. A challenge comes from every direction with you guys. I did have several more thoughts on this theme of using environment to illustrate the characters. For example, "The Wine-Dark Sea" was great at using a New England island as its setting, filled with isolation, antiquity, and a separatism when it came to nationalistic pride. I liked the story a lot, probably my favorite, but much harder for me to extrapolate the concept I was writing about. Equally, "From the Lowlands" made excellent use of the Califronia desert-meets-mountains isolation – that word again – in portraying the protagonist's egotism with his large house atop a high hill far outside of town.I will check out other books by Stone, probably after the semester, or MFA program, wraps up. My reading list is never short of good stuff. Thanks!