Fractured fables

Stone’s tales, with small-bore themes, frustrate

Robert Stone’s new collection is filled with destructive and self-destructive characters surrounded by tragedy. Robert Stone’s new collection is filled with destructive and self-destructive characters surrounded by tragedy.
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / January 17, 2010

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A rapacious and brutal millionaire falls ignominious prey to a panther - his ravening counterpart - that invades his mountain retreat. A power mad US defense secretary goes violently insane and ends up in hospital writing an incoherent scrawl around the words “Mission Accomplished.’’ A would-be adulterer is punished by the woman who leads him on. An aspiring Hollywood star (who never makes it past asteroid) destroys herself on hard drugs.

There is little apart from the didactic awful in Robert Stone’s new collection, sardonically titled “Fun With Problems.’’ Indeed, there is little that is human at all: The characters range from destructive to self-destructive, and only one or two manage to make their way upwards to grief. The universe they lurch around is a black hole made of antimatter, or, in this case, of the alcohol and drugs that parade through six of the seven stories. Stone’s weaker work, here and in the novel “Children of Light,’’ tends to abandon his hammer-blow dealings with larger themes and package its tragedy in bottles and baggies.

Stone is an accomplished and powerful writer; the stories mostly begin with promise, but then as they go along they spin themselves apart in a downward spiral.

“The Wine Dark Sea’’ starts plausibly enough. Eric, an alcoholic and not very successful journalist, attempts a feature about the reactions of a New England island community to the disruptions caused by the defense secretary’s brain-storming retreat there with his staff and security.

Eric wangles a stay with Annie, the sister of a woman friend, and her dour husband, Tyler. A heavy fog blankets the island; Eric drinks, and soon Stone is using fog and alcohol to turn realism into the fictional equivalent of an altered state. Everything goes wildly out of control. Aboard the ferry linking the island to the mainland the defense secretary has Eric arrested for trying to interview him. When he notices Tyler, a former eco-activist who works as a ferry hand, glaring at him, he screams and throws him overboard.

Stone’s attempt to refract the story into the craziness of the times - the Iraq war, individual lives out of control - is forced and messy. In “From the Lowlands,’’ he uses an equivalently wild plot escalation to denounce a predatory Silicon Valley capitalist.

Leroy, who has made a computing fortune in weapons systems, builds a lavish mountain hideaway, “pursued by little sense of sin.’’ Stone thus immediately begins to stack the deck, but he does it alluringly at first; only gradually constructing someone monstrous in each small detail of his life. Badly overloaded, the story begins to totter. It collapses with a night thunderstorm, Leroy’s solitary panic, and finally with a panther, as merciless as he is, crouching to spring when he emerges from the swimming pool where he has taken refuge.

“Charm City’’ begins enticingly. After a museum concert, a married man is approached by a striking-looking woman who makes the moves on him. Unable to resist, he takes her for a drive to a summer house his wife has furnished with exquisite American antiques. The woman begs off, and seduction doesn’t quite take place; but he has been seduced, and so far, so has the reader. It is only in the second part that a terrible punishment is assembled, so elaborate and contrived as to throw the whole story off balance.

These three are social morality fables, if you like, but they woefully lack the deft touch such fables require. Stone has been a pile driver and to impressive effect - “A Flag for Sunrise,’’ “Damascus Gate’’ - but you don’t use a pile driver for fine carving.

“High Wire,’’ less of a fable, makes its own social point: essentially about the wasteland of celebrity ambition and the drug culture. The longest of the stories, and the dullest, it tells of the slow downfall of a sparkling - but never sparkling enough - Hollywood actress. The narrator - at times a lover, at others a caretaker - tells her story of failed ambitions and a descent into drug hell. In his voicing - detached, regretful, and faintly complicit - he resembles the narrator in Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’’

One of the few genuinely human voices among the stories is the narrator’s in “Honeymoon.’’ He has left his wife of many years to marry a student of his. On the first morning of their Caribbean honeymoon he makes ecstatic love, reveling in her freshness and young grace. Then when she goes off cheerfully to the pool, he phones his wife, weeping. He wants to go back; he is lonely. The morality point is plain enough - the illusory nature of sexual freedom - and the story goes on into drugs and melodrama. But that “lonely’’ fixes a moment of unforgettable grief.

Richard Eder writes reviews for several publications.

By Robert Stone
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 195 pp., $24