“Fun with Problems” – Stories by Robert Stone

“Fun with Problems” – stories by Robert Stone  (2010) – 195 pages

 Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Robert Stone could well have been the most respected fiction writer in the United States at the time.  Two of his novels, ‘Dog Soldiers’ and ‘A Flag for Sunrise’ were held in high esteem.  Wikipedia speaks of “Stone’s trademark brand of acid-tinged existential realism while exploring broad political and social questions.”  Although Robert Stone was a realist, he wrote in a sort of drug-induced stream of consciousness that fit in well with the Sixties and Seventies.  In the early Sixties, Stone had gone west with Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey and became a member of Kesey’s early hippy group, the Merry Pranksters.  Although I’ve read both of the above-mentioned novels, I hadn’t read Robert Stone for a long time, so I decided to try his new book of short stories, “Fun with Problems”.

Stone’s writing is still drug and alcohol saturated.  His characters have usually been in and out of drunk tanks and drug rehabilitation centers.  They frequently suffer from a bipolar condition which may be a mental illness or just a side effect of the alcohol and drugs.  His main characters usually have no illusions about other people’s goodness, and they especially have no illusions about their own goodness.

The first three stories of ‘Fun with Problems’ are excellent, showcasing Stone’s talent at its best.  This is the usual case in short story collections, because the book never would get published if the author didn’t have a few good stories.  They might as well put the good stories first so the reader gets a positive opinion right away.

The problems start with the fourth story, “The Wine-Dark Sea”.  This story is divided into two parts that have little relationship to each other.  I soon came to the conclusion that these were actually two chapters of a novel that Stone had started and then given up on.  As a story, it was terribly disjointed, and little effort was taken to turn it into a coherent story.  I’ve seen this before, the started and discarded novel passed off as a story.  Publishers usually let only their most esteemed writers get away with this sort of thing. 

Many of us can recognize a great story collection, but how do you recognize a mediocre or lame story collection?   As I mentioned, nearly all story collections start strong for the first fifty or so pages.  But then the reader senses a diminishing, a gradual or not-so-gradual falling off of the stories.  I believe nearly all story collections are arranged in order of the descending quality of the stories, although occasionally a strong story will be selected for the last story to give the reader a good feeling at the finish. 

So having the fourth story in “Fun with Problems” be a lame discarded beginning of a novel did not bode well for the rest of the book.  Even in the best story collections when you get between two thirds and three quarters of the way through, the stories aren’t quite as good as the early stories.  The fifth and sixth stories of  “Fun with Problems” continued the disappointing downward spiral of the book.  Things revived a little with the last story, “The Archer”, but by that time I’d lost my willingness to just go along with the author in his excesses. 

I should mention that the reviews of this collection were generally positive, although there were a few like mine that criticized it.  One of the reviews I read of “Fun with Problems” praised Stone’s brutal honesty in these stories.  Most of the main characters in these stories are rather proud of their alcohol drinking, their drug-taking, and the women they link up with, so I wouldn’t call it brutal honesty for them to admit to these behaviors.    When these same main characters criticized nearly everyone else, it seemed to me more like the cheap cynicism of the drunk or druggie rather than brutal honesty.

In the longest story “High Wire” the main character is a movie screenwriter.   For the last eighty or so years, many of the better United States fiction writers have gone on to screenwriting to the detriment of their writing careers.  Not sure if Robert Stone has done any screenwriting.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. How disappointing. Perhaps the inconsistency in the quality of the stories in this collection may lie in your line “Stone’s writing is still drug and alcohol saturated”, no?

    That aside, I love the cover!

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  2. I mean collection, not connection. D’oh.

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  3. Hi Kimbofo,
    Welcome back! I sure need to expand my reading of Chinese novels.
    I too thought that the problems with “Fun with Problems” might be alcohol and drug-related, but then thought about Malcolm Lowry writing one of the great 20th century novels “Under the Volcano” in a total alcoholic haze. Writers and publishers passing off beginnings of failed novels as stories is not unusual.

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