In Robert Stone’s newest collection of short stories, Fun With Problems, the characters have just that. They’re everyday people from all walks of life, yet all are addicts with something broken about them. Stone’s characters are slightly despicable but at the same time familiar enough to ease the reader into their world.
This is no feel-good read; rather, it’s for readers who can be painfully honest with themselves, who can recognize their own bad behavior mirrored in the characters and somehow find a way to defend those actions.
The seven stories, ranging in length from four pages to nearly novella-length, build like a fitful night’s sleep of fever dreams -- the blanket tangles tighter and tighter as you toss. Though each story tells a different tale, they are linked together by a common core of loneliness and longing. These people’s lives would almost seem comical, if they weren’t so heartbreakingly true.
In the title story, a bitter, small-town attorney finds cruel delight in taking a pretty young thing and starting her down his same path to excess and corruption, before abandoning her to complete the journey by herself. In the shortest of these stories, “Honeymoon,” a man realizes after his second wedding that he has made a terrible mistake, only to follow it up with an even bigger mistake.
Next, we have “Charm City,” in which a marginally successful professional cannot even manage conduct an affair. The reader may sympathize with the woman for making the ethical decision, until it turns out she had very dark motives for doing so. In “The Wine-Dark Sea,” a freelance reporter who just doesn’t give a damn manages to drive people around him insane with his indifference.
The wealthy executive in “From the Lowlands” is perfectly content with the fact that money can’t buy him happiness, but he discovers too late that even his wealth cannot fill certain voids. In “High-Wire,” a screenwriter and actress have a decades-long, on-again-off-again affair, each person becoming a little more damaged along the way; they are each aware of the change within themselves, and each cares progressively less that it’s there.
The final story (my favorite in the collection), “The Archer,” is about a professor who, walking in on his wife and her lover, threatens the pair with a crossbow. Though he knows what a ludicrous depth he has sunk to, he takes an almost masochistic pleasure in allowing himself to sink even deeper.
While this might sound like the most depressing several hours you’ll spend on a volume of stories, Stone’s writing makes up for it in its elegance and fiercely unapologetic tone.
In their truth, these characters are beautiful.
- Novel: Dog Soldiers
- Short Stories: Bear and His Daughter
About the Author
Abby Sidener is a Library Associate at the Southeast Branch of the Kansas City Public Library and a public transportation advocate. When she's not helping out patrons at the Library or devouring poetry and short stories, she can often be found handing out books to kids on the Kansas City Metro bus system as a participant in the Mid-America Regional Council's Green Commute Challenge.