Fun with Problems

by Robert Stone

Robert Stone demonstrates once again that he is an undisputed master of the contemporary short story. The pieces in this new volume vary greatly in length, but all share Stone’s signature blend of longing, violence, black humor, sex and drugs that has been his skeleton key to the human soul.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547394534
  • ISBN-10: 0547394535
  • Pages: 208
  • Publication Date: 09/01/2010
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
  • About the Book
    In Fun with Problems, Robert Stone demonstrates once again that he is “one of our greatest living writers” (Los Angeles Times). The stories in this new collection share the signature blend of longing, violence, and black humor with which Stone illuminates the dark corners of the human soul. Entire lives are laid bare with remarkable precision, in captivating prose: a screenwriter carries on a decades-long affair with a beautiful actress, whose descent into addiction he can neither turn from nor share; a bored husband picks up a mysterious woman only to find that his ego has led him woefully astray; a world-beating Silicon Valley executive receives an unwelcome guest at his mansion in the hills; a scuba dive takes uneasy newlyweds to a point of no return. Fun with Problems showcases Stone’s great gift: to pinpoint and make real the impulses—by turns violently coercive and quietly seductive—that cause us to conceal, reveal, and betray our truest selves.

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  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    Fun with Problems
    Hampton County locked them down in a nineteenth-century brick fortress of a jail, a penitential fantasy of red brick keeps and crenellations. The sight of it had twisted many a cocky smile. Citizens waiting at its marble stoop could contemplate the solipsisms of razor wire and the verse of all-weather civic poetry on the rosy keystone: learn to labor and to wait.
     Most of the time, Peter Matthews, an aging attorney with the public defender's office, liked the place for its spooky melodrama. On the days his presence was required there, he had a six-mile country drive to town. In summer or fall, when the weather was nice, it could be very pleasant. The unimproved road followed a high wooded ridge that enfolded the oxbows of a wide, slow-moving river. Corn and shade tobacco grew along the banks, and two of the switchbacks had preserved wooden bridges. In ice or wintry weather, the drive was work.
     One Monday, toward the end of the football season, Matthews took a call from a young Cape Cod burglar called Georgie Laplace. Laplace, who was heedless and unlucky, had involved himself in the theft and disposal of some turquoise Hopi jewelry. To clear their books, the police on the Cape had constructed a useful narrative around him. Then they had transported Georgie clear across the state to Hampton's monster jail, where, it was hoped, he would succumb to homesickness and fear and endorse their version in court.
     It was an outrage. In spite of the weather, Matthews decided to drive in.

    On television, they were advertising the game later that night with file footage from Miami. Matthews lingered at the tube just long enough to glimpse the sunny margin of the field and get a blimp's-eye view of the shoreline. Since his divorce, he had been renting two rooms in a former bed-and-breakfast, a big farmhouse secured from the road by an absentee farmer's cornfields. It was a quiet place, comfortable enough when his mood was right. His fellow tenants were a couple of retired New York schoolteachers who lived upstairs and a tall man named Stokely, a locksmith on salary from a local hardware store who drove the company car. Everyone got on well. Nodded greetings and agreeable observations were exchanged. The owners of the property, Mr. and Mrs. Esquivel, lived in another farmhouse, fifty yards off: they had fled Colombia in the grip of La Violencia and had little tolerance for conflict.
     On his way to the carport, Matthews noticed Mrs. Esquivel's cold, experienced eye on him. Little escaped her.
     He eased the car over the wet double track to the paved road and started on his way to town. The ride was faster and easier by interstate, but Matthews had his ritual commitment to the two-lane road. That wet afternoon, it gave him little pleasure. The horizon had closed around him, and he moved in the face of an icy rain that thickened on his windshield wipers. At the first stop sign, he skidded, ending up at a crazy angle to the yellow line. After that, he turned up the radio for company, but there were only call-ins. Whiners, know-it-alls, Christers. An alienated lot.
     In the depths of his soul, Matthews hated Hampton County. The local press sometimes idealized the place as the Happy Valley. Matthews liked to amuse his friends by calling it the Unhappy Valley, and he had a repertory of cruel, funny anecdotes about it. At the same time, the Valley was a particularly easy jurisdiction in which to make a living. His ambitions had faded, and life could be various and perversely satisfying in Hampton. When Matthews launched into his Unhappy Valley routine it was his own life and fortunes he was describing, and most days he could tolerate those well enough.
     In fact, the Valley was his native place, and he had been watching it all his life: its preachifying and its secret horrors. 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. Where the road descended to the river, a mile short of the first covered bridge, there stood a lone wooden tenement, the survivor of a company street of mill houses dating from the industrial age. All its companion houses had burned to the ground years before. Nearly every time Matthews passed the house, he saw children, a squadron of little whitey towheads who, in the time he had lived at the Esquivels', seemed never to change in age or approximate numbers. The house was unpainted and usually had one of its windows glazed in plastic.
     Through the sleet, he saw one of the children standing in an open doorway, dressed for a summer afternoon. It was a girl of about ten, in baggy jeans and a yellowing, ragged hand-me-down T-shirt. She stood absolutely still, indifferent to the stings of the weather, unblinking. She wore a necklace of glass stones and shiny metal. Her stare was profound and uneasy-making.
     He waved to her, and she was gone. When he pulled out to cross the intersection, it was as though she had not been there.
     He thought perhaps the solitude was finally getting to him, leaving him impulsive and eccentric, even on his sober days. Especially on his sober days, each one marked with small errors of judgment. The sight of children sometimes made him homesick for his married past, getting his son to school, drinking a beer with his wife.
     During the seventies, everyone had said it was a tough time to bring up children; in fact, it went on being that way. The eighties and the nineties were no better. He and his wife had been lucky. Their only boy was sensible and decent, partaking of his mother's rectitude and perhaps a little too much of his own “pessimism.” So there was that at least. He called the thing he had pessimism.
     Halfway up a hillside, a turn-of-the-century Volvo passed him with cheery disregard. Its bumper sticker read “We Are One Family,” the town motto - the reference was to the imagined relationship between Hampton's inhabitants and those of the great globe itself, which was displayed in congenial artsy abstract, a smiley-face Planet Earth complete with latitudes and longitudes. Was it more frightening to raise children in the place Hampton had become? He could hardly say; his perspective was that of a criminal lawyer who knew the annals of wickedness.
     A couple of miles farther on, Matthews came in sight of town. 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, whose lofts were now mainly occupied by artists in flight from the city. 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 parked his car in the sheriff's lot and eased up the marble steps to the old entrance. In a worn canvas case he had the recorded life and works of George Edgar Laplace. Settled in the lawyers' area, Matthews checked his records. At his previous arrest, the kid had been still too young for Hampton; the conditions of his sentencing specified some form of juvenile detention. This time they could keep him there.
     As a child, George had been incorrectly diagnosed as retarded and spent years in the State School, equipped with all too much of the self-awareness he was supposed to have been spared. Some of the more dedicated teachers there had befriended him. But the school was run not by its staff but by inmate youths of perfectly a...

  • Reviews
    "In the long form or the short, American fiction has no greater master than Robert Stone. These stories burn with his dark and incandescent magic."
                                                                             --  Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls Rising
    "Stone's evocative prose treads through the murky waters of dead dreams and waning hopes, bringing out the pathetic and nasty side of people warped by addiction, sex, violence and time...Stone doesn't just let his wounded characters whimper in the corner. He turns them loose on a world hard enough to knock them down but indifferent enough to not care about them once they're gone."
                                                                            -- Publishers Weekly, starred 
    "[Stone] mines the depravity of weirdos whose success resides in having not died by the end of the story...The stories are witty and diverse and are all unified by some element of brokenness...Each character comes closer and closer to truth, but heartbreakingly, never quite turns the corner. You know they are on the right track though and that makes suffering with these characters enjoyable."
                                                                           -- Booklist
    "Once again, Robert Stone displays his tense mastery of narrative, inexplicably fine dialogue, and what is perhaps the most sublime sense of any living writer for beginnings and endings. He is, simply, one of our best."
                                                                           --Tom Bissell, author of The Father of All Things
    "Stone's pared, precise lines take on the lyrical authority of morality tales...There's a dark humor at play here, the laughter of the rehab houses implied in the title. Few other writers could use a phrase like civic poetry so conversationally and have it be so cogent."
                                                                          -- Library Journal
    "In this ironically titled collection, prize-winning novelist Robert Stone delivers insightful and at times wickedly funny portraits of troubled characters sowing the seeds of their own downfall."
                                                                         -- Shelf Awareness
    "Vintage Stone. Enough said."
                                                                         -- Kirkus Reviews, starred

    "Elemental, a matter of life and death in the most literal all of Stone's most powerful writing, suggest that the answer is available to us only in fragments, if it is available at all."
                                                                         -- Los Angeles Times
    "[A] killer collection...Stone is a master at picking apart messy lives in clean, precise language."
                                                                         -- Oregonian
    "Stark and of the best pieces of fiction Stone has's impossible not to be impressed by Stone's audacity, steel-eyed honesty, and cold and sometimes bizarre sense of enlightening [read] and hard to forget...[Stone's] an American master"
    "Robert Stone provides proof positive in his long-awaited story collection Fun With Problems that this master of the heart’s dark matter—boozy onenight stands, sobering moments of grace, volcanic silences, shouted regrets—remains in diabolically good form." 
                                                                          -- Elle   
    "Stone is a master...No worter today is as grimly polished, as icily adept, and Hemingwayesquely lean and Hawthornely morally infused...impossible not to finish."