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Dark Humor, Imperfect Men And Unhappy Endings

After John Updike died in 2009, Robert Stone became America's foremost chronicler of imperfect men who make perfectly terrible decisions: His 1974 novel Dog Soldiers, for example, revolves around three Americans in Vietnam attempting to smuggle heroin into the United States. In his debut novel, A Hall of Mirrors, Stone follows a naive disc jockey who finds work at an ultra-right-wing radio station in 1960s New Orleans. His more recent Bay of Souls concerns a professor dealing with a midlife crisis in perhaps the worst possible way. Stone's themes have changed over the years, but his penchant for dark humor, characters embroiled in impossible situations and unhappy endings never have.

So it's fitting that Stone decided to call his new short-story collection Fun with Problems, and no surprise that the characters in these seven stories make seriously inadvisable life decisions. Some outcomes are worse than others, but nobody skates through unscathed; Stone isn't a moralist, exactly, but he has a strong — and, at times, wickedly funny — sense of cosmic justice.

In the arresting "Charm City," a man decides to cheat on his wife with a charismatic stranger. The affair is never consummated, but the man pays dearly when the woman turns out to be an amoral criminal. Leroy, the cold, cruel executive who's the main character of "From the Lowlands," retreats to his remote mansion in the mountains and calls his lover to demand her immediate presence. But he encounters a problem he didn't anticipate, and the last time the reader sees him, he's facing an almost comically bad situation with little possibility of escape.

The centerpiece of Fun with Problems is "High Wire," which follows Tom Loving, a screenwriter in the Reagan era who begins a relationship with a talented but perpetually unlucky actress. Loving isn't malicious, but he's selfish and weak, and he watches as his friends and their careers spiral out of control, thanks to drugs, alcohol, greed and sex. Loving's fate isn't as dire as some of the other doomed souls in these stories, and maybe it's because Loving exhibits more self-awareness than the typical Stone protagonist:

"I was not so obtuse that I failed to observe certain patterns in my own behavior — not simply the greedy self-indulgence but all the actions that were coming to define me. At the time this seemed a misfortune because I didn't reflect on them with any satisfaction. There they were, however, beginning to seem like a summary, coming due like old bar bills."

Stark and beautiful, the story is a small masterpiece and one of the best pieces of fiction Stone has published.

It's difficult to fall in love, exactly, with a book as dark and occasionally pitiless as this one. But it's impossible not to be impressed by Stone's audacity, steel-eyed honesty, and cold and sometimes bizarre sense of humor. Fun with Problems isn't a light read, but it's an enlightening one and hard to forget. It's tempting to turn away from Stone's bleak vision of America, but we do so at our own risk; he's an American master who may be more prescient than we'd like to admit.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.