Thou are the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. —King Lear
The dilemma of the likable character. It’s good to have a character who we root for, who has flaws but works to overcome them. We are taught as fledgling writers that our characters need to be complex but also sympathetic. Even as a teacher, I’ve noted on student papers that a particular character wasn’t interesting enough to carry the story. But have we as a reading public become too soft, too politically correct, insisting that the character be accessible, understandable — gasp, a nice guy? Do we make the same demands with the classics as we do contemporary works? Would we insist, in the romantic realist tradition that Robert Stone descends from, that Melville’s Captain Ahab be someone that we can relate to? Or that his obsession with the whale be something that can be fixed in a twelve-step program? I’ll admit one might not want to run into a Robert Stone character at a classical music concert, Shakespeare play, Hollywood movie premiere, or, more likely, a bar, but that’s not because he or she wouldn’t be charming, erudite, clever, but because after reading these stories one knows the darkness that lurks beneath the polished surface.
First, an anecdote. Many years ago I attended a weekend workshop taught by Robert Stone. This wasn’t some glossy MFA graduate program, most of us were pretty new at writing, and we were all in awe of Stone. Over half the class was male, and many of them had traveled the country with a heavy stack of his novels in order to have them signed. He did sign them, dog-eared piles of them, with kindness and delight. In class he was soft-spoken, intelligent, and thorough in his critiques. He treated us like the writers we hoped to someday be.
Then one morning, he came to the workshop wearing dark sunglasses. And he didn’t take them off. A thrill went through the class, as if at last we were seeing a real Stone character in action; we had achieved the dream of all fans, the conflation of the author with his creation, which we secretly believed to be the same thing all along. After all, here was one of the original Merry Pranksters, a man who hung out with the Beats, who was known to indulge in drugs, who went to dangerous places like Vietnam and the Middle East, looking for trouble. The man who famously said: “… you can’t experience too much — to the degree it doesn’t destroy you.”
Our minds were racing with the possibilities that made the glasses necessary. After the first story was critiqued, Stone reached up and realized his glasses were still on. He took them off and chuckled, apologizing. I think he said they were prescription, and he forgot to change them for his regular ones. Only then did we notice the room was bright, full of sunlit windows. A small sigh of collective disappointment went out of the class.
What we were in thrall to that day, and what fans of his work look forward to in book after book is the unique Stone character. As soon as I opened Fun With Problems to the title story, I knew I would not be disappointed. Peter Matthews is an aging attorney whose “ambitions had faded,” an alcoholic, a womanizer. “He was the man whose ex-wife had once said of him, ‘You don’t care whether you even get laid, as long as you can make some woman unhappy.’”
That is precisely what Stone is after in story after story, digging under the surface of appearances to the raw stuff of life. In an interview, Stone talks about the “unaccommodated man,” a term out of Lear, speaking of his fascination with characters in wartime, in emotional or physical ruin, in addiction. His method is to strip his characters of their veneer of civilization to see what remains. In the three-page story, “Honeymoon,” the aging main character ogles his young bride, amazed at his own carnal luck in a tropical paradise. We, as readers, start to moan inwardly that we are in middle-aged crisis territory, a story filled with tender little epiphanies spring-loaded along the way, but now Stone begins the excavation. As soon as the nubile bride goes for a swim, the man weeps and calls his ex-wife, begging to come home. Okay, we’re thinking, that’s different. But things in Stone’s world never go as planned, as the wife begins to speak:
“… And I said to myself, He’s gone, I’ll die, what will I live for?”
“I’ll come home.”
“What will I live for? He’s gone. Oh, poor little me. But now I think I’ll live, Tiger. Fucking right,” she said. “You wanted to be gone? Get gone. Have a great honeymoon.”
How refreshing indeed — no sex rehab, no counseling, no apologies. Sin and judgment, taken neat.
I love Stone’s novels for their breadth, the multiplicity of storylines, the exotic use of place that exerts pressure on the characters, but the short stories necessarily have to do away with much of this, although there are glimpses. In “Fun With Problems,” Matthews rents rooms from a Colombian couple: “Mr. and Mrs. Esquivel… fled Colombia in the grip of La Violencia and had little tolerance for conflict.” In “The Wine-Dark Sea,” the three main characters’ storylines converge as they wander a creepy, fog-shrouded island. But the main battleground is inside them. Stone eschews backstory, we are given the characters in their fallen condition, unexplained. In an interview, Stone said that “High Wire” was one of the only stories he’s written in first person, that he finds the distance of third-person more intuitively correct. This distance keeps the reader from falling into sentimentality, from explaining away the bad behavior of the characters.
In the story, “From the Lowlands,” Leroy, a smug, successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur seems to have it all — a trophy girlfriend, a trophy house. He is also thoroughly unlikable — he’s maneuvered his business partner out of the company, he cheats on his girlfriend, he gives an unpaid-for candy bar to a kid and watches him get in trouble for it. But Stone’s universe is a mechanistic one in which nothing in life comes free, in which everything must eventually be paid for. Things go wrong. A thunderstorm, his girlfriend dumps him, his larder is empty, and the eggs he cooks have blood specks in them that look like skulls: “They were elongated, cephalic, with inward curves that might mark cheekbones.” Suffice it to say, Leroy gets his due in the end. No fatuous insights, no forced happy endings, no comforting moral outcomes.
Because these are mature stories, the characters have a self-knowledge that allows the stories to avoid easy cynicism and retain heart, however black those hearts may be. In “High Wire,” Tom acknowledges he will not act on his love for a beautiful actress: “In the twisted light I saw her out there sauntering toward a brass horizon and I wanted to follow after. But I was not so foolish nor had I the generosity of spirit. I was running out of heart.”
Stone is like the friend who when you tell him you have a terminal disease doesn’t pretend he hasn’t heard it, doesn’t spout platitudes, or talk about miracle vitamins that cure everything. He is the kind of friend who orders a round of stiff drinks, holds your hand, and looks into the abyss with you. Sometimes you want that kind of friend. There are not many writers like Robert Stone, and none of them do it as well.