Friday, September 17, 2010

Fun with Problems - Robert Stone
This short story collection should have been called Drunks, Druggies, Nut-Cases. But it’s a literary work by a National Book Award winner, so the title can’t be blatantly lurid. It has to have class (albeit of the quirky variety). Still, the book is far from a class act; I won’t attempt to do justice to its many failings. If you’re at the library, read the four page “Honeymoon” and tell me why an author with discernment or self-respect – if they wrote such nonsense in the first place – wouldn’t have tossed it in the wastebasket. Granted, the prose throughout is fine and the title story is good, in a slummy way (it’s the only story that can be called “good”; most are bad, and the two long ones are so tediously bad that I couldn’t complete them). The problem with Problems – a huge one, endemic in today’s literary world – is content. Pandering is the name of the game. Freakiness, outrageous behavior, violence, obscenity – these make up the content of work by many young writers and some elder statesmen (like Stone). No person I can relate to appears on these pages because no real humans are depicted. Real people in real situations, though a subject of vast potential, have been largely abandoned. So why did I read the book? I heard Alan Cheuse, on NPR, highly recommend it, and I liked Stone’s Dog Soldiers (written in 1973 and also containing the content I’m condemning here); but twenty-seven years ago I was young, and the novel was fresh and had vitality and drive; now I’ve matured, but Stone, though he’s seventy, hasn’t; he’s just gotten angrier – the prevailing attitude in these stories is a mean and abusive one. In the blurb on the back cover Madison Smartt Bell writes “American fiction has no greater master than Robert Stone.” What hope is there if Cheuse and Bell (and many others who heap praise on this dismal book) can’t recognize its faults and emphatically condemn them? A last comment, regarding Stone’s anger. He heavy-handily bludgeons caricatures: an insane Secretary of Defense, a rich Silicon Valley entrepreneur; and, in a broader sense, he attacks an American society phony to its diseased core. But if he wants to see, up close, the disease that’s killing literary fiction, he simply needs to look in a mirror.

All the Days and Nights - William Maxwell
Since this story collection is the last work of fiction that I’ll read by Maxwell, a summing up (and a tribute) is in order. His difficulty with plot persists in the short form; he’s great at capturing an isolated moment or feeling, but he can’t tell a story; often he doesn’t try. In “The Front and Back Parts of the House” he describes the writing of his first novel; beyond the initial idea he hadn’t a clue where events were headed (the results of such lack of direction can be found in Time Will Darken It). He’s a strongly autobiographical author. When he didn’t have a close emotional involvement with his subject the results lack depth and resonance. His best work concerns people he cared deeply about – wife, father, brother. He doesn’t give himself a major role, nor does he overtly express his feelings, but we come to know Maxwell in how he presents others. What shines through is his empathy and compassion. Some stories are grim, but no villains are to be found. He shows anger only once. When he and his wife revisit “The Gardens of Mont-Saint-Michel,” where they had spent a cherished evening, they find that the beautiful, ancient and irreplaceable gardens are gone, a victim of Progress and the Almighty Dollar. My favorite in the collection is “The Thistles of Sweden,” about the early years of Maxwell’s marriage, when the couple were living in a brownstone walk-up in New York; it’s poignant and evocative. “Over by the River,” which takes place later in their lives, has a suggestion of something dark and disturbing at prowl in the world (and in the hearts of Maxwell and his wife and children); that the book begins with this atypical piece is perplexing and intriguing. As for his prose – it’s beautiful; Maxwell can make the act of reading words pleasurable. And he has such mastery that he’s able to accomplish with ease whatever he attempts. In “The Lily-White Boys” he lets the “material witnesses” of a robbery – the carpet, phone directory, wall clock, a Sheraton sideboard, a bottle of Elizabeth Arden perfume – have a conversation in which each plays a crucial role or has a bit of wisdom to offer. What other author could do this so charmingly? A description of the clothes someone is wearing is interesting because Maxwell is primarily concerned with the person inside those clothes. The collection ends with “twenty-one improvisations.” In his introduction Maxwell states that he wrote these short pieces to please his wife. Only a few are good, but I forgive him for this indulgence. Fittingly, the best of the lot is “A Love Story,” about two moles whose lives are disrupted by the coming of bulldozers. It ends happily. Madame Mole shows affection for her husband by chewing on his ear. *

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