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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Everybody must get Stone: Catching up on a writer I'd more or less missed

Robert Stone is a novelist whom, sorry to say, I have almost totally missed; read and reviewed one of his novels some years ago, Children of Light, and it was clearly one of his weaker efforts (though the Times welcomed it glowingly, if I recall - they picked this as the novel to anoint him as a major American writer, but they picked the wrong one I think); otherwise, haven't read much by him, though have always heard good things. Now, it's too late - for him - but not for us, and as often happens his obituary sparked an interest. Also, several writer friends and acquaintances have been post on him in memorium; we knew a few writers in common and I've always heard good things about him as a person. Friends posted in particular about one of his stories, Helping, and I thought that would be a good place to re-enter his work - and they were (I was) right - it's a very good story that captures I think the strengths of his voice and style: good sharp dialogue, rough and strong something like Hemingway or maybe Raymond Carver (though that might be the working-class and hard-drinking milieu as much as the prose style), but in a subtle way more hip, funnier, and off-kilter. Helping is nearly a classic in form, adhering to the conventions of unity of time (less than 24 hours), place (more or less - though a few settings all in the same New England rural community), and action (recovering alcoholic falls off wagon). Stone does a great job building the tension throughout this story - it's like a ticking bomb - and keeping us turning pages, anxious and eager. Roughly, story is about a social worker, working for the state, who initially is helping a ne'er-do-well suffering from PTSD as a Vietnam vet, although the patient is not the Vietnam vet - the social worker is; these attempts to insinuate himself into the social worker's memory disturb social worker deeply, and he breaks 15-month abstinence and gets loaded on Scotch. At home, his wife becomes tearful and they play out a scene of drunken rage - interrupted when a local tough whom the wife, a public-interest lawyer, had confronted in court. Thug makes threats, protagonist of the story basically says "bring it on" and he stands guard all night with his shotgun; in morning, goes skiing, confronts a neighbor whom he dislikes (yuppie conservationist type), and story ends in moment of yearning as he looks across snowfield at wife standing in window. Didn't love the ending - one of the epiphanic moments rather than real resolution that have become a short-story cliche by this time - but loved everything else about the story - the vivid and economical characterization, the sense of troubled and dangerous lives in a remote community far different from the typical fictional landscape, the struggle the protagonist is living through, every day - makes us comprehend the difficulties of breaking an addiction, and the cost. Protagonist is one of the very few I have ever encountered who bears my name, yet one completely unexplained element is that, while Stone consistently calls him Elliot everyone in the story calls him Chas. What are we to make of that?

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