The last decade or so has been challenging for Robert Stone. In the wake of his 1998 novel, "Damascus Gate" -- a millennial masterpiece set in Jerusalem -- he published two middling books, the novel "Bay of Souls" and the memoir "Prime Green," that may be most noteworthy for what they lack. Both traffic in the classic Stone motifs: God and dope, primarily. And both are suitably apocalyptic, looking at characters (and, in the case of "Prime Green," a counterculture) that have gone off the rails. But while "Damascus Gate," like earlier Stone novels such as "Dog Soldiers" and "A Flag for Sunrise," revels in its sprawling chaos, "Bay of Souls and "Prime Green" come off as oddly constrained. It's as if Stone had grown weary of his half-century-long immersion with those at the edges of society, as if the burden of his own imagination had become too great.
Stone's new book, "Fun With Problems," may not represent a complete return to form, but it's far more satisfying than "Bay of Souls" or "Prime Green." Gathering seven pieces of short fiction, it is brilliant in places and slack in others, a primer (if you will) of Stone's obsessions that is, by turns, revelatory and raw. As with his 1997 story collection "Bear and His Daughter," some of the material here gives the impression of a writer not quite at ease with the form in which he's working; Stone is no miniaturist, after all.
But if this mars such efforts as "Charm City," with its contrived pickup-turned-crime-drama double narrative, or "From the Lowlands," which suffers from an unnatural compression ("What happened then," Stone writes, encapsulating several years in a fraction of a paragraph, "was Barbara the beautiful . . . beamed herself to Dongo up in Dongoville, California, but she came crawling back after a year and Leroy unwisely married her. Dongo died -- had to happen. Leroy's marriage was brief."), Stone more often evokes a peculiar state of being, fleeting and generally drug-infused, in which we are the architects of our (mis)fortune in a universe that can turn on us at any time.
"From the Lowlands" is a perfect example, a story that explodes in its final moments, becoming not just engaging but also elemental, a matter of life and death in the most literal sense. This is a particular Stone fascination, and throughout "Fun With Problems," he presents a series of apparently mundane circumstances that, with little warning, bare their teeth. In the title story, a public defender, aging, lonely, only provisionally on the wagon, seduces a younger woman, also fighting to stay sober, and draws her back to drink. "He was the man," Stone tells us, "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.' " She's right, of course, but the measure of the story is how it charts the character's unhappiness, a desperation so all-encompassing that he barely notices it anymore.
A similar dynamic motivates "The Archer," in which a professor-painter named Duffy gets a visiting artist gig at a university on the Gulf of Mexico, only to throw it away when he creates a drunken scene during a dinner with his host professor. Anyone who's ever done the college circuit can understand Duffy's impulse: the desire to get clear of the oppressive sterility of the hotel room, the expectant face of the professor, the ennui of the anonymous Q&A.
Here, however, Stone pushes into unanticipated territory, offering a whisper of redemption, temporary and soiled though it may be. Sitting on the beach, sketching while he waits to leave town, Duffy gets a glimpse of his place in the world. "If all of Stella's good early stuff, all those wild whirling colored lights," he thinks, "was about the teeming overripe possibilities of the coming age, maybe his, Duffy's, was about the exhaustion of those possibilities, the disappearance of that time, the great abridgment of the popular age. The ghost of a century, a show closing down for lack of interest. But, he thought, somebody had to be around to tell that story."
Stone is saying that the universe can turn in both directions and that we need to be ready for the moment of transcendence, if it comes. That it doesn't last is part of the beauty, part of the longing, part of the mystery and the emptiness and the loss. "It's a fallen world, is it not? We carry love in earthen vessels," he writes in "High Wire," the book's finest (and longest) story, which recounts a screenwriter's doomed love for a drug-addicted actress -- reminiscent, in its way, of Daniel Fuchs' novel "West of the Rockies" and Stone's 1986 Hollywood phantasmagoria "Children of Light." The only first-person piece in the collection, it serves as a metaphor for the high wire on which all of Stone's characters walk.
"In those days," his narrator recalls, "I was confident to the point of arrogance. I assumed I was growing more confident with time. How could I know that the more you knew the more troubled and cautious you became, that introspection cut your speed and endurance?" This is what happens in a universe in which meaning is elusive, and knowledge doesn't lead to anything but doubt. In such a place, even survival is a conditional prospect, a momentary high. "There we were," the character reflects, "beautiful Lucy, cultivated me, livers of the examined life, in more or less the same maze. What did it make us?"
What, indeed? That question resides at the heart of Stone's work. We are lost, he means to tells us, and responsible, adrift in a world of our own creation, bereft -- abandoned, even -- by God. How do we respond to such a landscape? To what transitory consolations can we turn? The best stories in "Fun With Problems," like all of Stone's most powerful writing, suggest that the answer is available to us only in fragments, if it is available at all.