Like the protagonist of his last novel, “Outerbridge Reach,” the principal characters in Robert Stone’s short-story collection are single-hand sailors on a course to disaster.
It is not because the gales and currents of their existence are too powerful. Stone’s blighted heroic vision proposes extreme hardship as the measure of a sound life. Rather, it is because the sheets and timbers of their craft are unsound, owing to the sleaze and lack of standards in the world that fitted them out.
This, at least, is how they see it. With a couple of exceptions, one brilliant, they see it bleary-eyed, pouring themselves a fourth double Scotch or scrabbling in a packet of methamphetamine crystals.
They are Hemingway heroes or heroines (the women in these stories are as macho as the men) on skid row. Their universal tragedy shrinks to the size of a half-pint bottle or a glass in an envelope. They are Ancient Mariners, whose urgent tale is followed by a mumbled plea for a handout.
They are asking us for pity and terror, as in the tragic formula, but the measure of pity they evoke tends to be coupled, in the end, not so much with terror as with the creeps.
A story, of course, is not only its end. Stone’s writing is powerful, and the reader is compelled a considerable way, sometimes thrillingly, by the harsh splendors with which he arrays his stricken heroes. Mostly they collapse--the “who?” that a vivid portrait summons up drops to a “who cares?"--but not always.
“Miserere” is a rending morality tale: a series of deepening shocks leading to a revelation that is as indelible as it is upsetting. A cultivated woman, Mary Urquhart, has plummeted from her genteel security after an ice skating accident in which her husband and two little children drowned.
Sinking into alcoholism, she had recovered with the help of a sympathetic and sophisticated Catholic priest. Her conversion was total; she dedicates herself to reading to immigrant children in a rough New Jersey slum, where she learns the street walk and calls everyone “guy.” This sensitive Blake-quoting woman also finds herself devising a grotesque anti-abortion project.
Helped by a devout working-class woman with political and perhaps mob connections, she arranges to receive aborted fetuses from a local hospital. She takes them to her priest for conditional baptism; he, intimidated by her fierce extremity in asserting his church’s anti-abortion stance, complies unhappily. His growing horror erupts in a final, awful confrontation.
“Take up your cross, guy,” she rages at this frail man, undone by a doctrinal logic whose consequences he shuns and she proclaims.
It is more than a dialectical battle, of course. In a brilliant passage, Stone writes of the memory that has made Mary both half-mad and fearfully lucid:
“She was there when the thing they had been was raised, a blue cluster wrapped in happy seasonal colors, woolly reindeer hats and scarves and mittens, all grasping and limbs intertwined, and it looked, she thought, like a rat king, the tangle of rats trapped together in their own naked tails and flushed from an abandoned hull to float drowned. . . .”
Stone has juxtaposed the elements of this detonating story--bereaved mother and anti-abortion fighter, dead fetuses and the rat-like look of drowned children, gentle priest and hard doctrine--with an element of stage management.
But it can be judged more easily than it can be withstood.
Elsewhere the force of his saeve indignatio--his Swift-like anger--tends to misfire. There is more gunpowder than projectile in it. An exception is “Under the Pitons,” which gets us to the sailing background he understands so well and writes about with such grace.
It is a grim story, in a way--four amateur drug smugglers accumulate a murderous tension aboard a ketch in the Caribbean--but it is lightened by their comic if fatal ineptitude. It is also redeemed by the oddly moving love and belief that flare up between two of the burned-out characters.
The other stories are darker and tend to collapse on themselves. In “Helping,” a Vietnam veteran who has stopped drinking with the help of his shakily hopeful wife falls spectacularly off the wagon when a client--the veteran is a social worker--recounts nightmares that match his own, despite never having been to Vietnam.
The drinking spree that follows, acutely plumbed for the pain it inflicts on himself and others, remains a tempest in a whiskey bottle. It has pathos but not the tragic stature it strains for.
“Porque No Tiene, Porque Le Falta” is about four American refugees from the ‘60s living a druggy, boozy life in Mexico. None of the violent undertones, lusts or fantasies, filtered through a chemical and alcoholic haze, have much projective energy.
It is like wandering into a party where everyone is high and no one is interesting.
In most of the stories, the characters oscillate between bravura, superiority and self-pity. The author’s attitude toward them can be hard to fathom. At times, it is as if he were updating the lines of Yale’s arrogant and bathetic drinking song: “We’re poor little sheep who have lost our way.”
The line between what the author thinks of his characters and what they think of themselves is at its thinnest in the title story. It is about the boozy wanderings of Smart, an aging poet, toward a grim rendezvous with his daughter at the national park where she is a ranger. Smart, whose poetry is big and vital, has gone out of favor even in the Soviet Union, where he had been revered.
Contemporary flatness, triviality and the fact that nobody gets his poetic allusions have undermined him. So have drink and drugs. So has his incestuous relationship with his daughter who, just as he does, loves nature and primal legends.
Their reunion will be fatal; after which the daughter’s lover, a calm young Indian, pronounces their epitaph: “Two poets.”
That, apparently, is Stone’s judgment too, but he weakens it by printing swatches of Smart’s poetry. It is not good.