While discussing such novels as Dog Soldiers (1974), A Flag for Sunrise (1981), and Children of Light (1986), which have secured his reputation as one of the leading writers of fiction in the United States, Robert Stone has insistently proclaimed that “my subject” is “America and Americans.” Stone’s capability as a writer has been recognized since Dog Soldiers won a National Book Award, but his manner of depicting American experience has drawn a mixed response, including such negative assessments as the comment that there is “not a hint of a whiff of a shred of a trace of a clue about what is best about America” in his novels. Stone himself has somewhat sardonically summarized his own work as “heavy, lugubrious, life is dreadful, nothing’s funny, just one long plaintive wail unrelieved by brio,” a dryly self-mocking acknowledgment of some of his preoccupations, as well as a reproach to those critics who have not been able to separate situation and circumstance from Stone’s characters and their attempts to grapple with hardship.
The six short stories that originally appeared in journals such as The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Esquire, plus the semi-novella “Bear and His Daughter,” which provides the title for the first collection of Stone’s shorter work, cover familiar territory. Their central characters are in their middle years, people born during World War II who reached adulthood in the 1960’s and whose lives are wrenched and troubled. Lacking direction and a clear sense of purpose, they are all heavily involved with alcohol and/or drugs; whatever their temperaments, they are touched and tempted by violence. Nevertheless, as Stone has observed, “I’m critical, sometimes bitterly critical, but I love America.” This apparent contradiction, a kind of disjunction between the psychic condition of his protagonists and his professed love for America, is illuminated, if not resolved, by his statement that “The national promise is so great that a tremendous bitterness is evoked by its elusiveness.” Here, Stone is speaking to the utopian dream that formed the first concept of a “Brave New World” that F. Scott Fitzgerald saw as “the light on Daisy’s dock” and that Allen Ginsberg celebrated and lamented as “the lost America of love.” In his short stories, as in his novels, Stone is writing with a kind of deep sympathy for, but a clear eye on, people whose possibilities of a smooth course for their lives were destroyed by a chain of personal and political events beyond their ability to control.
The first story, “Miserere,” has a title that resonates with “that prayer sung over and over” in Latin: Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, Miserere nobis. The final phrase of the prayer, which asks “the Lamb of God” to “have mercy on us,” might also be heard by the English-speaking reader as misery. Mary Urquhart, fifty years old, has emerged from the paralyzing depression of “widowhood and recovery,” from abject misery, to serve as a source of strength and encouragement for troubled friends in the grimy, decaying rust-belt city where she lives. Stone generally locates his stories in (or near) the narrative consciousness of a male protagonist but has always tried to make the women characters in his work as vivid and singular as the men. As critic James Woods has pointed out, these men seem “halved, severed, emotionally divorced. Certainly his [Stone’s] men feel alone.” Following the most profound human loss, Urquhart experiences the kind of isolation that can literally destroy a person’s will to live. Her recovery is a function of her innate compassion for other people’s pain, of her delight in recalling apt quotes from classical literature to reinforce her instinctive responses to the images of beauty she sees amidst urban blight, and of her awe-driven faith in an almost abstract, if mysterious, God/Creator: “the ancient Thing before whose will she stood amazed.” It is this combination of deep feeling for another human being, an appreciation for the powers of language to ratify a version of reality, and an awareness of some cosmic force, mysterious but strangely exalting (often exemplified by the ocean in Stone’s writing), that gives Urquhart and other characters in these stories the will and desire to resist misery. As Stone has said, his characters are “lost,” and his intention is to “write to give them courage, to make them confront things as they are in a more courageous way.”
One of the reasons that moments of courage in Stone’s work are so affecting is that the world he describes is often marked by an “Absence of Mercy,” the title of the second story whose placement is clearly designed as a commentary on “Miserere.” In what he says is his only autobiographically based work of fiction, Stone established the psychology of perception of a man raised essentially as an orphan because of his mother’s incapacity, and who finds himself without a social connection or foundation or any affiliation beyond the enclosure of his mind and his reflective assessment of his life’s course. With some degree of distress, he realizes that most of the memorable aspects of his life have been ordered by violence, or its threat, in the exercise of power, and in...