Alienated, angry outsiders stalk the dangerous edges of their unraveling lives in the great American novelist’s collection of grim short fiction.
The mordant pleasures begin with a perfectly chosen epigraph, much too good to give away. Then we plunge headlong into Stone country (Bay of Souls, 2003, etc.) with the title story’s unsparing portrayal of a weary criminal lawyer’s addled relations with his nothing job in a nowhere place, and with a female prison psychologist whose demons are more than a match for his own. Hemingway is skillfully channeled in the perfectly pitched “Honeymoon,” taut as a trip-wire as it shows a newly married man sinking under the weight of his obsession with his ex-wife, and in “Charm City,” the heartless tale of a weak married man courting romantic adventure, the predatory woman who expertly encircles him and the momentum of self-destruction that consumes every wasted life herein displayed. Stone stumbles slightly in his portrait of an incipiently burnt-out scriptwriter and the emotionally unstable actress who sashays ever more destructively in and out of his life over the years (“High Wire,” which echoes a little too closely his 1986 Hollywood novel Children of Light), and in “The Archer,” which chronicles the outrageous sociopathology of a vagrant college art prof whose middle age, we guess, might be the one J.P. Donleavy’s Ginger Man would grow into. Mastery re-emerges in “From the Lowlands,” the crisp, Ambrose Bierce–like fable of an electronics mogul whose lavish western mountain retreat can’t insulate him from the shadowed clutch of nemeses approaching. Equally fine is “The Wine-Dark Sea,” in which a renegade journalist crashes an island policy conference hosted by an increasingly unhinged U.S. Secretary of Defense—Caliban meets Conrad’s “Mistah Kurtz,” as incisive literary allusions and pistol-whip prose conspire to create a hilariously funereal Götterdämmerung.
Vintage Stone. Enough said.