- The Washington Times - Friday, February 19, 2010

WHERE THE GOD OF LOVE HANGS OUT

By Amy Bloom

Random House, $25

224 pages

FUN WITH PROBLEMS

By Robert Stone

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24

208 pages

REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN

In the right hands, the short story is a precision instrument. A laser, perhaps, that can pierce and probe, but also heal - as in Chekhov’s plain-spoken revelations of families troubled by vanity, bickering or plain foolishness; Hemingway’s episodic depictions of destinations reached or bypassed in sometimes valiant, sometimes specious pursuit of manhood; Flannery O’Connor’s cruelly funny skewering of sinners too narrowly obsessed with their own clumsy deviations from purity.

Classic and contemporary fiction have long been enriched by these and similar depictions of errant beings at odds with their peers and their environments. This year is still young, but two of the best American story writers have already weighed in with substantial additions to their increasingly impressive portfolios.

Amy Bloom is a Manhattan psychotherapist who writes with a savvy admixture of empathetic understanding and rude wit about people whose dysfunctions number among their most cherished possessions. In two earlier collections, “Come to Me” and “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You,” and a bracingly economical historical novel, “Away,” she has charted the varied paths often trod by restless men and (more often) women unhappy with their imperfect lives and determined to find panaceas in making radical changes.

Her third collection, “Where the God of Love Hangs Out,” contains a dozen crisp, comically bleak portrayals of aslant relationships and other misadventures, three of which have been retrieved from Ms. Bloom’s earlier volumes, and two-thirds of which focus on separate pairs of well-meaning, compulsively errant characters.

Ms. Bloom is and isn’t at her best in the four independent stories. “By-and-By” doesn’t make much of a survivor’s half-confession of her secret love for a girl who was raped and killed; and “Permafrost,” which tracks a social worker’s relationship with a painfully disabled hospital patient, is redeemed primarily by the imaginative linking of the latter’s ordeal with the Ernest Shackleton polar expedition (which is also explored elsewhere in Ms. Bloom’s fiction).

But “Between Here and There” makes potent drama of its embittered narrator’s lifelong hatred for her cruel father. The witty title story also takes surprising turns in its deft picturing of an extended family that finds itself at the mercy of a blithely smug and selfish aged widower. Families are further skewered and analyzed in the four stories that deal with the adulterous affair conducted by 50-somethings Clare Wexler and William Langford, virtually under the noses of their respective spouses, Charles and Isabel, as the two couples socialize and vacation together, eventually share the painful truth, and divorce.

Clare and William are left to the consequences of his appetitive overindulgence and neglected health, and her mordant recognition of the folly of their unlikely union (“What has it ever been between them,” Clare muses, “but the rubbing of two broken wings?” The four otherwise related stories trace the relationships among a black jazz musician (Lionel), the white music critic (Julia) who becomes his third wife, and Lionel’s son and namesake, an inconveniently sexually irresistible biracial charmer whose closeness to Julia will continue to complicate both their lives, long after Lionel Sr.’s death and his son’s troubled passage to maturity, marriage and fatherhood.

This compact story cycle may be the best work Ms. Bloom has done. It’s an unsparingly frank, honestly moving account of adults in extremism, making mistakes, betraying one another and themselves, and, unexpectedly and surprisingly, rising out of the ashes of fires they never intended to set.

Robert Stone is an even edgier and more uncompromising writer, as we’ve learned from such flagrantly confrontational texts as his classic novel of Vietnam War fallout and drug smuggling, “Dog Soldiers”; the several globe-spanning successors charged with political and personal urgency and culminating in his Conradian horror-story-quest tale “Bay of Souls”; and the riveting nonfiction revelation of his youthful dalliance with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in his splendid autobiography “Prime Green.”

Mr. Stone’s second collection gathers seven terse, suspenseful portrayals of weary souls too passively self-destructive to elude traps plainly set for them and yawning with amalgamated promise and menace. The volume is memorably kick-started by its grim title story (a title whose provenance is itself the book’s cruelest and funniest joke), about a burned-out lawyer sent by the public defender’s office to a hellish prison, where he encounters a surly staff, a paranoid client and a female psychologist whom the lawyer recognizes as both a wasted kindred soul and a passive partner in an emotionless, meaningless brief affair.

Neither the protagonist of “Honeymoon,” a new husband whose anticipated happiness is eradicated by a compulsive fixation on his unresponsive ex-wife, nor the reclusive electronics mogul (in “From the Lowlands”) who seeks and fails to find a “superior quality of life” in his California mountain retreat, fare any better.

Mr. Stone builds tension with a master’s shaping hand in “High Wire,” which vividly conflates the downward momentum both shared and separately experienced by a veteran Hollywood screenwriter and the self-destructive actress who keeps pulling him back into her suicidal orbit, as each grows less capable of confronting personal demons. The story is perhaps too reminiscent of Mr. Stone’s weakest novel, “Children of Light,” but its inflammatory detail will keep readers’ pulses racing.

The remaining stories are unqualified successes. “Charm City” opens successive levels of devastating ironies, as a wealthy householder’s flirtation with a female psychiatrist whose true nature is gradually revealed boosts a seemingly plotless story into brutal, rapacious overdrive. Nor does Mr. Stone eschew humor, albeit of the blackest hue, in the abrasive satire of “The Archer.” It’s a potent character study of a college art teacher who finds a new late career on the “craft lecture circuit,” and in sociopathic glee as the tormentor of his exasperated former wife and her terrified second husband.

The story is a hoot, and a perfect complement to the grim dramatic intensities of its companion stories. Best of all is “The Wine-Dark Sea,” in which a contrarian political journalist travels without portfolio to an island vacation paradise, where a paranoid secretary of defense hosts a “policy conference” that threatens world peace, and the journalist’s obsession with a freaked-out film beauty blossoms into a microcosmic counterpart of things falling apart, and worlds in collision.

It’s an ambitious haywire distillation of the rueful insight, first expressed by Walt Kelly’s classic comic-strip possum Pogo, which keeps rearing its fuzzy, overcrowded head throughout Robert Stone’s irresistibly compelling oeuvre: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Bruce Allen is a reviewer of contemporary fiction and nonfiction who lives, reads and writes in Kittery, Maine.

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