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'Bear and his Daughter: Stories' by Robert Stone

Story Form Often Fails Stone's Characters

Sunday, May 18, 1997

By Bob Hoover, Book Editor, Post-Gazette


Bear and his Daughter: Stories

By Robert Stone

Houghton Mifflin


In these days of King, Grisham and Oates, the writing of five novels in a 30-year period seems a pretty humble career - unless you're Robert Stone.

"Outerbridge Reach," "Children of Light," "A Flag for Sunrise," "Dog Soldiers" and "A Hall of Mirrors" form one of the most powerful visions of American society in the last third of the decade.

Stone's books are harrowing journeys into the dark soul. His intensity has discouraged some readers who find his work too depressing to finish. This first collection of short stories will give them another chance to experience this superb writer in smaller doses.

But then, there's the rub. Denied the luxury of a novel's leisurely pace, Stone's writing seems rushed, the plotting stops abruptly, and the characters lack the layers of characters in the novels.

Stone often creates decent, talented people who are in deep trouble. Most of them end badly, ruefully and unfortunately in this collection, a bit too expediently.

The title story is pure Stone: Two reckless people, Will Smart, a failing poet nicknamed Bear, and his daughter, Rowan, a park ranger, flail helplessly with their booze, drugs and incest until one hurts the other - again - and tragedy follows.

Of the two, Rowan is the more complex character. Stone finds failed human beings fascinating and takes more pains to create them. Bear, on the other hand, is a stereotype - a bearded phony whose early reputation as a poet has made him arrogant.

He's oblivious to his daughter's desperate love for him - a love that, despite its incestuous nature, is heartfelt.

It bears more examination than Stone can give it in this short form, however, and his solution is melodramatic and rings false.

"Miserere" is the best story of the collection because Stone narrows his focus to a believable incident. Mary, a widow of few means, is a devout Catholic whose mission is to bring aborted fetuses to churches for blessing. The depth of her sadness fuels her single-minded purpose like high-octane gasoline.

Most of us have suddenly come upon someone stricken with grief or despair, and we catch our breath to be exposed to such a private moment. This story is like that moment, a sharply etched frame of guilt, obsession and despair.

It saves the collection.

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