Bear and His Daughter, by Robert Stone (1997) E

Date read: 2.13.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Bear and His Daughter is a collection of enormously depressing short stories about unhappy people with unhappy pasts and, frequently, drug dependencies. There’s a washed-up poet in Mexico trying to escape his need for the validation of his strung-out friends as they hustle him up the side of a volcano on a putative spiritual quest (“Porque no Tiene, Porque le Falta”); two war veterans struggling with fear and confusion (“Absence of Mercy” and “Helping”); a trepidatious drug-runner (“Under the Pitons”); a hippie mom who has an unnerving encounter with a dolphin at an aquarium (“Aquarius Obscured”); and a widowed woman who channels her grief and anger into macabre nighttime undertakings on behalf of the anti-abortion movement (“Miserere”). Oh, and another washed-up poet, a relapsed alcoholic taking a cross-country trip that draws him closer and closer to his estranged daughter, an erratic, poetical junkie and park ranger who spins myths about the caves where she gives tours (“Bear and His Daughter”).

All told, there’s a lot of rage and fear and aimlessness and rejection of meaning or acceptance of the lack thereof, and the stories end in senseless fistfights on subway platforms or gunshots or suicides or drowning or people otherwise hurting themselves and others. BUT for all that, I did enjoy (…not quite the right word) reading it. Stone delineates his characters’ psychology with finesse, and I was a little in awe of his prose: it’s incredibly lean and stripped-down, with descriptions, particularly of landscapes and seascapes, that are piercingly vivid in their concision. There’s a kind of architectural purity to his writing, coupled with an intense attention to details of setting and sensation.

Sometimes I do worry that this style of writing ends up flattening the emotional affect to such an extent that it can take a hell of a lot of legwork on the reader’s part to actually access it, if the reader is even interested enough to make the investment. In this case I was only warily engaged at first, but got into the style and rhythm past the first story. There are frequent servings of dark, absurd humor to lighten the mood by a few shades of black, and there are also moments when the stories feel much more vital and electric. I particularly liked a sequence in “Porque no Tiene” (one of my favorites) in which the protagonist deliriously careens down a forested slope in the middle of the night. Beautifully described, of course. And though I thought that the theme of the title novella was overly forced, that story in particular is infused with a desolate, deeply moving loneliness and a kind of black, secretive poetry that particularly appealed to me – enough that I was willing to buy the melodramatic reveal and ending. (I cried, actually.)

All in all, I did end up coming away with empathy for all these wounded, lonely people. Under all the tight-lipped irony, there’s a lot of naked hurt, and an occasional glimpse of redemptive beauty, a sense that we can establish uneasy ceasefires with our demons and pick ourselves up and just keep on walking.

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Robert Stone

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