March 19: “The Archer” by Robert Stone

Hello, Story366! Happy to see you back for this fine weekend. A bit cold today—for Southwest Missouri in mid-March—but if you recall yesterday’s proclamation, all I really had planned was reading stories and writing posts for this blog. Every moment is seventy and mild when you’re inside, at your desk, is what I always say. Blog on.

Today I read from the late Robert Stone’s 2010 collection Fun With Problems, which I picked up at Springfield’s excellent indie bookstore, BookMarx, during this month’s First Friday Art Walk. It’s great to have an indie bookstore in town—one that carries both MSU creative writing faculty books and Moon City Press books—so I try to pop in every couple of weeks and buy stuff. When they stock their shelves with story collections and you’re doing a story-a-day blog project, it’s not a hard trip to make.

I probably passed Stone’s book on several occasions while at BookMarx, as I don’t really associate him with stories. Sure, I read “Helping” back in college, a story that was anthologized in a couple of places, but Stone more or less is a novelist in my mind, nominated for a bunch of major prizes for books like Dog Soldiers (which netted him the 1974 National Book Award) and several others he published over the next forty years. Research tells me that his first collection, Bear and His Daughter, lost the 1997 Pulitzer to Phillip Roth, which I never realized. In any case, closer inspection of the BookMarx shelves netted me this book, and if there’s one thing I’m on the lookout for this year, it’s story collections I’m not aware of.

I was all set to write about “Fun With Problems,” a great story about a lonely, over-the-hill lawyer who picks up a woman in a prison visitation room, a great story, the book’s first, and the title story, which I like writing about. I read another, though, the book’s finale, “The Archer,” and a couple of sentences in, knew I’d be writing about it instead. Maybe it’s because I love fictional archers—I’m a big fan of Arrow, Hawkeye is for some reason my favorite Avenger, and even though it’s not the same thing, I’ve seen every episode of Archer ten times. Or maybe because it’s a crazy, zany, insane story that made me laugh out loud. Or maybe because I’ve needed to reveal the fact that Hawkeye is my favorite Avenger for a long time, and this was my chance. All answers are correct.

“The Archer” is not really about an archer, just an art professor named Duffy who has a crossbow. That’s important because, as rumor has it, he came home one day to his university-granted house only to find his wife engaged in passionate coitus with a creative writing professor on the bearskin rug in the living room. He then got his crossbow out of the car and went inside and threatened the sweaty nude couple. Again, rumor, one Duffy loves to refute, leaving us wondering if it’s true, too—Stone never says for sure. Duffy is divorced, though, and said creative writing professor is living in the university-granted house with his wife instead of him. So, you be the judge.

All of this is in the first two pages of the story, and Stone uses this speculation, his explaining of the rumor, to set up present-day Duffy. As I read, I assumed that the crossbow incident would be a low point for Duffy, something he had to live down, that he was on the road to recovery, that maybe at the story’s climax, he’d lose his shit again. Really, who could blame a guy for getting all angry, for brandishing a handy weapon when he finds his wife fucking another dude—a younger but chubbier dude—on the living room floor? It’s not like Duffy shot anyone with the crossbow. How many people, in that situation, a weapon handy, would be able to make the threat, bring the crossbow into the room, and not shoot the guy? “Crime of passion,” they’d say in court. I got to thinking that maybe the story would be about Duffy’s restraint, not an almost-murder. Yeah, restraint. What an even-tempered guy Duffy must be. What a great character, a guy who shows restraint.

Nope. As soon as we get to the frontstory, a couple-few pages in, Duffy proves me very wrong. He’s been asked to Pahoochee State University as a guest lecturer, what seems like the equivalent of being asked to a university to read, and before the lecture, the professor at PSU in charge of the event arrives at Duffy’s hotel to take him out to dinner. He’s brought his family along, a wife and two sons, and without going into detail, Duffy more or less threatens to throw the two sons off his balcony. Just like that, a proclamation to murder his children. Not a lot of restraint there.

Duffy plays off the threat as a failed attempt at dry humor, and the Pahoochee State professor laughs, because who wouldn’t? Two explanations: 1) Whoa, this guy’s humor is too dry for me and I’m slow on the uptake, so I’d better laugh; or 2) This guy, who I brought in to lecture because I think he’s great, just threatened to kill my sons. Duffy avoids annihilation, but just barely.

Duffy digs himself in deeper by drinking, and when the restaurant won’t serve him—it’s Sunday—it’s okay, because he has his ankle flask. The booze calms him and makes him more agitated at the same time. He swears openly in front of everyone, including the small boys, and drinks on. The scales tip when Duffy receives his dinner, crab, and he spots it as imitation, the painted whitefish variety. Duffy loses it, first berating the young server Staci, then by insulting the chef, with whom he gets into a violent fight, right there in the restaurant. Duffy is arrested—he went at the chef with a pen, a “deadly weapon”—and since Pahoochee State no long wants anything to do with him, he’s stuck in jail, in a faraway state, with no money, no way to get home, no one to call.

Again, this is all in the first third of the story. The rest, Duffy has to figure how to get out of jail, get home. This includes calling the most unlikely person for cash for bail, and I’ll bet you can guess who that unlikely person is. After, he is still stuck in Pahoochee until his arraignment three days later. Duffy lives on the streets, has to get resourceful, has hit yet another rock bottom.

The protagonists in both stories I read are guys past middle age, divorced, and alcoholic, guys on their last legs, at the precipice of total self-destruction. And they’re lonely. The main character in “Helping,” which I haven’t read in twenty years, fits the same description (plus there’s a lot of cross-country skiing, I recall correctly). If Stone were dating these men instead of creating them, we’d say he had a type, but I’ll say that, anyway. Maybe not all of Stone’s characters fit this bill, but when I go three-for-three, it’s easy to recognize his comfort zone.

Sadly, Robert Stone died a little over a year ago. He’s a celebrated American author, and while I’ve only read three of his stories, I can say that I’ve been missing out. “The Archer” is an audacious, daring story that presses down on the gas in the first sentence and never lets up. In terms of pure entertainment, it’s one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve read all year. If you haven’t read Robert Stone, you should.

Robert Stone