The characters in novelist Robert Stone's latest collection of short stories are depraved, depressed, and debauched, struggling just as much with their vices as their own dark souls. The people who populate Fun With Problems the reckless journalist, the lonely husband, the freebasing actress, the self-destructive professor are beyond redemption, barreling toward an abyss from which they can't or won't stop themselves. This here is heavy stuff.
Narrating is David Colacci, a gruff-voiced orator whose brusque delivery gives these tales of addiction, infidelity, and hopelessness an emotional urgency. The risk here is that Colacci could veer into hokey, sentimental territory, sympathizing with the characters in a way Stone doesn't intend. But Colacci's interpretation is spot-on, oozing with the venomous contempt these characters feel toward themselves and those around them. In "High Wire", the longest (and best) of the eight stories, about the long-term relationship between two addicts, Colacci is particularly heartbreaking, his voice and cadence perfectly reflecting a junkie's sad descent: "We would embrace. Sometimes we would hold each other, as chaste as Hansel and Gretel, to show we cared. We hoped we cared."
This isn't to say the book, clocking in at just over six hours, is an unpleasant experience, though at times it makes for an uncomfortable one. As much as the characters can be unlikeable and their actions unconscionable, they aren't entirely hard to relate to. They may represent the bleaker sides of humanity, but they still come across as, well, human. This as much due to Colacci's forceful yet wistful portrayal as it is to Stone's poignant storytelling. Jaime Buerger