Robert Stone's short-story collection is my choice, in particular for three short stories contained therein: "Helping," "Under the Pitons," and "Absence of Mercy." "Absence of Mercy," a story that seems autobiographical, describes the narrator's upbringing in a Hobbesian foster home run by the sadistic Christian Brothers and the effect this has on his later life.
The scene of the fight between the adult narrator and a deranged man on a New York subway platform is, like the UFC, as real as it gets. Other images haunt me, such as the narrator being knocked unconscious by a "friend" and thrown down the stairs of a pool hall. (Before I learned how to defend myself, I was also knocked unconscious by a "friend.") "Under the Pitons" describes a blonde Texas woman who invites predatory sexual attention from a gangster ("she sent out a ray"), and subsequently drowns when, dehydrated and drugged, she tries to swim from her boat, loaded with a cargo of resinous ganja, to the shore of a Caribbean island.
The drowning scene has the stark sickening reality of surveillance footage. She laughs and sings. I cry when I think of it. The narrator, an Irishman who cared for her, makes it to shore. The last line, "Maybe they would overstand him there," sums up all loneliness and grief.
Finally, the masterpiece "Helping," the story that first made me want to write when I read it for a class in 2004, shows a Vietnam veteran consumed by hate and anger. The simple primal images of black smoke in the sky, razor wire across a trail, blood in the snow, a man in his basement with a shotgun, his wife naked at the window looking out at him – and his waiting to see if she will show grace and mercy, if she will forgive him for his anger – I can barely stand and will never forget the powerful anguish of these images.
All the stories in this collection are powerhouse punches (with the exception, for me, of the abortion story, which speaks more to Stone's Catholicism and his anger at the hypocrisy of priests – an issue that isn't so personal for me). Nothing could be more compelling than the hard-edged world of a Stone story. For me, Stone established the theme of dangerousness, of a person who has violent tendencies, and the theme of an at-risk female character, both of which have obsessed me so much I had to write my own book to deal with them.
Atticus Lish's novel, 'Preparation for the Next Life' is now out in paperback (Oneworld)
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies