Robert Stone, the great American writer who died Saturday at the age of 77, had a life as unusual as any of his characters. A Brooklyn native, Stone grew up partly in a Catholic orphanage, and served in the Navy for four years after being kicked out of high school. He was a friend of Ken Kesey, the Merry Prankster himself, and worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam. His beautiful, hyper-realistic writing concerned itself with tough issues — religion, violence, danger, and solitude — and he leaves a legacy that will be hard for anyone to top. His books were famous for their stories of men at war against the world, but he always reached for something even deeper. "That's the great thing about literature," Stone once remarked, "it makes the world less lonely." If you’re unfamiliar with his work, here are some good places to start.
A Hall of Mirrors
Stone’s 1967 debut novel captures the city of New Orleans as well as it does the turbulent 1960s. The book follows Rheinhardt, a clarinetist and DJ who finds work at an arch-conservative radio station in the Big Easy — and then finds out he sold out even more than he thought. Nightmarishly cynical, darkly funny, and surreal, A Hall of Mirrors was adapted into WUSA, a truly bizarre 1970 movie with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Both book and film are worth seeking out.
Stone’s 1974 follow-up to A Hall of Mirrors was even darker and more searing than its predecessor. The National Book Award-winning story of John Converse, an American journalist in Vietnam who becomes involved in a large-scale heroin deal, Stone’s portrait of early-’70s South Vietnam and Southern California remains unsurpassed. It also contains some of his best writing: "If you couldn't tell the difference between what hurt and what didn't, you had no business being alive. You can't have any good times if you can't tell."
A Flag for Sunrise
Set in the fictional Central American country of Tecan, Stone's 1981 thriller is one of his most original and readable novels. The book follows Frank Holliwell, an American anthropologist caught up in the country's nascent revolution, and features a cast of characters including a Catholic nun, several Communist idealists, drug runners, and CIA agents. It's part John Le Carre and part Graham Greene, with some Hemingway-esque bravado added for good measure.
Before there was All Is Lost, there was Stone’s masterful 1992 novel. Owen Browne, a trusting, idealistic copywriter with a comfortable life, enters a demanding sailboat race: solo, unaided, around the world. The ensuing breakdown — actually, breakdowns — are horrible and fully realized, and the tougher things get for Browne, the harder it is to put the book down. It’s one of Stone’s tightest, most daring books, and a startling reflection on the nature of success and adventure, and the frailty of human relationships.
Bear and His Daughter
The short stories in Stone’s 1997 collection span three decades, and together form what might be the most powerful book of his career. It’s tough and merciless, with a cast of troubled, tortured characters forced to deal with the realities behind hot-button political issues like abortion and the war on drugs. Although Stone will likely always be known more for his novels, this varied, sometimes unpredictable collection proves that he was a master of short fiction as well.
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