Remembering Robert Stone

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Susan Aimee Weinik / Getty Images

Robert Stone, the superb American novelist and chronicler of the Perpetual Apocalypse who died in January at 77, never played the major-male-writer game. Unlike the Mailers of the world, he didn't flaunt his thoughts on the Big Question or lead a public love life, and unlike Salinger and Pynchon, he didn't cultivate genius-style seclusion. To his readers and fellow writers, he was a somewhat faceless master mason who published infrequently and monumentally, as though on a private astrological cycle synced to the culture's deeper waveforms. To me, for whom he was an idol (and remained one even after we met in person, which doesn't often happen with one's heroes), he was a channel of legendary energies. He'd cavorted with Kerouac and Kesey in his youth and puffed on the same long pipe of myth and vision lit by Whitman and Melville way back when.


As it happened, the week before he passed away I had reread Dog Soldiers, his best-known novel, published in 1974 and annually ripped off and reworked by every tough-guy subterranean since. It's the tale of a misbegotten heroin deal that starts in buggy wartime Vietnam and climaxes with a psychedelic shoot-out somewhere in the lonesome John Ford desert. Its ship-of-fools cast is typical of Stone, thrusting together twitchy desperadoes, mournful contemplatives, moon-eyed zombies, and suavely lethal agents of the System. It moves like noir, with oiled inevitability, but carries a weighty philosophical load. Its subject, as was ever the case with Stone, is America, us, Goliath with a gun, Bible-drunk lawgiver to the whole known universe. The characters are men of action set in motion by some collective momentum beyond their power to fathom or direct. The unlucky ones get out alive, while the fortunate rest are plowed back into the soil. They're sure to return, though, because Stone's America is nothing if not cyclical and karmic. With each turn of the big guilty wheel, we all swap souls.

In 2007, a couple of years after our only meeting, I read and reviewed Prime Green, his memoir, from which I learned the outline of his story. Raised Roman Catholic in New York City. Troubled mother. Absent father. Poor. Ran off to join the Navy in his late teens and kept a copy of On the Road stashed in his seabag. Drifted to New Orleans when he got out, and sold encyclopedias door-to-door. Then, in the early Sixties, California. Acid under the redwoods. A writing fellowship. Out of it came his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, the tale of a small-time DJ in the Deep South who falls in with a crew of rancid bigots bent on inciting racial Armageddon. Next stop, Hollywood, that golden tar pit where young writers tend to flounder and leave their bones. Stone crawled to safety, though, and poured his bitterness into Children of Light, a novel of gothic self-loathing whose schizoid, druggy film-star heroine has sex on a pile of pig manure.

His characters tend to be seized by strong beliefs that carry them off toward madness and destruction. In Outerbridge Reach, Owen Browne, an upstanding ad writer living a decent middle-class life, is seized by a vision of stoic self-reliance that sends him off on a one-man sailing voyage that takes him to the spiritual brink. In Dog Soldiers, Dieter, a trippy guru figure who may be partly based on Ken Kesey, converts his fondness for chemical transcendence into a magic-mushroom nature cult. Then there is Hicks, the hunted heroin smuggler who practices a form of Zen derived from his own numbness and detachment. At the end of the novel, bleeding from a bullet wound but vowing to press on, he trudges toward death down an endless railroad track, his useless cargo of Asian opiates still strapped across his broad American back. To keep up his spirits he pictures a blue triangle containing a red circle that holds his pain. The circle grows larger as he stumbles forward, eventually expanding to include the suffering of the entire foolish world. It's a delusion, of course, and grandiose, but it's one that great artists understand.

"He recalled that the pack was what he wanted so he would have to carry it. Serious people existed in order to want things, and to carry them."

Now it's our turn to carry what Stone set down. The load is a heavy one, but he bore it with grace, and it belongs to us all now, to all who labor.

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