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Robert Stone, who died this past January at the age of seventy-seven, wrote big, political novels—novels of ideas whose protagonists seek to put those ideas into action, and usually get them wrong when they try. For Stone, civilization in the twentieth century, or what passed for civilization anyway, was all about mistakes. His characters were human, and humans screw up; there wasn’t much to be done about that except to situate the culprits and their transgressions in clarifying narratives of intense moral and political scrutiny. “The purpose of fiction,” Stone remarked in a famous 1985 interview in the Paris Review, “is to help us answer the question we must constantly be asking ourselves: Who do we think we are and what do we think we’re doing?” People came first in Stone’s novels—eminently fallible characters the reader would be compelled to judge—but they also figured invariably as elements of the larger political drama of civilization.

In A Flag for Sunrise (1981), perhaps Stone’s finest book, anthropologist Frank Holliwell, a disenchanted former CIA operative in Vietnam, is sent by the Agency to assess the volatile situation in the fictional Central American country of Tecan, a brutal U.S. client state whose ruling regime suspects a group of American missionaries of working in tandem with left-wing revolutionaries. Holliwell makes contact with Tom Zecca, a CIA operations officer, based in Tecan, who is similarly hard-bitten by his time in Vietnam. On a drunken car ride from neighboring Compostela to Tecan, the two men feel each other out in a fraught conversation in which Zecca ends up bragging that in Vietnam he never killed civilians, butchered corpses, torched hamlets, or tortured Viet Cong suspects. “I don’t claim virtue,” he says, damning himself with faint praise. “I don’t claim to be a kindly man. I claim to be capable of honor.”

Stone treats such claims ironically, but not dismissively. He does not condemn Zecca for his resignation, and is skeptical of Holliwell’s quest for redemption. In a Cold War warp where results fall chronically short of ideals and intentions, being merely capable of honor—summoning it not always but every so often—may be the best a good man can do. Some of Stone’s antiheroes are too ravaged to manage even that. In Dog Soldiers (1974), his best-known novel and winner of the National Book Award, Ray Hicks, a vicious, combat-addled Marine looking to sell some heroin smuggled from Vietnam to California, hits a rich wannabe named Gerald with a hot-shot of the drug straight in the vein, leaving the panicked drug dealer who has arranged the meeting to bring Gerald back from the overdose—if he can—as Gerald foams at the mouth. Asked why he did it, Hicks responds with callous bravado. “I’m a Christian American who fought for my flag,” he says. “I don’t take shit from Martians.” What dooms Gerald is his alien, decorative pretense to the squalid valor that Hicks believes he has earned.

Like most of Stone’s characters, Hicks is a victim of circumstances writ large, a pawn on history’s chessboard. Stone always took pains to elucidate those larger contexts; it is this ability, even compulsion, to tease out the consequences of a faraway war that makes Dog Soldiers the most penetrating work of fiction about the Vietnam War. The novel involves no combat, and is set mostly in California; part of the book’s genius is its fierce demonstration that the U.S. intervention in Vietnam poisoned the American homeland as well as a distant war zone. A decade later, Stone feared that American depredations in Central America—a “blood debt...coming up for payment,” as he put it in the Paris Review interview—could have similarly disruptive consequences. Fortunately, they did not, and after A Flag for Sunrise he felt reassured enough to turn his fiction, for a while anyway, to more personal matters.

For this he had plenty of poignant history to exploit. Born in Brooklyn in 1937 to a single mother, Stone grew up in Manhattan’s East Village, and from age six to ten, when his mother was institutionalized for schizophrenia, he lived in an orphanage run by Marist brothers. He went to Catholic schools but joined the Navy before getting his high-school diploma. After four years of seeing the world—Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, the Middle East—he was discharged in 1958, got married, started writing for newspapers, and enrolled in NYU. Restless and romantic, he and his wife Janice soon decamped to New Orleans. His aptitude for writing fiction subsequently won him a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. There he met One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, who introduced him to LSD. Drugs and excess permeated Stone’s writing (the title of his 2007 memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, refers to a particularly vivid color that the drug evokes), and he acknowledged that his generation sometimes “confused self-destructiveness with virtue and talent, obliteration with ecstasy, heedlessness with courage.” Nineteen sixty-six saw the publication of his first novel. A Hall of Mirrors, set in New Orleans, was an audacious account of dark American passions coursing through the urban scene of the early 1960s. 

Though he reached adulthood in the 1950s, Stone was quintessentially a ’60s man; his coming of age as a writer spanned the Beat and Hippie generations, and that provenance posed considerable writerly tension for him. He admired Richard Yates, whose 1961 novel of suburban desperation, Revolutionary Road, he credited with resuscitating realism in American fiction. Yet Stone’s experiences with drugs turned his own literary realism toward hallucinatory evocations: in the violently crazed climax of Dog Soldiers; in the celebrated diving scene in A Flag for Sunrise; and again in a jangled voodoo carnival moment in Bay of Souls. Hallucination was part of his reality, and his lapsed Catholicism devolved into a kind of secular mysticism: “It’s hard to stay away from religion when you mess with acid,” he quipped in 1985. Less facetiously, he noted in another interview that his adventures with drugs had exposed a fundamentally “religious”—as opposed to “intellectual or political”—sensibility. Stone assessed and addressed the world not so much rationally or analytically, but intuitively and spiritually. His style of fiction was not Raymond Carver’s “dirty realism,” but a significantly loftier sort.

 

THIS IS NOT TO say that his novels neglect social contexts or retreat into hazy metaphysical inwardness. Indeed, even his smaller-bore works incorporate plangent social and political criticism, resonating with a sardonic awareness of generational flaws and failures. Children of Light (1986) centers on down-and-out screenwriter Gordon Walker’s incendiary relationship with Lee Verger, the equally damaged actress who is starring in a movie he wrote years before, being shot in Mexico. For Stone it is an unusually interior novel, but it still expresses a broad lament over his generation’s surrender of idealism to midlife hedonism. Walker’s bedeviled romance is his cheap way of hanging onto the past.

After a few minutes, he took his newspaper upstairs to pack and outwait the rain. As soon as he had closed the door behind him, he set about running more cocaine. He had no sure purpose for the day, only the dream of going south. The dream provided him a happiness against all reason, it was succor and escape. Coke turned it adamantine, to mythic longing. As he stood at the window over the rain-soiled sea, his blood quickened at the prospect. He felt then that it was all he had.

Outerbridge Reach (1992) takes even more explicit aim at generational self-respect. As the novel begins, Owen Browne is a dissolute yacht broker returning home to Connecticut via New York from Annapolis and a mordant reunion with some Naval Academy classmates and fellow Vietnam veterans. Under the “piss-yellow light of Penn Station,” he ponders how he must have felt in 1964, when he boarded a train for Annapolis to start his four years at the Academy.

The image would have been a romantic one, but romantic in the postwar modernist style. Its heroic quality would have been salted in stoicism and ennobled by alienation. As an uncritical reader of Hemingway, he would have imagined his future self suitably disillusioned and world-weary. On the morning in question, he would not have had the remotest conception of what such attitudes entailed. He would have awaited world-weariness and disillusionment impatiently, as spurs to higher-class and more serious fun. Of course, not even Hemingway enjoyed them much in the end.

Neither, it turns out, would Browne, whose mercilessness toward himself and his world spells his demise: in the end he drowns, lost at sea in an around-the-world single-handed ocean race—cuckolded, ashamed, and “thinking it would be wonderful to have back the man he once had been.”

The intricate, heavily expository, and intellectually ambitious Damascus Gate (1998) saw Stone return to world affairs—this time the Arab-Israeli conflict during the intifada. The novel confronts the matter of faith directly, casting Jerusalem and Gaza as vortices of global and local religious agendas. Its protagonist is Christopher Lucas, a disaffected American journalist, half-Jewish but raised Catholic, who goes to Israel seeking meaning that he can’t seem to find elsewhere. Lucas uncovers a plot to blow up the Temple Mount—a scheme conjured not by militant Palestinians or devious Israelis, but by two unhinged American Jews who have formed an eclectic cult that blends elements of apocalyptic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This setup reveals both Stone’s knowing sense of humor and the considerable value—and tragedy—he assigns to religion. Ostensibly a non-believer, Lucas is attracted to religion, even (or especially) when it takes the form of anarchic competition among doctrines. True to Stone’s humanistic core, the novel and its riveting climax turn not on any triumph of faith, but rather on the need to prevent faith’s violent excesses—on the imposition of minimal decency, in other words, which once again figures in his vision as the best that fractured people under duress can do.

Set in the Caribbean, Stone’s next novel, 2003’s Bay of Souls, marks a detour from the political frontlines, and seems both overwrought and derivative of his better work. The novel is preoccupied with self-delusion and the damage it causes to personal relationships, a theme also prevalent in Stone’s two short-story collections, Bear and His Daughter (1997) and Fun With Problems (2010). The short-story form does not play to Stone’s central strength, which is the patient, interstitial translation of character, belief, and circumstance into fateful action; the smaller form forces him to employ devices, especially violent ones, that feel abrupt and artificial—as in the explosive denouement of the first collection’s title story, in which a shattered man’s daughter insists on forcing him to confront their incestuous past.

Still, the best stories showcase their creator’s aptitude for targeting and subverting our nation’s political masters. In “The Wine-Dark Sea,” Stone imagines a U.S. secretary of defense who combines the ignorant swagger of Donald Rumsfeld with the psychological deterioration of James Forrestal. At a conference on a quaint Connecticut island, a snarky Hunter Thompson–esque journalist named Eric Floss (Stone is great with names) has gotten wind of the secretary’s “spectacular mood-swings.” After drunkenly trying to seduce his ex-girlfriend’s married sister, who has put him up for the night on the island, Floss triggers a series of events that culminates in the secretary’s public meltdown. A bystander videotapes the fit, the tape goes viral, and the secretary resigns and ends up attempting suicide. The story seems a bit pat, tied together in a neat way that a Stone novel wouldn’t be; even so, it manages to project, in the person of the secretary, a memorable metaphor for a flummoxed, mean-spirited country: “He was so angry that he found it necessary to imagine subordinates, inadequate ones, close by,” Stone writes. “It was better than feeling alone.”

With his final novel, 2013’s Death of the Black-Haired Girl, Stone returns full circle to the kind of troubled domestic zeitgeist he addressed in A Hall of Mirrors. Experimenting with a more plot-driven approach to literary fiction, and following the lead of such contemporaries as Cormac McCarthy, Richard Price, and Thomas Pynchon in tackling the crime genre, he deploys relatively compact character development and a brisk narrative influenced by the police procedural. Notably more domestic than its far-flung predecessors in Stone’s oeuvre, Death of the Black-Haired Girl is set at a fictional Yale-like college in Connecticut, where Professor Steven Brookman’s precocious student and lover Maud Stack—a passionate prochoice activist and daughter of a retired New York cop named Eddie Stack—is fatally hit by a car during an anti-abortion demonstration, immediately following a heated fight with Brookman. The culprit remains unclear, and ultimately the whodunit form is a bit of a red herring; what Stone is really chasing here is the elusive subject of faith, which in a 2014 interview he confessed to having undersold as a teenager in Catholic school. “I think there’s a necessity for some attachment to the spiritual world and, in a way, people really have to have it,” he said, a sentiment that bookends his existential notion, voiced in the Paris Review thirty years earlier, of “God as an absence—not a meaningless void, but a negative presence we live in terms of.”

Stone believed that people spend their lives looking desperately for a way of apprehending the world that might make sense of its quixotic brutality and unfairness—and, in doing so, help them persist in it. He concluded early on that earthly allegiances, such as political and national ones, inevitably fall short. “The national promise is so great that a tremendous bitterness is evoked by its elusiveness,” he said in 1983. The gravitational pull exerted on him by religious conviction was evident in A Flag for Sunrise, in which Holliwell falls in love with Sister Justin, a defiantly naïve nun who is martyred. Now, in Death of the Black-Haired Girl, Stone reconstitutes Sister Justin in the character of Jo Carr, a disaffected former nun turned social worker, who elicits Eddie Stack’s forgiveness and frees Brookman of the burden (and danger) of Stack’s wrath. Her work done, Jo seeks to connect their small story with the larger world. “History,” she remarks, “is poisoned by claims on underlying truth.” There isn’t any such truth, Stone’s characters discover again and again; in its absence, only faith—faith of some kind—remains to alleviate suffering.

 

LITERARY NOVELISTS TODAY don’t operate the way the young Robert Stone did. They don’t travel to war zones, as Stone did to Vietnam and Central America; nor do they typically embed magisterial moralizations about world events in their books. Stone’s death from emphysema was a major loss, and not merely because he was a great writer and a grand character. Stone was also arguably the last of a formidable progression of realist novelists, spanning the period from World War I through the Cold War and Vietnam, who mainly took on war and political conflict, and whose ranks included Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Graham Greene. While certainly an individualist, like Hemingway before him Stone was also proud to be part of an iconic if flawed generation that he believed multiplied the power of its members, writers included. Soaring in his humility, Stone concludes Prime Green on a defiant note: “Measuring ourselves against the masters of the present, we regret nothing except our failure to prevail.”

If Stone’s adamantly searching approach to writing fiction continues to have any purchase among American novelists today, it would be with such writers as Denis Johnson, whose 2007 National Book Award–winning Tree of Smoke harked back to Greene’s The Quiet American and Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise, perhaps Norman Rush, and obliquely Rachel Kushner. But the fin-de-siècle blitheness of the 1990s—a decade nestled between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the “age of terror”—nurtured the idea that American literature needed to turn away from big, grim themes of modern portentousness and focus instead on the psychological fine points of character and everyday life. That conceit has proved durable. Even the best fiction spawned by the 9/11 attacks (e.g., Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and the Iraq war (Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Phil Klay’s Redeployment) has focused on personal experience more than geopolitical hubris and the fallen state of mankind.

Yet the morally parlous realities that informed Stone’s twentieth-century concerns about how Americans treat one another—and the rest of the world—have hardly been ameliorated, let alone eliminated. In A Flag for Sunrise, what CIA officer Marty Nolan says to Holliwell seems as bleakly cogent today as it did three decades ago:

“We’re at a very primitive stage of mankind...that’s what people don’t understand. Just pick up the Times on any given day and you’ve got a catalogue of ape behavior. Strip away the slogans and excuses and verbiage, the so-called ideology, and you’re reading about what one pack of chimpanzees did to another.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Perhaps more than any other established novelist who witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers, Stone had the insight, the literary chops, and the sense of history to comprehend our new age of terror. In Death of the Black-Haired Girl, he hints at how he might have approached the task of extending his fiction into yet another arc of battered human striving. He would have started, as usual, with the musings of a solitary, searching man:

New York cops had been issued Glocks while Stack was in the job. Glocks, which replaced the old revolvers, were fearsome, fateful pieces, and they could set a running man into an airborne spin. It was a weapon to display on a twenty-first century coat of arms, Stack thought. If there was a piece of weaponry used to claim the streets, it would be the Glock, exploding into random fusillades. A carelessly drawn breath might set it blazing. A gun with a mind of its own, in the world that had come to be after 9/11—heavy, hard to use, ready to take out half the room in seconds. They had become popular. Prestigious weapons, they tempted bozos towards casual display.

It is a dark image for a dark age. Sadly, Stone left too soon to do it justice. 

Published in the October 23, 2015 issue: 

Jonathan Stevenson is senior fellow for U.S. Defense and editor of Strategic Comments at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). He served as director for Political-Military Affairs, Middle East and North Africa, on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2011 to 2013.

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