The end of the year approaches, a time for thinking about those who were with us a year ago and no longer are. Today I’m thinking about novelist Robert Stone, who died in January. My friend and fellow Commonweal contributor Jonathan Stevenson has written a fine assessment of Stone’s oeuvre. For my part, long ago Stone was my teacher; some months back I wrote an appreciation, and I want to offer it here, for Commonweal readers who admired his work.
As a novelist Stone earned renown for his mordant renderings of American recklessness abroad and tumult at home. In a valedictory appraisal, the Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani judged him “one of the few writers to capture the apocalyptic madness of America in the 1960s,” praising his “dense, philosophical, baroque” prose for “conjuring the emotional temperature of a time and place with extraordinary intensity and fervor.”
That extraordinary intensity characterized the man himself. In 1977 I took Bob Stone’s fiction-writing class at Amherst College, where he was Visiting Writer for several years. At that point he was best known for his Vietnam novel, Dog Soldiers, and for his association with novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, whose escapades were captured in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. One afternoon a week for three hours, a dozen of us would sit in a seminar room in the English building, Johnson Chapel, discussing our stories and monitoring our teacher’s intense and enigmatic presence.
Every writing teacher falls somewhere on the spectrum between The Mechanic and The Metaphysician; and Stone, one might have said, was way off the deep end. He wasn’t the kind of teacher who gives writing exercises and covers your pages with red ink. His approach was lofty, his principles summed up in Joseph Conrad’s Introduction to The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” which he read aloud to us – in its 1709-word entirety -- at our first class meeting. Conrad’s majestic charge to writers begins by asserting that “art should carry its justification in every line,” and proceeds to describe the writer’s task as that of using “the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel -- before all, to make you see.”
All these years later I still clearly see Bob Stone himself, sitting at the head of the seminar table: motley beard and owlish eyebrows; graying hair pulled back in a ponytail; denim work shirt; cigarette. Just thirty-nine at the time, he looked older, and you got the feeling he had gone through a lot. He smoked nonstop, inhaling with deep emphatic need, the smoke that wreathed his head amplifying the oracular quality of his utterances. When asked a question, he seemed to turn inward for a moment, as if composing an answer in his mind and inspecting it before offering it to you. The cigarette was a significant prop in this action. One afternoon I spent two hours interviewing him for a school literary magazine, and our conversation played out in exchanges like this: RRC: “What do you make of the widespread use of hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960s?” RS: (inhale, ponder, exhale): “I view it as providing a reminder that our consciousness is not definitive.” (With the article we ran a caricature of Stone, drawn in David Levine mode by Amherst student Paul Burke, that featured the omnipresent cigarette.)
Nothing Bob said sounded impulsive, even when it clearly was. In the interview I brought up critic Penelope Gilliatt’s New Yorker diss of Dog Soldiers as “an excruciatingly poor novel which somehow won a National Book Award.” What did he make of that? “Well,” Bob said calmly. “Either she’s paying me back” – he explained that in a review he had panned a novel Gilliatt admired -- “or else she’s got her head up her ass.” I looked up from my notebook. Could I quote him on that? Inhale, ponder, exhale. “Go right ahead.”
Stone grew up poor in Brooklyn. His father had abandoned the family, and his mother suffered intermittent mental illness; when Stone was six, she was institutionalized, and he spent the next four years in a Marist Brothers orphanage. As a teenager he was kicked out of his Catholic high school for being “a terrible student,” he told me, “and because I belonged to an organization dedicated to going to school having drunk not less than four beers in the morning.” Stints in the Navy and the Merchant Marines followed, and a gig as a copy boy at The Daily News. For a time he worked at a National Enquirer-like tabloid, writing lurid headlines for made-up news stories. “We would get stoned and write horrendous, unutterable stories,” he recalled, laughing. His greatest work? “Mad Dentist Yanks Girl’s Tongue.”
His counterculture credentials were impeccable, and he regaled us with stories of seamy New Orleans nightclubs, the coast of Mexico, and his time in Vietnam as a journalist. Then there were the drugs. At Stanford in the early 1960s Bob had a writing fellowship and met Kesey, who turned him on to peyote, acid, and a lot more. His pharmaceutical intake, he hinted to me in that interview, had been epic. “I seemed to be ready to ingest whatever anyone gave me,” he recalled, ruefully.
Though Stone knew Jack Kerouac, and though the personal stories he told, with their romance of inspiration, flamed-out youth and wanton travel, suggested a Kerouackian notion of the writing life, he was not at all a Kerouackian writer. His voice on the page was formal and controlled, and his narrative procedures stayed mostly within the canons of traditional realism. He had a sensibility all his own, a caustic and ironic gravity marked by an affinity for the obscure word, as in these sentences from Outerbridge Reach: “At certain times Owen’s absconded presence obsessed her;” “By the standards of his sexual haruspication, it augured well.” Haruspication?
Art, mind-expanding substances, violence, tabloid journalism, sinister politics, the military: Stone’s life served up material for such trenchant fictional treatises as A Hall of Mirrors (1967), Dog Soldiers (1974), A Flag for Sunrise (1981), Outerbridge Reach (1992), and Damascus Gate (1998). Typically he set his novels in farflung places – Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East -- whose ill-fated denizens absorbed volatile combustions of American innocence and American power. But his forays into domestic places disclosed no less dire a view. The urban New Jersey setting of his 1996 story “Miserere” is described as “a city of racial minorities, in the late stages of passing from the control of a corrupt white political machine to that of a corrupt black one. Its schools were warrens of pathology and patronage. Its police, still mainly white, were frequently criminals.” Running deep beneath such baleful factuality one senses always in Stone a current of outrage.
His protagonists were wayward journalists, alcoholic screenwriters, and errant professors, and he portrayed them sympathetically but pitilessly. “They lured each other,” he writes of the Yale professor Brookman and his student lover in his final novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl (2013). “She did it probably out of impatience for real life. He had no excuse but greed.” In the stories I wrote for his class, Stone tried to talk me out of first-person narration, a device he almost never used himself. It’s easy to see why. A participant-narrator blocked his own narrating voice, impeding the clinical way he examined his characters existentially, the blunt assessment of their actions and motives. To a writer, first-person point-of-view offers the useful irony of an untrustworthy narrator. Stone wasn’t interested. His narrator was trustworthy. It was his characters who weren’t.
They buckled beneath the burden of disenchantment he loaded on them. Nobody had it easy in a Robert Stone novel; that was more or less the point. He held that existence, if we are to be interested in it at all, is a predicament, often a harrowing and even humiliating one; and his characters suffered accordingly. He was a serious political novelist, who focused the predicament of lost innocence through our country’s foreign-policy misadventures in Vietnam and elsewhere, creating narratives of harsh moral awakening. Disenchantment, both individual and collective, was his great theme. “We didn’t know who we were till we got here,” says a character in Dog Soldiers; “We thought we were something else.” It could be the epitaph for an era.
As critics noted over the years, his preoccupation with human fallenness was shaped by his early Catholicism; indeed his novels can be seen as vehicles for smuggling tenets from an eroded – or exploded -- religious framework into the post-faith world. As John Updike delivered to the secular a sense of wonder at creation, so did Stone deliver the sense of sin. After he died, his friend and Amherst colleague Jim Maraniss perceptively noted that “Bob was Dionysian by nature, but also a severe moralist.” That paradox says a lot about a novelist who engaged themes of anarchy in magnificently deliberate prose, and whose fictional characters faced the daunting choice between a universe that is meaningless and one that is downright malevolent. Stone could have been channeling Flannery O’Connor when he had one of his characters -- a fierce believer -- taunt her feckless priest: “Oh Frank, you lamb, what did your poor mama tell you? Did she say that a world with God was easier than one without him?”
“I feel a very deep connection to the existentialist tradition of God as an absence — not a meaningless void, but a negative presence we live in terms of,” Stone said in a wide-ranging 1985 Paris Review interview. “When I stopped being religious, being a Catholic, it was — as I did not realize at the time, but have come to since—devastating to me. It was a spiritual and moral devastation, shattering... [and] it left a great hunger.” Confessing that he found it “hard to stop being a Catholic,” he said plaintively that “I have the sense of a transcendent plane from which I’m barred.” He had touched on the same topic when I interviewed him six years earlier. “It’s not given to us to know God’s nature or God’s plan,” he said that day in his office. “I do hope that in the very long run we can come to terms with whatever transcendental destiny was designed for us.” Inhale, ponder, exhale. “It’s just a hope; it’s not really a belief.”
A battered and indignant idealist was hunkered down there, behind the ramparts of cynicism. If you paid attention, you could see it, in the fiction and in Stone himself. A friend who took Stone’s class with me emailed after he died. “I probably carry more of Bob with me than I do of the rest of the Amherst faculty put together,” she wrote. “He somehow managed to show me how to be a better version of myself.” She recalled Stone reading aloud to us from Bleak House, and vowed as a tribute to read the novel again, with a glass of whiskey at her elbow. “It’s a long book,” she added, “so I’ll need a whole bottle.”
To me, when I finished taking all his classes, he offered a kind word. I was a good writer, he told me; now I had to go out and learn something about life. As for writing about whatever I might learn, he had lodged in my mind those exalted exhortations from his forebear, Joseph Conrad, calling on writers to restore “the magic light of suggestiveness” to “the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.” That set the bar high – as Bob himself did, by word and example. He wanted us to understand that literature mattered.
We had spent our whole lives in school; we had no idea anyone believed it might not matter. That challenge would come later. And when it did, we would have the considerable advantage of having been taught, and inspired, by Robert Stone.