The Spring of His Discontent

In Robert Stone’s 1986 novel, Children of Light, the heroine, a Hollywood actress, encounters a Mexican avant-garde painter who has sold some paintings to an American department store. Agonizing over his sellout, the artist confesses that he’s never “spoken the truth in English,” and wonders whether such a thing is even possible. “Oh yes,” the starlet wittily replies, “but very Protestant.” The gibe takes aim at an earnest American Protestantism that sees goodness radiating outward from national destiny. Stone once said in an interview, musing on the severity of the Catholic religion he was partly raised in: “Life is not supposed to be easy. Anything you get, you get the hard way. In some ways, Catholicism is very good training for making the best of a hard world.”

Coming at truth the hard way is one of the underlying themes of Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, Stone’s first offering of nonfiction prose after seven novels and one collection of stories. At least five of these novels are first-rate, including the National Book Award-winning Dog Soldiers (1976) and Damascus Gate (1998), one of the best American novels of the 1990s. As a novelist, Stone has been celebrated-and sometimes maligned-for plots that proceed at a relentless tempo, rarely pausing for character development or novelistic musings. His memoir is a change of pace. Prime Green is a quieter book by far, and fans of the novels may need a while to get used to it.

In recalling its author’s apprenticeship in last century’s most politically symbolic decade, Prime Green offers a timely commentary on American public culture. Stone is not interested merely in documenting the writerly life. His reason for revisiting the 1960s is his realization that he was involved, albeit somewhat involuntarily, in a cultural war. “We couldn’t imagine it at the time,” he observes, “but we were on the losing side of the culture war.” Aligning himself with leftist virtues such as fairness, tolerance, defense of the oppressed, and respect for the earth, he concedes his own excesses and the excesses of his generation-the self-destructiveness confused with virtue or talent, the heedlessness perceived as courage. And yet against a current cultural trajectory that he clearly considers repressive, Stone perceives an aspect of Romanticism, in the best sense, in the countercultural experimentation of the 1960s.

An elliptical quality characterizes much of Prime Green. Its narrative form is slightly elusive, as though mirroring the writer’s rather tentative grasp on the form of his own life; as often as not, episodes teeter on the edge of parable, even while lacking resolution. Early on, Stone is motivated by the simple fear of getting sucked into the American bourgeois mainstream. Living in New Orleans in the early 1960s, with a young wife and baby, he answers an ad for a traveling Passion play and procures an acting job (as chief of the Temple Guards) that would take him on the road for six months. Feeling the call of art-even the hackneyed art of a religious theater troupe-Stone nevertheless backs out on the night the troupe leaves town, returning instead to his wife. Decades later, the memory prompts him to compare himself to the young man in the gospel who, when called by Christ, “could not leave the life he knew.” The temptation to desert ordinary life seems an anticipatory allegory for Stone’s own way of floating at the edges, flirting with but never quite fully immersing himself in various countercultural commitments, from drug experimentation to civil rights to antiwar protests.

The biographical details we expect in the story of an author’s apprenticeship are all here, set down with an open-endedness so unassuming as to make the unfolding of Stone’s career as a novelist seem anything but inevitable. After beginning as a journalist at the Daily News, he falls into a Stegner fellowship at Stanford, and thereafter into the Houghton Mifflin First Novel Fellowship. He befriends Ken Kesey in Palo Alto, joining the infamous cross-country trek of the Merry Pranksters to the New York City World’s Fair in a painted bus-though only at the tail end, and with wife and children in tow. There is an episode in which, while tripping on peyote, he flees a Coltrane gig in San Francisco. In 1965 he’s back in New York, working at a tabloid modeled on the National Enquirer, where he writes fanciful headlines and fabricated stories, like the one about a dentist who wrongly extracted a girl’s tongue, or a crab-eating contest conducted with live crabs. Such stories, Stone tells us, are “liberating and bright with possibility, while the true shit keeps you bound to a fallen world.” In 1966, he’s on the lam in Mexico with Ken Kesey and Neil Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty of On the Road fame, sharing “the mercies of Mexico” with two literary legends.

Seemingly by happenstance, Stone’s journey acquaints him with many conspicuous events and characters of the 1960s, as though his own destiny were that of the decade itself. He learns that the CIA is sponsoring much of the drug experimentation in California. He twice encounters a ghostly Alger Hiss, once in an elevator, once at a Madison Avenue art gallery, and wants to speak to him, but it is as if Hiss-as shadow of the cold war, as victim of miscarried ideology-cannot be addressed. After publishing his impressive first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, to positive reviews, Stone receives a call from Paul Newman and soon finds himself in Hollywood as screenwriter for the well-intentioned yet lamentable WUSA, the film based on his novel. In Hollywood as the decade winds down, he is at a coffee shop in the Beverly Hills Hotel when he learns of the Manson murders-realizing only later that even as he heard the news he was high on dope sold to him by one of Manson’s victims, Jay Sebring. Eventually Stone gets himself to Vietnam, where he hangs on as a stringer, trying unsuccessfully to obtain transport to cover Lam Son 719, the ill-conceived and disastrous American-backed campaign of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam into Laos.

Reading Prime Green is not unlike reading a picaresque novel, or one of the 1950s beat narratives styled after them. The adventures are serial, accruing toward meaning as though by accident. As often as not, Stone writes about missed events, conveying the ambivalence of someone fluttering at the edges of violence and dissolution without getting sucked all the way in. Oblique both by strategy and by sensibility, he approaches cultural politics from an ironic and consummately aesthetic perspective. And yet in offering deliberate resistance to the moral coherence of memoir as life lesson, Stone’s story is not without political import. At one point he admits that his own experience of faltered religious faith makes him uneasy about the moral resolve one so admires, and yet also dreads, in a writer such as Flannery O’Connor. With implicit allusion to the conflation of religion, moral certainty, and political righteousness in contemporary American politics, he boldly states his mistrust of politics practiced as a substitute religion.

In an interview Stone once quipped that “in a sense, I’m a theologian”-by which he meant a theologian in the negative vein, one who asks questions of a metaphysical sort and vastly prefers the questions to the answers. As deployed in Prime Green, such a mode of inquiry seems a timely correction to our own political moment, imbued with the self-satisfaction of American goodness. “In our time, we were clamorous and vain,” Stone declares in the memoir’s final paragraph. But he concedes only so much. In the end, Prime Green seems motivated by the regretful sense that what the 1960s represented-a search for something higher, for something more difficult and more just-was surrendered before its time.

Published in the 2007-02-09 issue: 
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R. Clifton Spargo, a fiction writer and critic, is the author most recently of Vigilant Memory: Emmanuel Levinas, the Holocaust, and the Unjust Death (Johns Hopkins). He teaches at Marquette University.

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