The life of the late novelist Robert Stone was filled with improbabilities. As Madison Smartt Bell puts it in his new biography, Stone, whose globe-spanning novels took on American history and the American soul, had “a taste for marijuana and alcohol (and for quaaludes and opiates).” In the 1960s, Stone was friends with Ken Kesey; you can imagine how much imbibing that entailed. While in Vietnam on a reporting trip, he experimented with heroin. (He “snorted, smoked, [and] possibly drank it on one occasion,” Bell writes.) Yet Stone lived to the ripe age of seventy-seven, writing a strong novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, two years before he died in 2015. “A connoisseur of women of all varieties,” Bell writes, perhaps a little too forgivingly, “Bob was far from above the occasional fling.” He had an open marriage—so open that he had a child with a family friend in the 1960s and a tempestuous affair with a younger writer three decades later. Yet he stayed with his wife Janice for fifty-five years. By Bell’s reckoning, and it seems accurate, theirs was a happy marriage.
But the most pleasant surprise, for me at least, was the decades-long friendship Stone had with Marilynne Robinson. What a literary odd couple they make: Robinson the proud Calvinist and Stone the lapsed Catholic; Robinson known best for her quiet, lovely novels about mid-century Iowa and Stone known best for his wild, prophetic novels—A Hall of Mirrors (1967), A Flag for Sunrise (1981), and others—all probing the manic brain and corrupted heart of American empire. What must the two writers have talked about? The nature of God, I’m sure. (Stone in an interview: “As a result of having been a Catholic, I’m acutely aware of the difference between a world in which there’s a God and a world in which there isn’t.”) The nature of craft, I imagine. (Stone taught at Johns Hopkins and Yale, among other places.)
Bell was friends with Stone, and his affection for his subject comes through. Writing in the first person, Bell recreates trips the two took to Haiti and conversations they had about fiction’s moral purpose. Despite this love, though, Bell doesn’t hold back, especially when it comes to the suffering brought on by Stone’s addictions. The last hundred or so pages are difficult to read, an onslaught of car crashes—Stone was a terrible driver, even when sober—narcotic dependence, increasingly frequent falls, and an attempted suicide. Stone was charismatic, everyone agrees. He was also destructive, to others occasionally and to himself consistently.
Bell is an accomplished novelist in his own right, and Child of Light, like a good work of fiction, lives through its details. Stone “huffed as much oxygen as possible in a back room of Politics and Prose” before giving a reading. David Milch, the producer of Deadwood, put Stone on the payroll at his production company to give him something to do, and some money, after a stint in rehab. Annie Dillard and Joy Williams vacationed with Stone in the 1990s. (Dillard and Stone went white-water tubing in Missoula and saw a brown bear.)
Stone’s writing offers an imaginative record of America’s political and spiritual dimensions: “That is my subject,” Stone wrote, “America and Americans.” Bell reads this wild life and lasting achievement with grace and sympathy.
Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone
Madison Smartt Bell
Doubleday, $35, 608 pp.