From Perry Lane to the Southern Sea

Novelist Robert Stone

The first book I read by Robert Stone was Dog Soldiers. It was a delight in the same way Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was. Here was a novelist who not only had an incredible yet believable story, but told it in a manner that made one turn the pages almost before they were done with the page they were currently reading. It was like reading a taut detective story—fast-paced and moving towards an inevitable apocalypse of some kind with characters who were both reckless and thoughtful at the same time. When I was finished, I immediately read the book again. Then I began trying to find out who this Robert Stone was.

After some superficial investigation, I realized that I had seen the movie based on his first novel a few months previous. Originally titled WUSA, the film stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The story takes place in New Orleans and features a writer in a downward spiral who gets a job deejaying on an ultra-right-wing radio station (call letters WUSA) and ends up involved in a white supremacist rally that culminates in an act of terror. The novel is an honest and darkly paranoid vision of these United States titled A Hall of Mirrors. Exquisitely written, it did not translate to the screen as Stone would have wished. However, it did begin Stone’s lifelong friendship with Newman. Reading the novel today, it would be chilling in its prescience except for the fact that it was written about the period it was published—the 1960s. I suppose that makes it chilling in that a reading today proves what a presence the white supremacist element of the US polity truly is.

Somewhere in my investigations, I discovered that Stone had been part of a group of students, musicians and hangers-on that became the Merry Pranksters. Nominally led by author and Chief Prankster Ken Kesey, these folks lived and hung out on Perry Lane in Palo Alto, California. They would go on to a certain kind of fame after journalist Tom Wolfe wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test about their psychedelic adventures. Kesey, Stone and a few other Pranksters were students at Stanford University in Wallace Stegner’s Creative Writing Seminar. Several American writers are alumni of the seminar. Among them are Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, Wendell Berry, Ernest Gaines and Tillie Olsen. Stone was not the most successful but is arguably the best writer.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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