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From Perry Lane to the Southern Sea

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.

The next novel of Stone’s to be published is titled A Flag for Sunrise. Set in a fictional Central American country in a time of revolution and repression, it is, like its predecessors, an examination of the American soul. It is also another well-paced adventure story that one finds it difficult to put down. American exceptionalism is exposed in Stone’s first three novels; its pettiness and murderous self-righteousness; its selfish proclamation of its superiority; its angry, vicious abuse of those considered the Other; and its total consumption of the US citizens’ soul. It is not a pretty picture, yet Stone considers it in a manner that finds a certain tortured beauty therein. However, it remains a beauty that necessitates a tragic end almost always involving somebody’s death.

This is how biographer Madison Smartt Bell describes Stone’s tales in his recently published biography of Stone. Bell, himself an author of note (Soldier’s Joy, The Haiti Trilogy, and others), revered Stone’s writing. He describes Stone as “the writer he wished he would become.” Despite this reverence, Bell’s biography, titled Child of Light, is not a hagiography but a deep read into Stone’s work and life. His eventual friendship with Stone provides Bell with certain insights into Stone’s psyche—demons and otherwise—that a biographer further removed might not have discovered.

Stone’s later works were a mixed bag. One of them (which is considered among his major works along with the others mentioned here), is titled Outerbridge Reach. It is the story of a sailor lost near the South Pole during a corporate-sponsored sailing race around the globe. Inspired somewhat by Melville, it is a journey deep into a middle-aged man’s tortured being and commentary on the vacuity of modern life. It includes some of the most harrowing and beautiful descriptions of the ocean and Antarctica this reviewer has ever come across. The reader finds themselves not only inside the protagonist’s mind, but also inside his fear once he realizes he will probably die at sea. Then the reader joins him in his acceptance of his fate. The blue ice of the glaciers reflects the sailor’s despair. It is a despair that stems more from an emptiness of the soul than from almost certain death. It is despair uniquely modern yet universally ageless. It is the human condition the best writers hope to describe and in describing, understand.

Damascus’ Gate is Stone’s last great novel. It is a tale of religious zealotry, political and commercial manipulation, international plots, and colonialist terror. The bulk of the novel takes place in Jerusalem and features various double agents, well-meaning and naïve social workers, and innocents used as pawns in intrigues they do not truly understand. The tale describes scenarios that continue today in the machinations of those Christians hoping for the Second Coming. Like Stone’s first three novels, it is a complex and riveting yarn.

As mentioned earlier, Bell not only provides the reader with a critical biography of Stone’s works, he also writes the story of Stone’s life. Consequently, this is a genuine biography of the writer and, equally so, his life partner Janice; their friends and lovers, their travels, their relationship and their addictions. Robert Stone’s novels are powerful works (including the ones not mentioned in this review) that mine the vastness of human experience, pulling the reader deep into the darkness that informs our history on this planet. Yet, in each journey into the darkness exposed by the stories he tells, there are cracks. That, as the minstrel Leonard Cohen (and friend of Stone and his wife Janice) sings, is how the light gets in.