For the late, great novelist Robert Stone, modern American life could only be understood as a state of endless war. Though his combat experience was brief—he was an 18-year-old radioman on a U.S. ship in Port Said when the French air force attacked Egypt in 1956—he was drawn to both military and ideological battle zones while researching his novels. His visits to El Salvador shaped the dense, hallucinatory A Flag for Sunrise (1981). His trips to Israel and Gaza informed his longest and even more hallucinatory novel about Mideast political-religious conflicts, Damascus Gate (1998). And after hanging out in Saigon with Vietnam correspondents like Gloria Emerson and Michael Herr, he produced his most absorbing and most wildly hallucinatory novel, Dog Soldiers (1974).
The three most important words in Stone’s work (and in his three best novels, just reissued by Library of America) are war, Vietnam, and hallucinatory. Losing in Vietnam, Stone argued, the United States lost any belief in its moral superiority. As Stone wrote in his National Book Award acceptance speech for Dog Soldiers, Americans were finally “forced to rediscover one of the harshest and irremediable facts of life—that the universe belongs to the strong. That weakness always fails; strength prevails.” His characters live with a profound sense of disillusionment. “We’re at a very primitive stage of mankind,” argues one of the many covert intelligence ops who populate Flag. “Just pick up the Times on any given day and you’ve got a catalog of ape behavior. Strip away the slogans and excuses and verbiage, the so-called ideology, and you’re reading about what one pack of chimpanzees did to another.”
For Stone, who received his education from Roman Catholics in New York City, giving up on America was like giving up on God. You might wish there was something out there, but you had to admit there was not. Bereft of religious or moral authority, all America could believe in was its own power. And power, as Stone’s characters keep finding, can only be expressed through violence and received in an attitude of acceptance. “Existence was a trap,” Converse discovers in Dog Soldiers. It leads anyone who thinks clearly about the world’s ritual abuses into a state of learned helplessness. It is one end-of-times after another.
Stone’s was not an unusual writerly childhood in the 1930s, though it might seem unusual in the current MFA-driven publishing industry. He was born in Brooklyn in 1937, and by most accounts never knew his father. (Though as Madison Smartt Bell notes in his appreciative, well-written biography, Child of Light, “Stone’s own accounts of his paternity were inconsistent.”) He spent much of the first 16 years of his life in a series of claustrophobic, one-room boardinghouses and apartments; at one point, his living conditions were reported to child protection services. His mother was a difficult, unpredictable woman, possibly schizophrenic or bipolar—conditions attributed, at different times, to Stone as well. He got involved with gangs, sorted himself out slowly, and, like many writers from the wrong side of the tracks, found his way to the right side through a love of books, reading, and writing. At the age of 17, he signed up for three years in the U.S. Navy.
Stone’s youth (like his adulthood) was noted for frequent depressions, mood swings, and excesses of drinking and self-medicating. After beginning a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University in 1962, he befriended Ken Kesey, made some trips (geographically and spiritually) with the Merry Pranksters, experimented with hallucinogens, and acquired a contract for his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), later filmed as WUSA (1970) with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Stone’s lifelong friendship with Kesey and his Pranksters (including Neal Cassady, the sociopathically inclined buddy of Jack Kerouac, and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead) could create a misleading impression of him. While Kesey and Stone both liked to drink, party, and take whatever drug was coming down the pike, they were very different types of writers. Kesey took advantage of his literary celebrity to act out his anti-establishment passions in wide-open political clamor. Stone was a more diffident personality; he preferred the isolate daily discipline of writing his complex books. And whereas Kesey’s public performances eventually took over his career, Stone managed to stay on track. Even when he veered from one job to another, one drug to another, and one relationship to another, Stone always found a way into the next good novel, and the next one after that.
It’s hard to think of an American writer who wrote as many singularly beautiful prose passages as Robert Stone, or who wrestled more strenuously with such large political landscapes. A Hall of Mirrors is structured around a couple in New Orleans who gradually come together and fall apart again. Rheinhardt and Geraldine have spent their lives drinking too much, loving the wrong people, and never learning what’s good for them; they simply go where the wind blows, and the wind blows hard. Like many Stone protagonists, Rheinhardt is an innately talented artist who can’t find a place in an America where art matters. In one early passage, he recalls playing the lead clarinet in Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, and the “terrible invincible unity” he felt in its concluding moments. “And as he and the strings came down together in the last lovely tremolo, he had thought—how beautiful, how beautiful I am!”
Like a priest who doesn’t believe in God, or an artist who can no longer make art, the typical Stone protagonist isn’t a hero so much as a failed effort to transcend the world’s unholy mess. And when they fail, they die or go mad. Like the movie star Lu Anne Bourgeois in Stone’s Hollywood-as-hell novel, Children of Light (1986), or Owen Browne in Outerbridge Reach (1992), they ultimately sail off the map altogether. Many Stone characters eventually realize that death and dissolution aren’t the worst that can happen to them. The worst is that they might lose their mind, and their mind’s ability to transport them to better places.
While Stone shows obvious affinities with Graham Greene—who gained a formal clarity in his life after converting to Catholicism—he also resembles another renegade from Catholicism, Brian Moore, who wrote political thrillers about individuals trying to make moral choices while lost in the maze of immoral political systems. And yet Stone never sympathizes with his characters as much as Moore or Greene did; in Stone’s nihilistic view, his characters’ decisions mean nothing. Which is possibly why Stone’s novels don’t always achieve satisfying conclusions. His characters never seem to win, or lose, or distinguish between the two. Instead, they drift off—or, as in A Hall of Mirrors and Damascus Gate, they do just enough to endure monumental political explosions. They don’t do much, but lots of things get done to them.
Rheinhardt uses his gifts of composition to manufacture news for a right-wing radio station, WUSA, “The Voice of an American’s America.” In easily digestible five-minute segments, he produces little packages that might begin with a report of the Un-American Activities Committee issuing a subpoena, followed by a “digest of the week’s segregation protests,” and conclude with a large black man raping a white minister’s wife. (Stone based this job on his own brief employment inventing stories for a tabloid.) As the radio station’s owner urges him, it’s important to reveal the day’s pattern to their listeners; otherwise, there are “people whose business it is to keep that pattern obscured. From our point of view these people are the enemy.” Stone’s fiction abounds with Delphic oracles and vatic pronouncements like this.
A Hall of Mirrors remains a darkly accurate novel about the ways lost people are deployed by individuals and interests who aren’t lost at all. In the novel’s long, hallucinogenic closing passages, WUSA celebrates a “Patriotic Revival” at the Sport Palace, promoting racial violence amid staged Wild West gunfights and jingoistic speeches. Only America can deliver “a bomb with a heart,” Rheinhardt declares, since America is fundamentally better than everybody else:
“We are not perverts with rotten brains as the English is. We are not a sordid little turd like the French. We are not nuts like the Kraut. We are not strutting maniacs like the gibroney and the greaseball! On the contrary our eyes are the clearest eyes looking out on the world today.”
A Hall of Mirrors isn’t just a ludicrous trip through America-as-hell. It’s an uncanny premonition of populist rallies today. In recent years, right-wing propaganda has simply relocated from the outer ranges of AM radio dials into prime-time spectacle TV. “The only beast in the arena,” Rheinhardt declares at one point, “is the crowd.”
From a young age, Stone sensed a vast darkness at the heart of American life, and with his second novel, Dog Soldiers, he laid the blame for that darkness on the Vietnam War. The central character, Converse, is the author of a successful play, but has failed to write anything since; he works as a hack journalist in Saigon and, after witnessing the failures of the United States as an occupying presence in an immoral war, has developed “a certain difficulty in responding to moral objections”:
There were moral objections to children being blown out of sleep to death on a filthy street. And to their being burned to death by jellied petroleum. There were moral objections to house lizards being senselessly butchered by madmen. And moral objections to people spending their lives shooting scag.
Faced with a world of violence, Converse withdraws from everything. Abandoning his life up to now, he arranges for his wife (who works in a triple-X movie theater) to receive a shipment of heroin back home in Berkeley. From this point, Converse’s role is entirely passive-aggressive. As a result of the events he initiates, his wife is threatened by a pair of psychopathic intelligence ops who work for a corrupt federal agent; she is saved by Converse’s partner in crime, a Nietzsche-loving rogue personality named Hicks; and meanwhile, trapped on the sidelines of his own story, Converse is captured, tortured, captured again, and taken for several long rides, largely as a hostage in negotiations to acquire the lost drugs. Dog Soldiers is an absurd, relentless depiction of American foreign policy and drug dealing as one vast family romance of sociopaths trying to carve themselves a piece of one another.
It’s hard to imagine the contemporary American crime thriller without Robert Stone. Until Dog Soldiers, the genre concerned underworld or criminal outsiders—giggling murderers of old women in wheelchairs, such as Richard Widmark in the film Kiss of Death (1947), or slick criminal combines keeping double books in tall gleaming office towers, as in the Parker novels of Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald E. Westlake. But after Stone, the sociopaths were, more likely than not, political operatives and their accomplices. You can trace his direct or indirect influence on writers such as Don DeLillo (Running Dog) and Denis Johnson (Tree of Smoke), who likewise wrote about Stone-ish landscapes in which governments beget violence, mayhem, and fear, interspersed with brief reprieves of sex, booze, and drugs. Life was a long-running war to Robert Stone. Vietnam was everywhere.
His novels made it difficult for readers to assure themselves that crime and criminals operated in a shadowy, noirish world of urban streets and tilted camera angles. In fact, criminals were acting out their brightly lit conspiracies in the daily stock market reports and at national political conventions.
Ken Kesey wanted to take the world on trips; Stone (and his protagonists) wanted to take a trip away from the world—as far and fast as possible. While Stone was never an anti-social, self-involved writer (he traveled widely, maintained a large network of friends, and took his teaching gigs seriously), there was something indurate about him, like a ship waiting in the ocean for a storm that will inevitably come along to engulf it. His lifelong marriage to Janice Burr endured and even thrived through decades of adversities—including Stone’s endless and excessive use of drugs and alcohol, their constant moves from one teaching job or research adventure to another, and the emotional conflicts that occurred as a result of their open marriage. Right up until his death in 2015, it was often impossible for either Stone or his wife to tell if his variously prescribed and self-administered drugs were the result of clinical depression or attention deficit disorder, or vice versa. In Stone’s conception of the universe, it probably didn’t matter.
Madison Smartt Bell has managed to complete a difficult task—writing a large, responsible, and necessary biography of a man he admired as a writer and knew intimately as a friend. In many ways, it reminds me of my favorite literary biography of the past 10 years or so—William Hjortsberg’s biography of his friend and neighbor, Richard Brautigan, another talented writer whose life often spilled over onto the people who loved both the man and his books. At one point, when Bell took Stone to Haiti to research a novel, Bell might spend a day industriously digging up material at the library, and return to the hotel to find Stone drinking rum punches beside the pool. And yet who is to say which creative approach was better than the other? Bell soon completed his major novel, All Souls’ Rising, which appeared in 1995, while Stone seemed to stumble almost accidentally into a novel of his own, Bay of Souls (2003).
In 1992, I interviewed Stone about Outerbridge Reach at his home in Westport, Connecticut. I was struck by the gentleness of his handshake, and the softness of the voice that emanated from his large, apparently powerful frame. Now, almost 30 years later, Bell’s biography places that small memory in context: There was something extraordinarily passive and accepting about the nature of Robert Stone, who tended to write almost exclusively about protagonists who, in Bell’s words, were examples “to avoid.” They don’t deal well with the mess of the world. And they often react angrily or selfishly to the violence and stupidity of their national politics. And at their best, they sedate themselves into secret elisions, and find ways out of the world by doing as little damage as possible to the people they love. That’s about as close as you get to a hero in his fiction.