The News They Wanted Not to Hear: On Robert Stone
By Rob LathamJune 2, 2020
The Eye You See With by Robert Stone
Robert Stone: Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone
Child of Light by Madison Smartt Bell
Unless you are a hardcore fan of the author, the 27-page Chronology in the Library of America volume should provide sufficient biographical information, and much of the material gathered in The Eye You See With is quoted at length in Child of Light (which also includes minutely detailed plot summaries of Stone’s novels). Indeed, Smart’s strategy in the biography — a wise one, I think — is to feature his subject’s own words as much as possible: huge chunks of the book are lifted from Stone’s essays and speeches, as well as from his fascinating 2007 memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties. Since Stone was incapable of uttering a dull word, the result is a highly entertaining book, especially when the reminiscences of Stone’s wife, Janice, and his many friends, who include literary luminaries like Annie Dillard and Kem Nunn, are added to the mix. Bell conducted extensive interviews for the volume and consulted Stone’s vast personal archive (later donated to the New York Public Library); he also relates several firsthand anecdotes, including vivid stories of his trips with Stone to Haiti in the 1990s. As a consequence, this is probably the most thorough biography of the author we are ever likely to have.
The factual spine of the book is provided by Janice Stone’s meticulous unpublished memoir of their long marriage. The couple wed young and lived together, with frequent pauses for Stone’s restless globetrotting, for 55 years. After Stone became financially comfortable, he hired Janice as his personal assistant, a role that encompassed (in Bell’s words) “family accountant […] as well as quartermaster, travel agent, secretary, and copy editor.” She thus knows where all the bodies are buried, and in sharing her memoir and memories with Bell, she has been remarkably open about Stone’s vices and transgressions, which were legion.
In the first place, he was a lifelong alcoholic and addict, moving from street drugs in his countercultural youth to prescription medication in middle age. As is clear to anyone who reads his books, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of controlled substances, from their social meanings to their psychological effects, but his fiction hardly prepares the reader for the breathtaking assortment of chemical cocktails he cycled through during his life (as enumerated by Bell) — which included, on top of daily mood modulation via speed and downers, and a persistent recreational use of pot, evolving treatments for gout and depression, as well as for the emphysema that eventually killed him at 77. Since he moved residences frequently, at one point maintaining seasonal homes in Manhattan, Key West, and Westport, Connecticut, he had many different doctors, all busily scratching out scripts.
Stone battled his addictions throughout his life, with brief stints in rehab followed by lengthy relapses. In Bell’s sympathetic (and convincing) account, the man’s edgy appetites fed his fiction and were, for some time, essential to it, until they became encumbrances that kept him from his work. A late essay on Malcolm Lowry (published for the first time in The Eye You See With) speaks frankly of the
hunger for experience, for life more abundant, that drove him to addiction. […] Writers with problems like Lowry’s sometimes produce work that is narcissistic and entirely self-referential. In Under the Volcano Lowry used the grim experiences he had gone through to express his love of the world. He applied his considerable learning and generosity of spirit to a hundred things beyond his own despair, even if the experience of despair informs it.
The same could be said, as Stone well knew, of his own situation, and to his credit, unlike Lowry, he produced more than one good book between binges: over a five-decade career, he released two collections of stories and eight novels, four of them masterpieces.
With Janice’s blessing, Child of Light is equally unsparing in its portrayal of Stone’s erotic wanderings. Most of these were inconsequential trysts and one-night stands, often occurring during his travels, none of which troubled his wife unduly. Veterans of the sexual revolution, the couple had an easy-going attitude toward such dalliances, and Janice enjoyed a few of her own, though one gets the sense that she would have preferred monogamy if Stone’s disposition had allowed it. Their bond came close to breaking only once, when Stone, in the throes of a midlife crisis, fell in love with a younger novelist (rendered pseudonymously by Bell), who clung to him intensely despite Stone’s half-hearted efforts to extricate himself. This rough patch left some stubborn scars — and resulted in Stone’s only truly bad novel, Bay of Souls (2003), with its ham-fisted depiction of a May-December romance featuring bondage play and voodoo.
To put all this another way, Child of Light is probably one of the frankest “authorized” biographies ever written. Considering his personal friendship with the principals, Bell negotiates a number of tricky issues with both candor and discretion. There is a bit of hero worship at times, which is understandable given Stone’s larger-than-life qualities. Less forgivable, perhaps, are Bell’s often pissy responses to criticism of his subject by literary gatekeepers, especially book reviewers. He is particularly enraged by what he sees as lazy comparisons of Stone to Hemingway and Graham Greene, even though Stone himself invited such connections, admitting to feeling “reverence” for Papa as a young man and penning an incisive study of Greene’s 1955 Vietnam novel, The Quiet American (gathered in The Eye You See With) — not to mention producing tales of manful derring-do and spiritual doubt set in exotic locales. Stone could also, of course, perceive these authors’ shortcomings and was sometimes quite scathing about them, as in an essay on Cuba he published in Harper’s in 1992 (also in Eye), where he scorns “the cinematic-cum-existentialistic legend of Hemingway-Greene, two macho coxcombs who had so much trouble staying at the right end of their own firearms.” Putdowns like this, pithy as they are, do not dispel the Hemingwayesque and Greeneian flavors of Stone’s own fiction, however. Bell seems more content with comparisons to Melville and Conrad, perhaps because those writers are sufficiently distanced in time to banish any lingering anxiety of influence.
The two most welcome contributions of Bell’s biography are its robust depiction of Stone’s later career and its thoughtful probing of the author’s fraught Catholic faith. The former goes a long way toward correcting views of Stone as a quintessentially ’60s writer, cemented by his first two novels, A Hall of Mirrors (1967) and Dog Soldiers (1974), as well as by his memoir, which focuses on that decade. Certainly, Stone’s experiences during the “long 1960s” (Prime Green opens with his Navy exploits in the late ’50s and closes with his journalistic jaunt to Vietnam in 1971) are the stuff of legend: witnessing the bombing of Port Said by French fighter planes during the Suez Crisis (which gave him a thrilling, indelible brush with organized violence), stumbling awkwardly through the minefield of American race relations in Civil Rights–era New Orleans (which provided the fodder for his booze-soaked first novel), hitching a ride with the Merry Pranksters before dropping acid with Ken Kesey in his Mexican exile (about which he writes hilariously in an essay too freaky for Esquire, who commissioned it, but gathered now in Eye), and hunting for inspiration while chasing the dragon in wartime Saigon (events that grew into his first masterpiece, Dog Soldiers, about which more below). Prime Green covers this territory with deep insight and a wry, sometimes self-lacerating humor, as the 60-something Stone reflects on his — and his country’s — erstwhile flirtation with the counterculture. It is one of the finest memoirs of the era, on a par with Marco Vassi’s The Stoned Apocalypse (1972) and Geoffrey O’Brien’s Dream Time (1988), and Bell wisely does not try to compete with it, instead quoting substantial sections to fill the relevant chapters in Child of Light.
But Bell also makes clear that, however much the outlaw spirit of the ’60s imprinted itself on the author, instilling a lasting contempt for self-righteous authority and a taste for psychedelic enhancement, Stone substantially outgrew his younger self, both in his life and in his fiction. His keen interest in American adventurism overseas, not only in Vietnam but also in Central America (A Flag for Sunrise ) and the Middle East (Damascus Gate ), never lost its basically leftist edge, though it acquired texture and nuance as Stone aged into a never-fully-comfortable bourgeois adulthood. Even Dog Soldiers showed, alongside its indictment of ruthless realpolitik (both in Vietnam and in the stateside “war on drugs”), a caustic contempt for the vagaries of countercultural resistance, and Flag for Sunrise and Damascus Gate are full of hapless do-gooders and frustrated fellow-travelers, their moral sense eroded or awry, easy bait for the cynical apparatchiks and other predatory flotsam who lurk on the margins of “revolutionary” scenes worldwide.
While all Stone’s novels are more or less overtly “political,” he also produced, alongside his meaty thrillers, novels depicting the pleasures and pitfalls of middle-class professional life with an ironic perception worthy of a Roth or Cheever — e.g., Outerbridge Reach (1992), Death of the Black-Haired Girl (2013) — and he identified sufficiently with his country in later years that he could angrily remark, when asked if he wanted to view the pile of wreckage left by the collapse of the Twin Towers, “I’ll go see it when it’s in Mecca.” (He produced a less bloodthirsty response to 9/11 for The New York Times Magazine, oddly not included in Eye, though that book does gather a previously unpublished essay on the subject, “Out of a Clear Blue Sky.”) Child of Light is particularly valuable for its rounded portrait of Stone as a mature writer and citizen, a “bitterly disappointed idealist” who grappled bravely with the ugly mutations of the American project at home and abroad, so much so that each of his novels “capture[s] the zeitgeist of a particular period.”
Bell’s biography also makes clear just how much Stone came to see all political issues and causes as having an essentially moral, if not theological, core. An only child of an unwed mother, whose struggles with mental illness led to his first experience with “the power of a story to shape reality” (when he had to talk his way out of being taken into custody by child welfare services), Stone matriculated at St. Ann’s Academy in Manhattan, a school run by the Marist Brothers, a missionary Catholic sect. Stone had numerous run-ins with the teachers there, at first due to his drunken truancy (including a brief stint with an Irish street gang) but later thanks to his flippant free-thinking, which led to his eventual expulsion. “I felt like Luther or something. I really thought I was a superhero,” Stone remarks in an interview for the 1987 book Once a Catholic, which is reproduced in The Eye You See With and liberally quoted in Child of Light. Yet despite his droll recollection of his youthful loss of faith, the bulk of that piece is devoted to Stone’s growing disenchantment with his adolescent atheism and his abiding “sense of being in touch with the numinous, with something transcendent,” though not with any personal God. Though he never embraced a doctrinal system (as Greene the Catholic convert did), Bell shows how Stone came to view earthly events — including the secular skullduggery at the heart of his greatest novels — through a spiritual lens, as baffled grasping for significance in a fallen world.
In an essay expressing his aesthetic credo, “The Reason for Stories: Toward a Moral Fiction,” written for Harper’s in 1988 as a response to a defense of art for art’s sake by William Gass previously published in the magazine, Stone argues that all good fiction must be driven by a moral calculus, whose “first law of heaven” is that “nothing is free.” In a later essay, “What is Fiction For,” Stone glosses this insight with specific reference to biblical texts, arguing that “Life matters, lives matter, because earthly human history is the arena in which the universe acts out its consciousness of itself, displaying its nature as creation.” Both these pieces are featured in The Eye You See With, and Bell cites them copiously in Child of Light, where he also traces Stone’s obsession with personal redemption, a term that took on a charged relevance for him late in life. Bell recounts a scene at a reading he hosted for Stone in 2013 where the author “pronounced (and indeed repeated) the word with the air of someone reciting a novena. Afterward I wondered, improbable as it might seem, if I had not witnessed an act of piety.” There is little true redemption in Stone’s best books, but there is certainly a lot of tortured grappling toward it, as Bell compellingly shows.
The title of The Eye You See With, as Bell explains in his editor’s introduction, is taken from the mystical musings of Meister Eckhart: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” Typically, Stone, in his reference to Eckhart’s evangel in A Flag for Sunrise, twists its hopeful meaning, putting a garbled version in the mouth of a castaway who has just murdered his companion: “The eye you see with […] is the one that sees you back.” Still, the idea serves to endow the personal vision of the artist with an almost divine authority, a magisterial viewpoint Stone was ambitious (and cocky) enough to claim for himself. This view is expressed best in his novels, with their dense and multilayered orchestration of perspectives; by contrast, his essays and occasional writings, at least judging by the assortment gathered in Eye, are a bit of a hodgepodge — peeks and glimpses rather than in-depth scannings.
As Bell explains in Child of Light, Stone — always financially overextended, despite six-figure book contracts and prestigious teaching gigs, and tortured by memories of his childhood poverty — routinely accepted any journalistic assignment that came his way, even (sometimes because) these tasks kept him from concentrating on his novels. His nonfiction output was large but, except for Prime Green, not very deep, especially when compared to a contemporary like Joan Didion, not to mention public intellectuals from the previous generation such as Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal. A few of the pieces in Eye stir Maileresque echoes, none more so than a pair of essays, both written for Harper’s, covering the 1988 and 1996 Republican National Conventions. Unlike Mailer’s sprawling, phantasmagoric Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), however, Stone’s pieces, while filled with shrewd insights and often quite hilarious, are modestly purposed and, frankly, forgettable, their highlight being the memories of 1960s New Orleans that Stone’s sojourn to the Superdome in the ’80s aroused (in effect, he has more to say about the psychic roots of his first novel than he does about the modern GOP).
Part of the problem is Bell’s curation of the volume. Eye is subtitled “Selected Nonfiction,” but the principles governing this culling are never described. We can certainly trust that Bell has read every word, published and unpublished, that Stone wrote, but many interesting pieces cited in Child of Light are missing from Eye, such as the aforementioned Times essay on 9/11 and Stone’s acceptance speech when he received the National Book Award for Dog Soldiers. Stone also wrote several review essays for The New York Review of Books, covering tomes by Mailer, Roth, Ralph Ellison, Wilfrid Sheed, and others, yet the only one Bell reproduces is on Randy Shilts’s 1993 study of gays in the military, Conduct Unbecoming, in which Stone thoughtfully deploys his memories of Navy hazing rituals.
There are a few trenchant retrospectives on favorite books and authors, however, including — on top of the aforementioned pieces on Greene and Lowry — essays on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895). And there are a number of superb pieces that illuminate the thinking and research that went into Stone’s best novels: a pensive bulletin from Saigon, written for the Guardian in 1971, that the author would directly draw upon in Dog Soldiers, as well as a shrewd meditation, for The New York Times Magazine in 1998, on the geopolitical significance of Jerusalem in world history, which functions as an appetizer for Damascus Gate. Yet Bell’s framing does them a disservice: he has sorted the 28 pieces into three baggy, quasi-thematic sections, with only the sketchiest of rationales for each, and readers are thus compelled to find their own paths through the maze. But since that maze is the brilliant, omnivorous, restlessly questing mind of Robert Stone, we can still be grateful to Bell for the journey.
And we can be even more grateful for the new Library of America volume he has assembled, which puts between two handsome covers three of Stone’s finest novels. Bell’s editorial touch is surer here: on top of the biographical Chronology (essentially a distillation of Child of Light), he provides a 60-page appendix of helpful notes and annotations. But mostly he gets out of the way and lets the books speak for themselves, and together they make a compelling case for Stone as one of postwar America’s greatest writers.
There are very few perfect novels, works that never put a foot wrong or sound a single off-key note, and Dog Soldiers is one of them. As in so many of Stone’s best works, including the other texts gathered in this omnibus, the plot has what Bell calls, in Child of Light, a “convergence structure” focused on the dovetailing stories of a trio of characters — in this case (as in Outerbridge Reach) a romantic triangle. John Converse is a 30-something playwright who produced a modestly successful drama about his youthful experiences in the Marine Corps, on whose laurels he has been resting for a decade, meanwhile scribbling mildly salacious copy for a weekly tabloid (he excels at crafting eye-catching headlines, such as “Housewife Impaled by Skydiving Rapist”). Drifting, and disgusted with his lack of ambition, he travels to Vietnam to become a freelance war correspondent, scribbling mildly leftist dispatches for underground newspapers: “[H]e was always careful to assume a standpoint from which moral objections could be inferred. He knew the sort of people he was addressing and he knew the sort of moral objections they found most satisfying.”
After a terrifying brush with combat across the border in Cambodia, where he discovers that “the ordinary physical world through which one shuffled heedless and half-assed toward nonentity was capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death,” Converse drifts into a druggy tryst with the mistress of a South Vietnamese general, who talks him into smuggling three kilos of the heroin they’ve been sharing back to the States. Though he knows the scheme is folly (as he says, “I’ve been waiting my whole life to fuck up like this”), he proceeds to recruit his wife, Marge, who has herself been drifting, so bored with her secretarial job at UC Berkeley that she has taken a gig selling tickets at a porn theater, where her low-life connections have led to a deepening opiate habit. Marge agrees to receive the heroin shipment from Ray Hicks, an old military buddy Converse also recruits (since he doesn’t have the balls to smuggle the dope himself) and who will soon be returning to the States from Vietnam.
Unlike Converse and Marge, a mushy middle-class couple aimlessly flirting with the counterculture, Hicks is a volatile hard case, a self-styled Zen warrior who once lived in a Buddhist commune and dealt cocaine to industry types in Los Angeles. His survival skills come in handy when he is ambushed at Marge’s place by a pair of numbskull thugs in the employ of a rogue DEA agent, Antheil. It turns out that the caper, as Converse had half-surmised, was a total setup, and Hicks, after beating the two goons into submission, goes on the lam with Marge in tow. Against the better judgment of them both, they drift into an affair, their bond cemented not only by the stash of heroin, which they sample, but also by a mutual fondness for lyric poetry (one of the most offbeat seduction scenes in contemporary literature features a stoned recitation of garbled verses from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Heaven-Haven” — a “smack poem,” Marge calls it). While Marge is alternately enticed and repelled by Hicks’s “hallucinatory circus scent of patchouli oil, the smell of dope and cold-eyed fuckery,” he views her as a kind of personal project, a slumming bourgeois woman, floundering in “the ruins of [her] progressive conditioning,” whom he proceeds to convert into a “righteous junkie.”
Meanwhile, Converse, now back in the States himself, falls into the clutches of Antheil and his minions, who torture him for information about his absconded confederates. Eventually, the entire crew converges on the abandoned commune, a mountain aerie where Hicks and Marge have holed up with a perennially wasted guru named Dieter, who babbles pseudo-philosophical koans (“We’re already dead. It’s all manifestation.”) while gobbling handfuls of magic mushrooms. After tentative negotiations go nowhere, the growingly paranoid Hicks moves to “bring the war home” with a vengeance, precipitating a wild firefight that lights up the mountain like the jungles of Khe Sanh.
In his riveting portraits of Converse and Hicks, Stone draws on aspects of his own background and experience. If the former is the man he fears he might be — a one-book wonder with a damaged moral compass and a taste for ruinous depravity — the latter is the man he fears he might become: a hard-bitten cynic whose youthful dreams have soured into nihilistic fantasies of wanton destruction. Like Converse, Stone frittered away his literary gifts for a time scribbling trash for crappy tabloids in New York (a spiritually deadening job about which he writes scathingly in Prime Green); like Hicks, he was at the center of one of the era’s wildest hippie collectives, with Kesey serving as the Dieter-like prankster sage. Stone’s finest accomplishment in the novel, though, is his depiction of Marge, a liberal do-gooder who marched in antiwar rallies but whose only real sense of agency, paradoxically, comes from narcotic surrender:
She stayed in the chair surrounded by immensities of silent time. At the core of it, within her, a righteous satisfaction was rising. She sensed the outer world as an infinite series of windowed rooms and she felt a clear confidence that it contained nothing which she could not overcome to her satisfaction.
Hovering over them all, of course, is the spiritual black hole of Vietnam, a moral vacancy at once geographically remote and horribly intimate. Though little of the action takes place amid the conflict, that “Mistake Ten Thousand Miles Long” (as Stone calls it in a brilliant piece in The Eye You See With) haunts every scene set in California, the heroin forming a vector of degradation that contaminates everyone it touches. By so closely linking the war with illicit drug use — both spiraling out of control in the early 1970s — Dog Soldiers offers a pitiless autopsy of a bankrupt counterculture, a festering morass of bad karma and self-deceiving bullshit. As Dieter, in many ways the most innocent figure in the novel, says to Hicks, gesturing at the heroin while summing up a world:
“Look at it. […] It’s full of puke and blood! On the inside it’s all illusion and false necessity. It’s suffering human ignorance. It’s hell!”
“Sounds good,” Hicks said.
Whereas Stone’s first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, was an engaging but over-ambitious muddle, a sojourn into delirium that grows rather too delirious at times (as Stone remarks in “The Reason for Stories,” “as young writers will, I put every single thing I thought I knew into it”), Dog Soldiers is, by contrast, a fully mature work — lean, hardboiled, and coherent as a laser. Despite its autobiographical echoes, the tale is narrated with a crisp ironic distance that is at once bracing and disquieting. I think it’s the best book Stone ever wrote, although A Flag for Sunrise comes close.
Sunrise too has a “convergence structure” featuring a central triad, although unlike Converse, Marge, and Hicks, the three characters don’t know each other when the novel begins and it takes much longer — hundreds of pages, in fact — for their stories to intersect. After Damascus Gate, which is a labyrinth of crosshatching subplots, Sunrise is Stone’s most complexly conceived work, and there are times when the seams between the sections show. Here, our trio consists of: Sister Justin, an earnest young Catholic nun working in a mission in Tecan, a fictional Central American country loosely based on Nicaragua, who becomes embroiled with a revolutionary cadre seeking to overthrow the right-wing, US-friendly government; Frank Holliwell, a middle-aged American anthropology professor, with sketchy CIA connections from his days as an intelligence officer in Vietnam, who is recruited by an old friend to provide surveillance on Sister Justin; and Pablo Tabor, a sociopathic tough gone AWOL from the Coast Guard, who drifts into mercenary service running guns to the revolutionary faction in Tecan.
We spend substantial time getting to know these characters, gradually coming to perceive, under Sister Justin’s celibate piety, a fierce impulse to throw herself into a violent cause, and to glimpse, beneath Holliwell’s cynical crust, a gaping existential doubt that threatens to swallow him whole. Pablo, by contrast, seems less complex, almost primitive: an amoral speed freak hunting for the main chance, and ruthless toward anyone he thinks might be taking advantage of him — trying to, as he puts it, “turn him around.” Stone limns all three of his principals with intelligence and care, and much of the story’s suspense involves our anticipation of the eventual confluence of their destinies, foreshadowed by subtle coincidences that link their narratives. Swirling around them is a gallery of shrewdly drawn supporting figures: Father Egan, a “whiskey priest” straight out of Greene (sorry, Mr. Bell), who preaches to a congregation of stoned bohemians at a site of Mesoamerican ruins near the mission; Heath, a louche British advisor to the state police, who serves shadowy corporate interests eager to exploit the country’s natural resources, and who takes a hesitant Holliwell under his sardonic wing; and Jack and Deedee Callahan, a pair of dissipated, poetry-spouting libertines who make a tidy profit smuggling arms to rebel groups throughout the region, and who try, much to their misfortune, to turn Pablo around.
The novel is filled with brilliantly rendered set pieces, and some of the author’s most gorgeous writing, but the story doesn’t fully hang together. Part of the problem is the disappointing way the three strands of plot are knitted up: after 300 pages of elaborate groundwork, our trio finally meets, but with little time to get to know one another before the rebel coup the story has been building toward blows the country apart. This doesn’t stop Holliwell, however, from falling madly — and rather incredibly — in love with Sister Justin, which leads to perhaps the silliest sex scene Stone ever wrote (including the S&M bouts that litter Bay of Souls):
The ram beat against the shuddering gate, echoing along the walls. Again, Again. She did not hide, she was there.
He thought that he could share her pain. The stabbing aside of virginhood was as it should be — his extended flesh prodding after habitation, inching through blood and tissue after her quickening heart. They experienced it together, an enacted metaphor.
Once inside her he was free. For a moment he could make himself believe that the walls of self were melted and identity overthrown. It was all lyric for him, bloody, lubricious. Her heart kept beating faster and faster. They finished as a process of ocean.
Even Lawrence might have blushed at this florid display. Holliwell’s and Pablo’s meet-up is handled more skillfully, if also more savagely, with the mismatched duo set adrift in the Gulf Stream, in an exile only one of them will survive.
Another problem with the book, at least to my mind, is Stone’s over-eagerness to assimilate the political strivings and rivalries rending Tecan to a natural process, a blind struggle of predator and prey. In one of the book’s most absorbing scenes, Holliwell goes scuba-diving on a reef near the mission, marveling at the delicate terraces of black coral and the shimmering swirls of fish. Stone was an avid diver, and in a piece in Eye called “Under the Tongue of the Ocean” (written for The New York Times Magazine in 1999), he speaks of the “sheer joy” of the undersea world, where he always “felt at the border of a great mystery.” Somewhat of an authorial alter ego, Holliwell has a similar apprehension, but it shades into dread when, on the brink of a yawning abyss, a “shudder” seemed to “pass over all the living things around him — a terror had struck the sea, an invisible shadow, a silence within a silence. […] Fear. Prey.” We never see the shark, but Stone’s powerful writing makes us feel its looming presence.
Later, over drinks at his hotel, Holliwell probes Heath in an effort to discover who the nefarious fellow works for, prompting the mordant remark: “I’m the shark on the bottom of the lagoon. You have to sink a damn long way before you get to me. When you do, I’m waiting.” As a metaphor, the connection is plain, but it’s obfuscating as political analysis: human collectives are not schools of fish, and ideological motivation is not reducible to the urges of rapacious nature, red in tooth and claw. It’s significant, I think, that A Flag for Sunrise — like V. S. Naipaul’s Guerrillas (1975) and Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer (1977), two clear precursors — summons a fictional Caribbean country to stage its sanguinary drama, thus freeing the author from having to grapple with actual historical factions, to parse their specific grievances and aspirations. (By contrast, Greene always set his novels in authentic places: Mexico in The Power and the Glory , Cuba in Our Man from Havana , Haiti in The Comedians , Argentina in The Honorary Consul .)
That said, Stone does forcefully convey the bland depravity that animates predatory individuals. In another engrossing scene, Pablo — who is, as Bell observes in Child of Light, a hard-case like Hicks in Dog Soldiers, but less disciplined and introspective — breaks into the apartment of an elderly Egyptian arms dealer, Naftali, looking for loot, only to find the man in the throes of a languid suicide. But the cunning racketeer has enough wits left about him to get a draw on his young rival. A tense standoff ensues, as the two adversaries — one erudite but world-weary, the other virile but pig-ignorant — watch for a lapse in the other’s guard. Eventually, Naftali, softened by the drugs he’s consumed, starts to babble darkly about “brain coral,” the “reefs inside” the mind, where “eight fathoms under […] Your skull is the counter … it’s the only ball in this game, Pablo.” In this eerie, surreal echo of Holliwell’s encounter with the lurking shark, Naftali is telling Pablo that experience is a zero-sum struggle, a contest of wills in which the stake is your life.
An even more stark existential credo is expressed by a deranged child murderer whom Father Egan is sheltering from the police; around a fire in the ancient ruins, this creepy monster describes the cannibal god he serves:
Oooh, he is terrible. […] His face is of Indian corn, of colors. Then sometimes invisible, the worst. The hair of him is blue. He is electricity. Arms and legs are made of worms. The power. And it is like space beneath you, you are falling. […]
He is king, and I, his bad monkey. I am the bad monkey in the trees. They tell the children run from the bad monkey and the children run. But whose monkey I am, they don’t know. He calls. He screams like a hungry monkey. He must make the rain. In his horrible voice he screams[.]
This crazed sermon is chilling (I literally felt the hair on my neck bristle), and it captures an essential message of the novel: that power is basically unaccountable, wielded by brutes at the behest of inscrutable forces. Even Sister Justin’s prim commitment to the rebel cause has an edge of psychosis, a secret urge to see the whole world burn. If this bleak vision is somewhat less convincing (because more abstract) than the grim indictment of the counterculture Stone mounts in Dog Soldiers, it is nonetheless communicated with a vigorous moral authority, highly evocative of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) or, even more strongly, of Nostromo (1904), another tale of madness, greed, and revolution in the American tropics.
After the widescreen action of A Flag for Sunrise, Stone’s next novel, Children of Light (1986), was a smaller-scale affair, a harrowing — if occasionally overwrought — tale of a folie à deux between a broken-down screenwriter and a schizoid actress on a movie set in Mexico. The novel draws on Stone’s own fraught experiences with the cinema, adapting his first two books into forgettable screen versions: the ponderous Paul Newman vehicle, WUSA (1970), is a grisly botch of A Hall of Mirrors, but Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978) is an intermittently effective — if rather tame — mounting of Dog Soldiers, with Nick Nolte, Tuesday Weld, and Michael Moriarty making game stabs at Hicks, Marge, and Converse (sadly, the madcap Dieter wound up on the cutting-room floor). Bell wisely skips over Children of Light, whose main value in Stone’s corpus is the move it signals away from geopolitics toward more intimate concerns, choosing instead to round out the Library of America volume with Outerbridge Reach, Stone’s canniest effort along these lines, a novel about domestic life and relationships that still manages to summon Melvillian and Conradian echoes.
Once again, the author presents us with a love triangle, in some ways his most conventional, yet also his most ambitiously rendered. Owen and Anne Browne are unlike any of Stone’s previous characters: in the first place, they’re Republicans, or at least conservatives — he an ad man for Altan Marine, a company that sells pleasure boats, she a feature writer for a sailing magazine. Both, in other words, have built careers around the sea, which is in their blood. (Stone’s nautical research for the book also informs an excellent 1988 essay, “Changing Tides,” which is gathered in Eye.) Owen is a graduate of the Naval Academy who served, more or less honorably, in Vietnam; still fit and trim in his early 40s, he is proud of — if a bit defensive about — his service. For her part, Anne descends from a long line of seamen and harbormasters (her father is a shipyard mogul); a former model, she still turns heads, though she has taken to tippling wine a bit too liberally (Owen, a teetotaler, is concerned). While somewhat stolid, they are not uncultured: they read poetry, listen to baroque music, take an interest in current events. But both have lately begun to sense something missing at the core, some essential spark, though they dutifully hide their doubts from one another.
Suddenly, their comfortable life is jolted by a stock market crash, which scrambles their finances and further rattles their secretly shaky self-confidence. Will they have to sell their beach house? Take their daughter out of private school? More worryingly, will Altan Marine — whose owner, it turns out, was a massive swindler who has decamped to parts unknown — manage to avoid bankruptcy? But then Owen has a brainstorm: he will race the company’s new sailboat prototype around the world, in the hope that media coverage of this plucky husband and father braving the open seas might serve to revive all their fortunes. The firm’s president, who has taken a liking to Owen, agrees, hiring a celebrated documentary filmmaker, Ron Strickland, to cover the story. There are just two problems: Owen is not the seasoned sailor he pretends to be, and Strickland is a wily firebrand who would just as soon make a movie about an epic fiasco as a smashing success (his first major effort was a muckraking take on the Vietnam War). Even worse for all concerned, Strickland, who is also something of a hipster lothario, is powerfully smitten with Anne.
The book is divided into two roughly equal parts, the line of division marked by Owen’s departure on the Nona (named after a boat owned by his late father, an alcoholic martinet whose memory haunts him). As the Brownes struggle to prepare for the voyage, the cheeky Strickland insinuates himself into their lives; a highly skilled and relentless interviewer (“My subjects often fuck themselves,” he observes to his assistant. “They discover themselves through me”), he impishly probes Owen’s manly platitudes:
Browne went further: “I think we have to work at keeping the qualities that made us strong. I think we have to reach back and touch the past in a way. Long ago we had to fight the forces of nature. They were unforgiving of mistakes. So in winning out over them, we had to win out over ourselves.”
“Those are the hardest battles, aren’t they?” Strickland asked obligingly. “The ones we fight against ourselves?”
“No question about it,” Browne said. “And I’m not ashamed of achievement. I’m not ashamed to prevail.”
More perceptive than her credulous husband, Anne begins to fret that Strickland is mocking them — planning to depict them as, in essence, the slightly dull, vaguely pompous middle-class couple that they are. She isn’t wrong: Strickland has taken to joking about them with his sometime girlfriend, Pamela, a nutty chatterbox about whose life as a prostitute he made an award-winning movie (“They subscribe to The American Spectator,” he drolly observes, though the unlettered Pamela misses the gibe). But there is also a bohemian streak in Anne that responds to Strickland’s offbeat masculinity. At the same time, she has become increasingly convinced that Owen is in over his head, yet she discerns that if she talks him out of the voyage, “[h]e will regret it forever. She would always have stood between him and the sky-blue world of possibility,” even if they both know this beckoning phantom is a dangerous fraud.
So Owen sets forth, and Anne, lonely and fearful and angry with herself, falls into Strickland’s bed, and the novel’s second half unfolds the inevitable humbling and fateful punishment of each, with an unwonted delicacy Stone’s more hardboiled tomes had eschewed. It would be wrong to spoil the reader’s pleasure by rehearsing more of the plot, which in any case is ultimately less interesting than the author’s compassionate yet unsparing revelation of character (as well as his many dazzling descriptions of the ocean in all its moods). Once again, as in Dog Soldiers, Stone divides himself between his two male principals, with Owen representing not only his fear of encroaching middle age but also his abiding taste for adventurous folly — that resonant Conradian word; indeed, the final line of Conrad’s great story “Youth” (1898) would provide a fitting epitaph for Owen Browne, whose “weary eyes [were] looking still, looking always, looking anxiously for something out of life, that while it is expected is already gone — has passed unseen, in a sigh, in a flash — together with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions.” As Owen himself less lyrically concludes, “He had been trying to be someone else. He had never really wanted any of it.”
Strickland is an even more scathing self-portrait of the artist: a caustic narcissist who, like his creator, has produced works with “a left-liberal coloration” about US recklessness in Vietnam and Central America, and who has come to view his human subjects with a clinical, demystifying objectivity, priding himself on his refusal to sentimentalize:
He had never changed a frame to suit a soul. […] The trouble was, Strickland decided, that his work was too much like things. People required their illusions. They wanted to be inspired and he had nothing for them. He had only the news they wanted not to hear.
While his aesthetic integrity is admirable, it is also the source of his crippling flaw: a complacent disdain for compromise, which ultimately costs him dearly.
Yet, as with Marge in Dog Soldiers, Stone’s finest accomplishment in Outerbridge Reach is his depiction of the female apex of the triangle, Anne. Not only does she see through the self-flattering pretensions of both men in her life — glimpsing the streak of weakness beneath Owen’s virile facade, and the panicky itch behind Strickland’s affectations (“How he must have needed something,” she thinks. “But all he had was style”) — she also apprehends her own essential emptiness. Despite dosing herself with booze and pills, she can’t shake the feeling “of being lost, of having wandered out of the right life […], turning up in different guises.” As she transforms from suburban spouse into downtown paramour, accompanying Strickland to artsy parties Owen would never have been caught dead at, she begins to wonder whether she has any core identity at all: “Self-observation made her feel more and more like going to sea herself.” “I tend to live for the future,” she tells Strickland. “Of course, I don’t really believe in the future I live for.” “Same here,” he replies. But while his remark is a sardonic pose, hers is desperately, achingly, existentially true.
Even if one has sampled some of Stone’s work before, reading this Library of America volume from start to finish is a stimulating, and ultimately rather overwhelming, experience. Its 1,000 pages contain some of the most handsomely composed, brilliantly perceptive, and painfully honest fiction produced by any postwar American writer. One wonders if Bell might be planning a follow-up volume, containing Stone’s fourth masterpiece, Damascus Gate, and his superb final novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, and perhaps some of the searing short stories featured in Bear and His Daughter (1997). We shall see. In the meantime, he has given us all — whether seasoned fans of Stone or novices — a wealth of material to pore over in these three new books. If you can buy only one, however, make it the big compendium: its contents will engage you, then provoke you, and then break your fucking heart.
Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.
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