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Bitter Idealist

Robert Stone’s Restless Muse

ISSUE:  Summer 2020

<i>Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone</i>. By Madison Smartt Bell. Doubleday, 2020. 608 pp. $35<i>The Eye You See With: Selected Nonfiction</i>. By Robert Stone. 384 pp. $27
These two books, a fortunate pairing, go exceptionally well together. Madison Smartt Bell’s illuminating biography puts Robert Stone’s nonfiction into its proper context.

A close and perceptive friend for the last fifteen years of Stone’s life, Bell has written a biography worthy of his subject’s impressive achievement. He has the novelist’s narrative pace and eye for vivid details, and gives a lively description of the two dangerous and exciting trips they took to Haiti. On their first journey, Stone turned up unexpectedly with his most persistent and possessive lover, a novelist whom Bell calls Melisandra, who posed the most serious threat to his marriage. Bell was torn by his loyalty to both Stone and his wife, Janice, but was also glad to have someone on board to help him handle his often out-of-control companion. They traveled precariously throughout Haiti, but when Janice found out about Melisandra she insisted that Stone break with her and he graciously submitted.

Bell is excellent on the gradual evolution of Stone’s novels, but offers long plot summaries and weak conclusions instead of incisive analyses. Damascus Gate, for example, “is a work of art, and also a kind of thought experiment, perhaps; it was never intended as a prophesy, and it wouldn’t have been very accurate if it had been.”

Bell provides detailed accounts of Stone’s sudden rise from poverty to affluence. In 1992 he signed a $600,000 contract for Damascus Gate plus $357,500 for paperback rights and passed the million-dollar mark with $100,000 for the Book-of-the-Month Club edition. In 1998 he received a bountiful $850,000 for his “Untitled Alaska Novel.” Paid in monthly installments, Stone was one of the last American authors to get a salary from his publishers. Since Stone, who called himself a “slothful perfectionist,” was in terrible health and could be as many as seven years late in delivering his work, it’s quite amazing that publishers surrendered such enormous sums for three-book contracts.

Bell could have said more about the group dynamics of Stone’s many officially sponsored trips abroad (two of them included Elizabeth Hardwick); and about his daughter Deidre, a shadowy figure who was not—like his son Ian—thanked in the acknowledgments. She had four children with a husband who died early, worked in a perfume store bought by her parents, and was supported by them. 

Robert Stone (1937–2015) had a tough early life. He never knew his father and the surname on his birth certificate was a fiction. His unmarried, alcoholic, schizophrenic mother had once been a schoolteacher. Stone said, “She brought me up to think I was so terrific I didn’t have time for her.” When she was confined to a mental asylum, he was sent to a penitential Catholic orphanage in Manhattan. He stayed there from the age of six to ten and was frequently beaten. He finally escaped but became a homeless adolescent, sometimes living on the street in cardboard boxes. He joined a violent gang and began to use drugs, and was expelled from a Catholic high school for drunkenness and blasphemy. He felt, Bell quotes, “God is this huge creature who we must love, know, and serve, though actually you feel like you want to kick the son of a bitch.”

Stone joined the navy when he was seventeen, trained as a radio operator and came under fire during a French air attack on the Suez Canal in 1956: “all around me was this red water and exploding reed boats and Port Said being absolutely blown apart.” His ship also carried men and supplies on a long voyage to Antarctica, where he amused himself by watching the friendly penguins. Stone characterized himself as “raised in the gutter, grew up in the poorhouse, beaten on the head by coppers.” Like Jean Genet, he was psychologically damaged and destined for crime and prison, but transformed his brutal experience into art. He combined sympathy for the insulted and injured and a lifelong capacity for rage with the sharp insight and bleak vision of a perpetual outsider.

Married at twenty-two to Janice Burr, a pregnant teenager, he was drawn to her “because her way of being had some quality of the forest, a sense of great strength and vitality under a covering of tranquility.” Practical, devoted, even sacrificial, Janice would follow him anywhere, and they remained married, despite his chaotic life, until his death. They moved from New York to New Orleans, the most exotic place they could afford, and he worked at a series of low-level jobs: repairing drums, toiling in coffee and soap factories, taking the census, and flogging encyclopedias.

In adult life, as in childhood, Stone was frequently uprooted and eternally restless. Though obsessed by writing, he often fled from his fiction. Punishing himself and risking his health, he tried to fight his demons, assuage his anger, and—reverting to his youthful vices—escape from reality with all manner of drugs and drink. It seemed to Janice that “we had sailed through our entire married life on a wave of alcohol.” Though he now disliked needles, he was willing to swallow massive quantities of prescribed painkillers and could always find complaisant doctors to supply them. Bell writes that Stone “required narcotics both to concentrate enough to compose and to blunt his physical pain enough that he could type.”

Though the origin of Stone’s unusual creativity is mysterious, his mad mother hurt him into art. With chapters from his first, unfinished novel, he won a fellowship to study writing with Wallace Stegner at Stanford. Once there he joined the bohemians circling around Ken Kesey, soared on acid trips, and experienced sexual freedom in a very different atmosphere from the staid Stanford of today. The Stones’ elastic marriage allowed for considerable promiscuity. With Janice’s acquiescence, he began to enjoy the adoration given to a successful author. Later on, at the Yaddo writers’ colony, he had two simultaneous affairs. He didn’t seem to mind when Janice, always a good sport, kept her part of the bargain and slept with several of his friends. She played the Merry Prankster with Ken Kesey, but gave him a lukewarm report: “I can’t say I didn’t like Ken, or that his making love to me was unpleasant.”

Stone, with no father or siblings himself, had three accidental children, one of them with a lover. In an idealized portrait, Janice observed, “I thought he was becoming more good-looking as he got older, with his beard turning a bit gray. He was distinguished. And he was such a great storyteller. He had a seriousness and honesty in his speech, but also a sense of humor, a sense of the absurd, and people were drawn to him. Certainly women found him attractive.” He was also a good actor, and expertly played Kent in professional productions of King Lear. When I saw him read in Berkeley, his ruddy complexion and bulbous nose gave him a proletarian appearance, but his performance was polished.

Like most American authors, Stone taught writing—a tempting escape from trying to write. He did short-term gigs at Princeton, Amherst, Harvard, UC Irvine, Yale, and Johns Hopkins, where he clashed with the powerful incumbent John Barth. Oddly, after he became wealthy, he turned up at Texas State University at San Marcos, south of Austin. Though he’d been briefly tutored by M. L. Rosenthal at NYU and by Stegner at Stanford, he didn’t believe writing could be taught. He often filled a class hour by reading aloud from James Joyce’s story “Araby” and pointing out its stylistic perfection. It would have been useful if Bell’s biography had included more responses from Stone’s pupils, some of whom later became his magazine editors.

When Stone’s novels earned a lot of money, he strengthened his sense of security by acquiring houses (as he acquired lovers) that he’d lacked in his childhood and his impoverished early life. He sometimes owned as many as four homes at once in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, London, and Manhattan.

Stone’s alcoholism—the plague of many lonely and fearful American writers—and addiction to prescription drugs continued forever despite several retreats to detox centers. Throughout his life he suffered from excruciating gout and back pain, many falls and broken bones, occasional impotence and depression, and at least once attempted suicide. Though he quit cigarettes in 1982, he was punished for chain smoking: Emphysema made it difficult to breathe and finally killed him.

Though Stone tried to deny Hemingway’s profound influence on his life and work, the older writer’s creative spirit moved over Stone like God’s on the face of the waters. He unjustly called Hemingway a self-serving, puerile sophisticate, anti-intellectual, vain, and greedy for praise. Stone quotes a Cuban’s absurd claim that Hemingway, who spent decades in Spain and in Cuba, where Spaniards lived in his Finca Vigía, spoke only “two hundred words of Spanish.” He also unconvincingly maintained that Hemingway, who effectively supported the Loyalists and risked his life at the front in the Spanish Civil War, merely “played at causes.” Bell follows Stone by writing that he did not descend from Hemingway and their resemblance “didn’t go much deeper than the bushiness of his whitening beard.” Yet Stone also pointedly asked, “who coming after Hemingway, could resist trying themselves against that?” and conceded that he “felt certain affinities.”

Like many American writers, Hemingway and Stone had weak or absent fathers and domineering mothers. Like Hemingway, Stone had no academic degree, worked as a young journalist, and was educated in real life. Both men loved hunting, fishing, and outdoor adventures; they embraced the sea and sailed a boat. Stone visited Hemingway’s locales in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in Cuba; met his widow, son, and granddaughters in Ketchum, Idaho, where Hemingway shot himself. Both writers were hard drinking, accident prone, and self-destructive, but Stone ignored the morbid warning of Hemingway’s disastrous personal life.

Stone learned from Hemingway to stop writing when he had an effective starting point for the next day. Both had a concise, clear, lively, and forceful style. They were attracted to violence and war and lived the dangerous experience described in their novels. Stone portrayed Hemingway’s themes of courage and stoicism and adopted a similar tough motto. Hemingway believed Il faut d’abord durer, Stone thought El merito es estar vivo. Finally, Stone allowed, “I think a lot about Hemingway. His work is the best argument I know for the principle that style represents moral perspective.”

Stone was also attracted to Robert Lowell’s ironic poem “Children of Light” and used it in two of his novels: the phrase “a hall of mirrors” for his first one, the title of the poem for another, and Bell also used it for the title of his book. In the Bible the “children of light” are enlightened believers in Christ. Lowell’s poem attacks the religiose Puritans and Indian killers, damned by the “Serpent’s seed” and tainted by the cursed “blood of Cain.” Their belief is extinguished in the guttering candles. Stone may have used the title ironically—his drug-driven characters are not enlightened—or simply may have been inspired by the poetic words.

Attracted since childhood to the cruelty, torture and blood, the perversity, masochism and suffering of martyrs in Catholic art, Stone observed, “the world, after all, is like that. It tells you that you have to accept this, it tells you that the world [certainly his novelistic world] is this way.” He stated, “I want to deal with extremes of brutality, yes, that the innocent suffer at the hands of people or forces driven by ignorance and greed.” Bell writes that one of Stone’s great subjects is “the man of compassion and goodwill stymied by a corrupt and monolithic system, and sinking into unwilling resignation.” His fictional characters often converge in a series of intersecting lives and gradually accelerate toward an apocalyptic bloodbath.

Stone, a left-wing anti-Communist like George Orwell, portrays desperate and extreme situations. A Hall of Mirrors (1964) deals with alcoholism in New Orleans and, Bell notes, “slashes into the underbelly of American racial anxieties.” Dog Soldiers (1973) shows the effect of war on civilian life as Vietnamese heroin is smuggled into California, sometimes in the corpses of combatants. Opium is the religion of these people. (Who’ll Stop the Rain, with Stone’s screenplay and Nick Nolte as Ray Hicks, is an excellent adaptation of the novel. Stone’s liaison with the leading actress Tuesday Weld lasted a whole week.) A Flag for Sunrise (1981) deals with the corrupting American influence in revolutionary Central America. Children of Light (1986) combines the satire in the Hollywood novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West with the savagery in the Mexican fiction of D. H. Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry. Bell writes that Outerbridge Reach (1992) portrays “the 1990s boom-and-bust stock market cycle…shaking out its scariest social consequences.” Damascus Gate (1997) involves drugs, gun-running, and the intifada and reveals “the sinister side of the U.S. engagement with Mideast politics.”

Stone’s The Eye You See With: Selected Nonfiction, expertly edited by Bell, provides a fine complement to this biography—though he could have included Stone’s introduction to Paul Bowles’s Stories and to Michael Herr’s Vietnam memoir Dispatches. Most of the essays appeared in Harper’s and the New York Times Magazine, but a few were rejected and not previously published. Bell provides a useful introduction and preface to each section: war reporting, social change, and the art of fiction. Stone is rather disappointing when writing about his fellow alcoholic and literary soul mate Malcolm Lowry, and when serving up familiar material in introductions to paperback editions of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Graham Greene’s Vietnam novel The Quiet American. He hates Greene’s dogmatic Catholicism, anti-Americanism (though Stone also opposed the disastrous war), and chumminess with the Latin American dictators Fidel Castro and Omar Torrijos of Panama.

Stone is keenly observant, severely skeptical, and well informed, but also bitterly idealistic and deeply disillusioned when reporting on Vietnam. He brilliantly describes the Saigon flower market, an Asian rock concert, squashed lizards, really crippled and fake-blind beggars, beer laced with heroin, military slang and official lies, cynical journalists, and a devastating explosion in a government tax office: “The casualties were mainly people on the sidewalk outside, for the pavements of central Saigon are crowded every evening with refugees who tend their improvised food stalls and often sleep among them.” Stone can also be amusing. A naked yet pretentiously wholesome and refined performer in a Havana sex show looks “as though she has just been spirited unawares from a harp recital at the public library.”

Stone’s best essay, “The Way the World Is,” contains caustic and bitter comments on the influence of the Catholic Church, which he found both pernicious and inspiring. (Hold on to your crucifix, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.) He notes how the Hispanic penitentes “compete with Christ to see who can take it more”; that the Church approves of war “because it contributed to people dying, which was always a good thing.” Yet he acknowledges that the Church remained a potent force in his life and writes, “I never tried to live as a Catholic adult, which means that it can be there as a kind of illicit love, as a forbidden pleasure.” 


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