Sunday, January 7, 2007

Robert Stone Q&A

Originally appeared in The Boston Globe

Q&A with Robert Stone

By Harvey Blume

ROBERT STONE, THE novelist and short-story writer, was not with Ken Kesey and the other Merry Pranksters when their bus steamed out of California in 1964 on its psychedelic journey east. But as Stone explains in his taut new memoir, "Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties," the saying that you were "either on the bus or off the bus" was never meant literally. The real question was whether -- metaphorically and cosmically -- the bus was coming for you. In every sense the bus headed straight for Stone, making its first Manhattan stop outside his apartment, which shortly filled up, he recalls, with "people painted all colors."

More than four decades later, Stone, almost 70 now, resides on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which is where we sipped tea and discussed his work. Stone has revisited the '60s often in his fiction. "Dog Soldiers," for example, his bracing 1974 novel, focused on the mayhem caused by heroin smuggled from Vietnam. But "Prime Green" adds autobiographical detail -- about the sea, for example, which is often the setting for Stone's work. Born in Brooklyn, Stone, the grandson of a tugboat captain, joined the Navy in his teens. But he longed for New York City, and was pulled, when he returned in the late '50s, into the coffeehouse scene growing up around Allen Ginsberg and the other Beats.
Ken Kesey is a central character of "Prime Green," and, in a sense, its failed hero, the symbol of all the era promised but did not quite deliver. (The book gets its name from the stunning dawn light -- "primal, primary, primo" -- at Kesey's hideaway on Mexico's Pacific coast.) There's plenty of peyote in the book as well, including an account of a John Coltrane concert in San Francisco circa 1962 in which the music turned suddenly visible on Stone, "scaring" him, he told me, "----less." And, inevitably, there's Vietnam, where Stone parlayed flimsy journalistic credentials (New York City tabloids, smut) into a stint that made him something between "a tourist and a writer in residence."

Stone's dedication to writing steadied him through the disturbances, cosmic and political, of his day. "Prime Green" is, among other things, an object lesson in how irony can extract and convey the essence of an era.

IDEAS: Do you still trip?

STONE: It's been six or seven months since I even had a beer.

IDEAS: How did all the peyote and LSD you took affect your approach to literature?

STONE: I dropped out of Catholic high school, but read all the time. My mother started me doing that. Though a bit mad, she was a well-read person. I read the great moderns -- including Dos Passos, Hemingway, Fitzgerald -- and set out to write realism. Then I began to see that behind the appearance of things was something else, perhaps, and that between realism and not realism there was no serious difference.

In a sense, drugs turned me back toward religion, from which I had just liberated myself with great exhilaration -- back toward the spiritual. And realism became a point of departure in my work for psychological trips of different kinds. Drugs turned me in that direction, and in that way, I think, were good for me.

IDEAS: Irony is the constant in your work. Does it have anything to do with the drugs?

STONE: The irony of the drug experience is not unrelated to the irony of Samuel Beckett saying, for example: "It's not enough to opt for silence. You have to consider the kind of silence."

IDEAS: You write about the huge influence Hemingway had on writers of your generation. But it seems that your version of Hemingway's edge play -- the safari and lion hunt -- comes from consuming hallucinogens.

STONE: You're young, you do all sorts of things. Some of us in that gang were rock climbers.

Look, there's no way around the role drugs played, the driving force they were. Finally they became an utterly outsized element and kind of destroyed everything. They created a mass youth culture, which was not a good thing.

IDEAS: Why not?

STONE: For one thing, it made it really scary to bring up children in the years after the '60s. And it gave our enemies a stick to beat us with. Some people will say it was the Summer of Love, 1967, that screwed things up.

IDEAS: Which is where my own generation comes into it. You talk like an aristocrat of the stoned experience.

STONE: We were snobbish about it. We saw ourselves as connecting with the Beats, as their inheritors. When I was in high school and when, at 17, I joined the Navy, the Beats were the people I admired, and eventually got to know. And we felt we were party to an arcane knowledge about how things worked, behind the mask of conventional reality.

No doubt it's just some neurological synapse, but to this day I can't deny that I had experiences on acid that I can't reject. They were too overwhelming. Even in retrospect they seem a clue to something I don't understand.

IDEAS: How does the Catholicism you grew up with play out in your work?

STONE: Through the sense of a fallen world. It has to do, for me, with how really hard it is to be decent, how hard, how special, it is to behave well, and how things in a fallen world have a way of not working out.

IDEAS: You save Vietnam for the next-to-last chapter of "Prime Green." Reading the book, I got the sense, for the first time, that the catastrophe of Vietnam is becoming passe, pushed aside by the new catastrophe.

STONE: Vietnam will never be passe for me. But in a way Iraq is far worse, for the welfare of the country and the world. These people have gone where Nixon never did, where Lyndon Johnson didn't want to go. It's the rule of the worst. I'm a kind of patriot in my way. I put the United States down all the time, the way I put myself down. But I don't like to see our reputation completely destroyed.

IDEAS: You were very close to Ken Kesey, who you describe as having failed to fulfill his vast potential as a writer. What stopped him?

STONE: Kesey didn't have the patience to endure the loneliness, the depression, the daily grind -- not shooting lions but staying awake in quiet rooms. He got used to things moving faster, and really thought that he could change the world. He was driven to attempt the utterly impossible.

IDEAS: You were immune to utopianism, weren't you, but totally devoted to writing.

STONE: Without writing I would have dried up and blown away. That was my discipline, what I lived for, finally. I never had a lot of ego. It got crushed when I was small. Writing was the one thing I had that was beautiful, the only thing that justified me, the only way in which I could provide something beyond my own gratification. Without it, I was just a guy who drank too much, took too many drugs, and talked too much. Without it, I could say to this day, I am virtually nothing.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. His interviews appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail

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