Robert Stone, “Fun With Problems: Stories,” Hougton Mifflin Harcourt, 195 pages, $24.00
Though one of our prose masters, Robert Stone is less acknowledged than he ought to be. That may be because his characters repeatedly court or are caught up in dangerous situations, often pertaining to war, sexual obsession or drugs, which may lead him to be downgraded as a genre writer. The more likely reason for his relative obscurity is that in the United States today any but the most obviously Nobel Prize worthy writer — perhaps only Phillip Roth, since John Updike is dead — has a hard time getting full credit. Our taste tends away from real writing toward colostomy bags in literary form penned by the likes of Dan Brown.
But back to Stone. “Dog Soldiers” (1974) — well served by the film, “Who'll Stop the Rain”, starring Nick Nolte — and “Outerbridge Reach” (1992), are his best novels. His memoir, "Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties” (2006), wouldn’t be a bad place to start getting to know him either, since it contains many of his lifelong concerns, including Vietnam, drugs, physical and psychological edge play, ocean, irony, and varying shades of disappointment.
To give some sense of the pleasures Stone’s prose routinely delivers, I quote a sentence from "Prime Green” about the Adelie penguins he observed in Antarctica while serving in the US navy: “They come at the persistent intruder, cackling Donald Duck-like, fowl obscenities and churning their flippers faster than the eye can see, like so many tasteful little pinball machine components. A good shot with the flipper, however, can buy them back a little respect, since they’re capable of breaking a human leg with one.”
Stone would never be drawn to the long-suffering birds ennobled by Hollywood penguin operas. It’s only the sort of gangland fowl you’d cross the street to avoid that get his attention. There is no more bird-watching in “Prime Green”; instead, plenty of Ken Kesey watching. Kesey’s Magic Bus, filled with Merry Pranksters “painted all colors,” came to rest, after its cross country journey, outside Stone’s Manhattan apartment. The name “Prime Green” comes from the dawns beheld in Mexico’s Manzanillo Bay by Stone, Kesey and their crew. Such dawns, Stone writes, made “nonsense of examined life,” All caught in their “vortex” would “freeze in [their] tracks and stand to, squinting in the pain of the light, swearing, grinning. We called that light Prime Green; it was primal, primary, primo.”
The phrase “you’re on the bus or you’re off the bus,” may be next to meaningless today, but those curious about what the ride might have been like will get some good clues from Stone’s prose.
“Fun With Problems”, Stone’s new collection of short stories – after “Bear and his Daughters” (1997) and “Bay of Souls” (2003) — wouldn’t be a bad place to start with him either. Certain things come clear about the roots of his trademark irony in the current volume. Here, for example, is Duffy, the main character of “The Archer”, as he prepares to attack his wife and her lover with, as campus legend has it, a homemade bow and arrow, while screaming: “All right, motherfuckers. Cupid is here”. Though hell-bent on mayhem, Duffy, an artist and art historian, is not too far gone to mull over his motives. “He might have been defending his home and his wife’s heath and safety,” he reasons, half-sanely. But he “knew better in these weak piping times than to speak of honor.”
Here Stone betrays his own longing for a less weakly “piping” time, a time when honor could be invoked without embarrassment, and irony, therefore, was not such a constant and merciless commentary on our limitations.
Some stories in this collection are meant to date themselves by the prevailing intoxicants — meth, grass, alcohol, acid, freebase, crack. Dope for Stone serves much as tree rings do for a redwood fancier; they track circumstances and environment, always of historical concern to Stone. “High Wire”, for example, begins with the narrator telling us the main event of his story occurred “about midway between the death of Elvis Presley and the rise of Bill Clinton.”
Stone is attuned to the havoc latent in masculine pride and to the hostility likely to break out for no particular reason between males of our species. One timely story records the sort of fierce dementia that can lead one man to fly his plane into an IRS building, and another to shoot up guards at the Pentagon because it is an article of faith for him that 9/11 was a crock cooked up by a malevolent government. (see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/06/us/06gunman.html?scp=2&sq=pentagon&st=csex) In “The Wine-Dark Sea” a man named Taylor exclaims rabidly, apropos 9/11: “That was faked, wasn’t it? The planes into buildings. . . “I knew it! . . . No planes whatsoever!” If Taylor read at all, his taste would run toward conspiratorial mish-mash — say Dan Brown, but more murderous.
My favorite story in “Fun With Problems” is the concluding tale already mentioned, “The Archer”. Stone’s prose is unbridled here, as it records hat appears to be Duffy’s irresistible rush toward implosion. Years after attacking his wife, Duffy is piecing himself together, but coming apart anyway, maybe faster. Arriving at Pahoochee State University on the Gulf Coast to give a lecture, he’s sickened by what he perceives as the local blend of sanctimony and ugliness. “Insolent posters were affixed to [the] suffering trunks [of trees] with cruel nails the size of industrial staples, threatening passersby with the judgment of Christ. Artificial palms stood at intervals among the others like Judas goats at a slaughterhouse to encourage and betray the doomed natural ones.”
Duffy’s Pahoochee hotel room provides no relief, with water from the faucet tasting “of baitfish and the Confederate dead.” Duffy’s academic host — a Professor Rind, yet — calls to say he’d like to bring his kids up to the room since they’d enjoy the ocean view and the elevator ride. By then, though, Duffy has drunk himself past the line separating “inebriation and riot”. He says: “Maybe they’d like it if I threw them out the fucking window. How many are there?” That appalling addendum — “How many are there?”— strikes me, at least, as priceless.
Duffy, in the dining room, blows up and declares that the crab being served is nothing but “some rotten thing out of a tube. Made by people who hate us and think we’re stupid.” This outburst brings the chef roaring out of the kitchen and mortifies Rind, his family, and a hapless young waitress. Duffy never gets to deliver his talk on “contemporary American painting, more or less, and how it got that way.” Instead he does something that neither he nor the reader would have thought possible for him, and that might be called redemptive were Stone a more explicitly religious writer. That Stone makes this unexpected act fully credible and rewarding is one reason “Fun With Problems” is such a good read.
The following is review of “Prime Green” and an interview I conducted with the author for The Boston Globe:
Boston Globe 1/7/07
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.