- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007


By Robert Stone

Ecco Press, $25.95, 240 pages


Robert Stone’s engaging memoir begins in 1958 when he finds himself at the helm of a naval transport ship on an Antarctic expedition, tracking electrical activity on

the surface of the sun.

Suddenly he sights an unidentified mass, changing its shape and direction and impressing the helmsman as something monstrous, “a living thing, huge and strong, unrecognizable.” A scientist aboard the ship has a look and identifies the mass as an enormous colony of migrating Adelie penguins that Mr. Stone describes thus:

“Their Chaplin-like gait and myopic, clueless stares deprive them of the dignity of which all creatures in their natural state should be entitled. Even the desperate defense of their nests and eggs has an absurd quality.” They are “Donald Duck-like” creatures “cackling … foul obscenities and churning their flippers faster than the eye can see, like so many tasteful little pinball machine components.”

This opening anecdote may serve as a gloss on Mr. Stone’s memoir generally, since it is almost programmatically devoted to discovering and experiencing the absurd qualities of life, whether in the shape of cackling penguins in the Antarctic or at the “demented block parties” he would attend with Ken Kesey and his minions in California a half-decade later.

As any reader of Mr. Stone’s novels can testify, the ordinary dailiness of life plays a pretty small role in this writer’s dealings with experience. That experience may occur in New Orleans, where he and his wife settled in 1960 after their marriage, or in New York City, California, Mexico, Paris or Vietnam (Robert Stone is a man who got around); but invariably his gaze is focused on the weird surprises and bizarre juxtapositions which — if one is permitted the pun — the often-stoned protagonist encounters.

When later he proceeds to write up the experience he does so in extravagant, usually extravagantly comic, sentences. In Walden, Henry Thoreau worried that his literary expression might be insufficiently “extra-vagant,” might not wander far enough beyond the ordinary confines of language. Mr. Stone is in the American grain insofar as he is always hospitable to the extraordinary — to the Far Out, as an ancient phrase from the 1960s had it.

In New Orleans, then back in New York City, Mr. Stone worked at a variety of jobs, selling Collier’s Encyclopedias or writing advertising copy to promote the sale of furniture. In the latter job the game was to supply the words for ad copy, inevitably adjectives and adverbs such as “Lovely,” “Exquisite,” or “Handcrafted.” The last term remained “meaningless” to Mr. Stone, although he attempted to imagine “a graceful, disembodied hand fondling the sensuous curves of an imitation-maple chair back.”

His imagination is gripped not by the lovely, the exquisite, but by the seedy, the derelict, the down-and-out, qualities to be observed in the then-segregated public housing projects of New Orleans; or on the Bowery in New York whose occupants were “overwhelmingly elderly white men, who ranged in degree of poverty from the scrofulous, dying bundles of rags in the gutter to men in dry-cleaned thirdhand suits and clean shirts who drew some sort of pittance once a month.”

Living pretty much hand-to-mouth himself, he is struggling to write what would be his first novel — “A Hall of Mirrors” (1967) set in New Orleans — when his old writing teacher at N.Y.U., the poet and critic M.R. Rosenthal, urges him to apply for a Wallace Stegner writing fellowship at Stanford. He is awarded one and with his wife and small daughter boards the train that will take him to the dizzying California years of the early Sixties.

Literally dizzying they were, as “psychedelia became more and more central to our concerns.” So, planning a night on the town in San Francisco to attend both a jazz concert by saxist John Coltrane and a performance by the comedian Lenny Bruce, he prepares himself by ingesting 12 capsules of “peyote squash.” The result was that he heard Coltrane and his band only so to speak — “From each instrument in its kind issued some manner of bright spectacle, not one of which I could handle remotely” — and never got to hear Bruce at all.

The most famous figure he associated with in California was Kesey, then a novelist of repute after the publication of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” At Stanford, where he did graduate work and lived with his family until moving to Oregon in 1963, Kesey conducted “stoned poetry readings, also lion hunts on the midnight dark golf course where chanting lion hunters danced to bogus veldt rhythms pounded out on their kitchenware.” Kesey’s kitchenware also figures prominently in a reenactment of a world-historic battle fought with broom lances and saucepan helmets. (Mr. Stone admits that he never did much eating in the Kesey kitchen.)

In 1964 Mr. Stone moved back to New York City, thus missed the transcontinental bus trip east Kesey and his “Merry Pranksters” made that summer (memorably written about by Tom Wolfe). The next year he took a job as a journalist, not of course on some “reputable” newspaper but on a lesser version of the National Enquirer he calls the National Thunder.

His job at the tabloid seems to have consisted mainly of making up sensational headlines for the unlikely stories and accounts to follow. In this “dank basement of hackdom,” he comes up with brilliant inspirations, such as Mad Dentist Yanks Girl’s Tongue, or Exploding Cigar Kills Nine, or (my favorite) Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds. Again, as is consistent with his temperament, “reality” is transformed, or traduced, into the comic zaniness of verbal play. He would use his work at the tabloid in an episode from his second novel, “Dog Soldiers.”

Mr. Stone touches on other events that the reader of his novels will be interested in: the debacle of making “A Hall of Mirrors” into a bad movie that Paul Newman’s best efforts could not save; or the inconclusive results of his months in Vietnam as a newspaper stringer — not a committed journalist so much as “a tourist and a writer in residence.”

Things begin to run down in the book’s last few chapters, as the Sixties becomes increasingly less “prime green” (Mr. Stone’s title describes the early morning light at Mexico’s Monzanillo Bay) into various sorts of disenchantments. Finally, in 1971, he moves his family back to the States (they have been living in England), accepts a visiting writer position at Princeton, and begins an impressive literary and academic career, publishing his novels and stories, reviewing those of others, teaching students how to write better.

In the book’s final two pages he reflects on his generation and decides it was a “Romantic” one, its totem The Open Road, its mood an “anticipation of the best in possibility.”

That was not to be: “Our expectations were too high, our demands excessive; things were harder than we expected.” What seems to us like the most obvious worldly wisdom was not obvious to the “we” he speaks for. The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom, said William Blake, patron poet-saint of many romantic folk in those years.

In “Prime Green” the palace is never reached, the “wisdom” attained only a rueful and reluctant one. But the road of excess Robert Stone has explored in his fiction is vividly on display in this book of affectionate if cautionary remembrance.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.

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