Since the beginning of his thirty-six-year career, writer Robert Stone has been measured alongside such literary greats as Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, John Dos Passos, and Ernest Hemingway. Celebrated for his bracing narrative authority, Stone guides us through unstable, often chaotic landscapes, both physically and psychologically. His fiction spans the globe, from racially charged New Orleans in the '60s to war-torn Saigon in the early '70s to pre-millennial Jerusalem, all the while delving into the American psyche during some of its more ruthless postwar chapters. His characters are typically overcome by disillusionment, if not seized by delusions, beset by drugs, alcohol, and mental illness; perhaps this is what has contributed to Stone's reputation as the "Apostle of the Strung Out." In his seven novels, we meet men like Rheinhardt in A Hall of Mirrors (1967), a once-brilliant clarinetist turned itinerant alcoholic who gets entangled with white supremacists; John Converse from the National Book Award˝winning Dog Soldiers (1974), a blocked playwright in search of writerly inspiration in Vietnam who becomes a heroin smuggler; and the anthropology professor Frank Holliwell in A Flag for Sunrise (1981), who finds himself caught in the midst of a political uprising in a fictional Central American nation.

Stone's new novel BAY OF SOULS (Houghton Mifflin, $25) introduces Michael Ahearn, a married English professor at a small rural Minnesota college. Though content with his wife and young son, Ahearn is overcome by the feeling that something vital is missing from his life. He believes that vitality might be embodied in new political-science professor Lara Purcell, a mysterious and potently seductive native of a Caribbean island called St. Trinity, who claims her soul is possessed by a voodoo spirit. Their passionate affair takes Ahearn to the ends of the earth, and he quite literally loses his own soul in pursuit of her. This past March, Stone and I spoke by phone, he from the warm climes of his Key West, Florida, home, I from my overheated Brooklyn apartment during an endless New York winter. Having never met Stone in person, I braced myself for a brusque voice on the other end, fantasizing to some degree that I would be talking with one of his fictional rogue warriors. Instead, I encountered the gentle and confident manner of someone who could indeed be thought apostolic, though not the least bit strung out. ˇKERA BOLONIK


KERA BOLONIK: At the opening of Bay of Souls, we get a glimpse of the protagonist Michael Ahearn in his cozy setup in Iron Falls, Minnesota: He's got a beautiful wife, a son who's in awe of him, and a relatively undemanding teaching job at a university where he can contemplate what you call in the novel "literary vitalism" all he wants. What is it that Michael lacks?

ROBERT STONE: I think his interest in literary vitalism arises from his curiosity about what it takes to validate life, to make it as satisfying as it can be, to make it what it ought to be. He is looking for a more passionate involvement with things. In a way, he's hankering after meaning, significance. He wants his life to mean something.

KB: Transcendence? It seems as if he thinks things are too safe.

RS: That's what he thinks is the reason. But he's questioning, and his inclinations are in the direction of a vitalist attitude, the suspicion that somehow struggle and risk are part of the secret of truly and thoroughly living.

KB: And it is right under his nose. When his son has a near-death experience and his wife, Kristin, gets injured, the experiences bond them togetherˇtheir lives gain definition because they've struggled. When Michael meets the new professor Lara, he sees in her this vitality.

RS: That's right. The force of that event is happening outside his life and rendering him helpless. He's alienated, more alienated than he was before. His family's trauma sharpens the alienation. And then the presence of Lara, who represents to him all sorts of things, Eros and Thanatos, you name it, a literal femme fatale for him. He goes in that direction where he thinks he wants to go.

KB: I loved that the tension between Michael and Kristin once he becomes firmly ensconced in his affair with Lara is a source of arousal for him. Kristin's anger is essential to him.

RS: That tension does exactly that. It's sharpening his desire.

KB: He finds he's in love with both Lara and his wife. The feelings for his wife become ever more apparent when he finds his best friend, Norman Cevic, has moved into his home with her. Norman is older than Michael and possesses an instinct and conscience that Michael lacks, and yet he is eager to step into his shoes. Is he intended to be a shrewder version of Michael?

RS: Somewhat, yes. He really sees. His feelings toward Michael are very complicated. Norman likes him, but he also envies him in some ways. He feels Michael's a little flaky and that he doesn't appreciate his good fortune, so Norman's a little resentful of Michael's failure to appreciate everything he has.

KB: The moment you take Lara and Michael out of Iron Falls, they lose themselves and each other. She's on a single-minded quest for her soul, and he's on a single-minded quest for her. She drags him into harm's way, into the middle of great chaos. I'm wondering, does she really love him?

RS: I think she really loves him. But she is, in a way, in the grip of forces beyond herself, and she is luring him into danger, possibly for reasons she really can't control. In essence, it is almost as though she were slightly supernatural.

KB: During a voodoo ceremony, there's a moment when Michael looks at Lara and he can't tell if he's looking at his lover or Marinette, the woman said to possess her soul. Even though he's lost everything, isn't that sort of his moment of transcendence?

RS: It's the moment of transcendence that he comes close to but doesn't quite achieve. Lara gets what she's after. He loses his nerve; he has played this game and lost.

KB: Have you ever seen a voodoo ceremony?

RS: Yes, I watched the induction of some friends of mine, but I wasn't really in that group. I was kind of standing outside it, looking on, while in Cap Haitien, Haiti. I had seen some of the films of Maya Deren, who was a great scholar of voodoo in the '40s or '50s. She went down there with a lot of film equipment, which was a very complicated and awkward thing to do at that time, and filmed a lot of the ceremonies. The footage was like nothing I had ever seen before.

KB: What is it about this detachment of body and soul that intrigues you? I know you often write about lost souls in a metaphoric sense, but this is the first time you've actually explored someone who physically loses his soul.

RS: This is the voodoo belief, that there is this complex soul system of two spirits, one of which survives and one of which doesn't. The movement of a soul from one sphere to the other, or of the spirit of a god from one body to the other, is something that they literalize. It was useful to me to employ that paradigm so one could talk about a loss of soul or a soul's journey in a kind of literal way. In reading the book, you're not meant to suddenly accept the system, but I think you are being asked to see the degree of relative metaphorical truth that such a system has.

KB: As I read Bay of Souls, my mind kept going back to an earlier novel of yours, Dog Soldiers, because of the Heart of Darkness˝like descent into hell. Was Dog Soldiers on your mind when you were writing this? Do you think of earlier novels when you're working on a new one?

RS: There's a certain continuity in what a writer does, because a writer's concerns change form but in some ways stay the same. You keep exploring some of the same questions, but from different aspects and in different ways. I didn't think at all of Dog Soldiers when I was writing the new book, but it probably deals with some of the same questions.

KB: The settings for your charactersˇFrank Holliwell from A Flag for Sunrise, John Converse from Dog Soldiers, and Michael Ahearn in St. Trinityˇare totally merciless. None of these men are very resilient to begin with, and they are plunked down in the most brutal landscapes. Are your protagonists trying to flee their personal demons by immersing themselves in something larger and more chaotic?

RS: Yes, I think what draws them in is the opportunity to get out of their own lives. In a way, all my characters are kind of the same in that they're escaping themselves, escaping their own inevitabilities, and often they're running in the direction of trouble, because they're trying to be subsumed into a struggle that's larger than them, that they think will grant them some relief from the pressure.

KB: What inspires your settings?

RS: What I know, what I've seen, and what I go away thinking about.

KB: I know you're a lapsed Catholic, and you've said in the past that you don't imagine yourself practicing the religion, but it's clearly made an indelible impression. How does religion serve as a metaphor in your work? What is it about Catholicism specifically and religion in general that stays with you?

RS: Religion is really only a metaphor about the relationship between the individual and the universe. Everybody has their mythic story, whatever it is, their own personal mythology that is exclusive to themselves and how they relate to the world. The materialists' philosophies have pretty much exploded. They were sort of based on religion, I mean Hegel and the world spirit and all that. I don't think many people are guided by materialism any longer, especially with the collapse of Marxism. I had to reject religion specifically. I had to reject the Catholic version. I think I'm open to a lot of religious views that attract me metaphorically. I find them aesthetically satisfying. I don't believe they necessarily reflect anything that's real. I have no answer to the old question of ontology, why we are inclined to believe these things unless there's something out there.

KB: And yet, it's a question you've returned to with every novel in one way or another.

RS: I don't think when I was starting to write my first book that I would have ever expected to be a writer who deals with religion. I really thought I had come to terms with that. But I have these enthusiasms that are suddenly awakened. When I was doing Damascus Gate I read a lot of the Kaballah, and I found it absolutely wonderful. Talk about metaphorical systems. I thought this made so much sense, and also it was so magical. I got completely intrigued.

KB: In Bay of Souls, you make frequent references to how much Michael Ahearn drinks, and, of course, many of your characters are hard drinkers and drug users. Is this something you see as particular to your generation? Is it symptomatic of disillusionment? Put another way, as you are a former Merry Prankster, did you witness the best minds of your generation destroyed by madness?

RS: I don't know if it was our generation. That stuff was around. I think we originally saw it in an elitist way. We were doing what artists had done back at the turn of the century. Substance abuse or whatever one wants to call it is always a substitute, an attempt to reach transcendence. It's a dead end, but it represents need, an attempt to gratify needs, to change the game, to get out of the box. I'm trying to write a memoir on the '60s, and I'm trying to figure out what it all meant. I think it was just a lurch in the direction of stopping, trying to find out what was beneath us, pulling all the stuffing out from the edge of the world to see what was holding us up. And I think we discovered that not much was holding us up. But actually all the institutions that we thought were so powerful and the forces that we relied on for support while also resenting them were in fact really fragile.

KB: Writers of my generation write a lot about alcohol and drugs, but it's self- conscious: It is either integral to the plot or saddled with a moral or an apology.

RS: Well, the attitude of society is completely different, in America particularly. America is on one of its prohibitionist kicks, treating drugs as something utterly satanic. The attitude of society in general is not what it used to be. Heroes in the movies used to smoke one cigarette after another and pour themselves drink after drink. All that stuff was looked on in a different way. Today it is seen as revolting.

KB: Can you talk a bit about the memoir right now? Is it specifically about the '60s?

RS: Not specifically. I haven't got very far with it. There are a couple of things I'm going to write about: my childhood, life in the '60s. My childhood was kind of strange.

KB: You were in an orphanage for a time?

RS: Yeah. I had a couple of weird or relatively unusual experiences, experiences that were of their time, that wouldn't happen to kids today because things are different. I wanted to write about those.

KB: Since the beginning of your career you've been likened to some of the best writers of the twentieth century, from Hemingway and Joseph Conrad to Graham Greene, William Faulkner, and Malcolm Lowry. People are still drawing comparisons thirty-five years later. Does that bother you?

RS: I think anybody who would be too comfortable with that would be wrong-headed. It doesn't make me comfortable. I mean, it's gratifying in a way, but, you know, I don't know what to think of it. All I can do is do what I do. I can't rank myself or sit here and say, "Oh, now I'm up there with Hemingway." For one thing, I don't believe that I'm up there with Hemingway. I think he accomplished more. That my work is well regarded is gratifying because I certainly do it in the name of furthering insight. And I think what I do is useful and honorable. I'm gratified that people think well of what I do. I certainly hope they will.

  Kera Bolonik is a writer living in Brooklyn.