Evidence of Things Not Seen



WHENEVER I SEE A COPY OF A ROBERT STONE NOVEL in a used-book store, I buy it, pretty much to introduce him to others, to press his work upon others. I recently acquired a copy of A Flag for Sunrise, one of his masterworks—1981 first edition. Out of print. Nine dollars. Between its pages, a folded note. Black ink. Neat handwriting. Life is hard. We’re trying to prepare you for that. Make mistakes . . . fine . . . good. But make them because you don’t know. Learn from them. Do not make them b/c your friends are making them. Anxiety: valid. But don’t give in. How you face it will help make you the man you become.

Alarming but touching all the same that a worried parent (with literary tastes to be sure) would slip the cribs for an earnest conversation with a son inside a Robert Stone novel in which the characters—terminally friendless, God-driven, God-forsaken, awash in drugs, blood, and visions—included drunks, psychopaths, and a martyred nun. Still, when Stone would reflect on his own work, he maintained that his themes and subject were: “The American condition. The varieties of love. The ways in which people insist on perceiving their salvation in each other and the ways in which they fail each other or otherwise, sometimes, come through. The suspicion, the hope that there may be comfort for us on some level of things we cannot understand. . . .”

This spring, a bit more than five years after Stone’s death in Key West at the formally biblical age of seventy-seven, A Flag for Sunrise (the title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem) will appear in a Library of America volume along with Dog Soldiers (1974) and Outerbridge Reach (1992), a trifecta of thoroughbreds in a lifetime field that included five other novels, two collections of stories, and a memoir of the ’60s, Prime Green. At the same time, a collection of his nonfiction pieces, The Eye You See With (a line from the mystic theologian Meister Eckhart: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me”—a fragment to which Stone was much devoted), will be published, as well as a six-hundred-page biography, Child of Light, by Madison Smartt Bell. That title mirrors a novel of Stone’s, Children of Light (once referred to by editor Bob Gottlieb as “your not-too-adorable book”), which in turn obliquely used a Robert Lowell poem by that name as its epigraph, a poem that Bell deems “quasi-impenetrable.” It’s a puzzling title for the biography, particularly as the cover photo is of a bearded, clear-eyed, yet hardly luminous Stone.

Bell, a devotee of the work and a fan of the man, is present everywhere as an analyst, compiler, and editor in this publishing blitzkrieg. It makes the moment seem precipitous, even anxious, this rush to assume and ensure the literary stature of Robert Stone even when such stature should be assumed and ensured. Still, we live in throwaway times and perhaps don’t like to see, to acknowledge, the charted decades of drugs and anger and merry lunacy that delivered us to our grim and centerless present.

Dog Soldiers is a vicious novel about the legacy of Vietnam, and it won a National Book Award, though it had to share the prize with The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams, a quietly trippy academic venture, a novel within a novel within a novel apparatus about . . . well, it’s hard to remember what it was about, but Stanley Elkin, one of the judges, found it comfy and prevailed for this unusual split decision. Dog Soldiers is stellar Stone—ordered, propulsive, hyperrealistic yet phantasmagoric with great bursts of rabid thinking. He destroys his creations with holy vigor. The figures who do survive are cynical, sleazy, and unworthy. If they find a scrap of love, they betray it. Rheinhardt in A Hall of Mirrors. Holliwell in Flag, Strickland in Reach, Converse in Dog. But the women fare the worst. Geraldine, Marge, Lu Anne, Maud, Justin. Only Anne, wife of the hallucinating sailor Owen Browne in Outerbridge Reach, who goes mad drop after excruciating drop, is allowed to endure with some agency.

Outerbridge Reach, with its long lyrical passages, its constant play between perception and deception and Browne’s absurd and fatal gestures toward transcendence, is a stunning novel, perhaps Stone’s best. The cover illustration of the original edition is from a Rockwell Kent woodcut, Hail and Farewell, its desperate power somewhat compromised by the photo on the back—Stone in windbreaker and black trousers at the helm of a sailboat, though he does look as though he gets the joke. The boat wasn’t even in the water, but on a trailer at the Connecticut shore. Still, Stone did know something about boats, just as he did about diving. It is one of the mysteries of his art that he could become so informed by a few casual sails, a few adventurous dives. He was much of a genius, an autodidact. He inhaled information. The information became visions, sweeping his plots along.

Here is the protagonist Holliwell in the memorable dive scene from A Flag for Sunrise:

On the next terrace he saw the . . . coral’s root and branch patterns. It was sublime, he thought. He could feel his heart beating faster; his blood coursed through him like a drug. The icy, fragile beauty was beyond the competency of any man’s hand, even beyond man’s imagining. Yet, it seemed to him its perfection provoked a recognition. The recognition of what? he wondered. A thing lost or forgotten. He followed the slope of the coral field. Down. . . . He caught clear sight of a school of bonito racing toward the shallows over the reef. Wherever he looked, he saw what appeared to be a shower of blue-gray arrows. And then it was as if the ocean itself had begun to tremble. The angels and wrasse, the parrots and tangs which had been passing lazily around him suddenly hung in place, without forward motion. . . . Turning full circle, he saw the same shudder pass over all the living things around him—a terror had struck the sea, an invisible shadow, a silence within a silence. . . . Then Holliwell thought: It’s out there. Fear overcame him; a chemical taste, a cold stone on the heart.

Some years later, Stone wrote an article for the New York Times about the deep ocean. He went down one thousand and forty-three feet in a trench off the Bahamas, in a submersible called the Johnson Sea Link. He had the perfect panoramic view of utter blackness spinning with light. The light was bioluminescence—the darkness was alive. Creatures he could see liberally populated what had looked like a void. It was being. As perfectly formed, as complete in its destiny, as in its place among things as we are.

There is the It that is out there to be sure. But there is also wonder. Recognition. Gratitude.

Yet it was the It that most fascinated Stone. “‘There it is,’ they used to say in Vietnam. It was as if an evil spirit were loose, one of the demons known to the Vietnamese as ma, weaving in and out of visible reality, a dancing ghost. . . . People came to recognize it. Recognizing it, they would say without excitement, ‘There it is,’ with emphasis on the last word. . . . It was at the heart of every irony, however innocuous, however hideously cruel . . . an oddly turned thought, a grotesque insight.”

Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus “Further,” San Francisco, 1966. Ted Streshinsky Photographic Archive, Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley, Courtesy of Taschen/From Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Taschen, 2014)
Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus “Further,” San Francisco, 1966. Ted Streshinsky Photographic Archive, Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley, Courtesy of Taschen/From Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Taschen, 2014)

This is from “A Mistake Ten Thousand Miles Long,” collected in The Eye You See With along with other fine pieces including the aforementioned essay about his moments in the deep-sea submersible (“Under the Tongue of the Ocean”), book reviews, and articles on Ken Kesey, political conventions, and Cuba. He was always accepting assignments because he was almost pathologically restless and because he tended to procrastinate on the promised big productions. The nonfiction can show him at his most playful. On witnessing Hemingway’s home in Havana he wrote: “It was a ghastly sight, moldering indecently in full view like an open grave. In the living room, ancient bottles of rye from long-defunct distilleries had gone cloudy white. Newspapers and old magazines were piled in hideous, yellowing stacks. . . . Then there were the animal heads, absurd and obscene, looking less like trophies of the field than something a mafioso would send his least favorite Hollywood producer.”

The eye you see with indeed.

Only the inclusion of “Coda,” written two years before his death and never before published, is an editorial mistake. It is rambling, mawkish, and seems to be addressed to his “small, loyal band of readers on whose love I have lived.”

I don’t even want to believe he wrote this.

Stone was an action writer, but his characters are like many Jacobs wrestling with the angel. His belief was ravenous, his faith a wispy slip of a thing. As he grew older the work flattened out a bit. The search became a little gaudy or more tempered philosophically. In interviews he spoke about redemption and life more abundant. He spoke about what fiction should do, its obligations, its importance, the ways it could offer meaning. He wanted his own work to be a worthy combatant against the “terrible majesty” of silence. The fury that fueled his best stories (and he wrote many remarkable stories—“Miserere,” “Helping,” “Absence of Mercy,” the bitter “Charm City”) quieted. He began to feel that God, even in His great incomprehensible goneness, was directly concerned with us. He began to think of himself as a theological novelist. He began to think of his writing outside the writing of it and feared that he had not served his talents fully. He began to suffer the indignities of breathlessness and confusion, of fractures and falls, no longer an occasion for drollery. (“Bob joked that he might fall when walking out of a bar, but usually not when walking in.”) Like Malcolm Lowry, he had an astonishingly stout constitution until he didn’t. Once, after delivering a very muzzy Stone to the airport for a trip to a reading engagement that turned out somewhat disastrously, his wife, Janice, cried when she heard a Leonard Cohen song on the radio. “‘The baffled king composing Hallelujah’—that was Bob,” she thought.

Robert Stone had a life of wildly disparate parts that resulted in not so much a trajectory as a fulfilling gyre. His mother was schizophrenic, his father unknown (though maybe he had the name C. Homer Stone). He spent much of his childhood as a boarder at St. Ann’s Academy, a Catholic school in Manhattan—pretty much an orphanage. He joined the Navy at seventeen, mustered out, married young, fathered children young, got a Stanford fellowship, went to California and fell in with the hippest of the hip, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. He wrote a fabulous first novel set in New Orleans, A Hall of Mirrors, that was turned into a dreadful movie, with Paul Newman no less, went to Vietnam with a dubious journalism credential from a little British underground rag called Ink, hit the jackpot regularly with his intense novels, was vice president of PEN, and taught at Yale, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins, though he lacked a college degree. He drank heavily, enjoyed huge advances, took copious amounts of drugs, and was married to Janice, a self-described “quartermaster, travel agent, secretary, and copy editor,” for more than fifty years.

His life was both bohemian and bourgeois. The Stones had, variously, homes in Westport, London, Amherst, New York, Block Island, and Key West, but they were modest ones, furnished mostly with Janice’s yard-sale and junk-store finds. He was louche yet respectable enough, (somewhat) accepting of the constraints of academia. He frequently conducted a writing class by simply reading aloud Joyce’s “Araby.” He became adept at missing the funerals of friends—something always came up. He believed Catholicism had a specific sense of humor, feared needles, and did not find the postmodernist John Barth an intriguing office-mate.

For decades he managed to balance prodigious drug use and alcohol with sustained if erratic periods of writing. Prescriptions were available for his many ailments—gout, sciatica, back pain, depression—wherever he went, and he mixed and balanced them with wizardly precision. Children of Light was written dangerously close to the third rail when cocaine was wedded to the mix. His work could be savage and cruel and unforgiving, but by the time of his final novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, he was being limply praised as “generous in [his] vision of humanity.” Critics didn’t quite know how to approach him—the baffled king—anymore.

Madison Smartt Bell motors through this life, this biography, with determination and devotion, but it’s an airless journey. He had the complete cooperation of the indomitable Janice, who kept diaries and files, noting every trip, every scrap of income, every draft, every car purchase, every abandoned project and health scare, every celebration of every new year. Bell claims that “on the practical side” she had “essentially become his manager; she had a sense of what would sell and what would not.” He employs surprisingly few other sources.

Child of Light is divided into parts with the novels as frames, but within each section are giddy subsets: “Love, Dope, and Other Distractions”; “But First, Cuba”; “Tech Devolution”; “Rehab Redux”; “Stone Rolls a Little Slower.” The writing is pretty much without distinction: “I burned some midnight oil”; the Stones put their “noses to the grindstone”; “a Rabelaisian enthusiasm for grog and tobacco.” Or just plain unfortunate: “Lara likes to play in bed with a loaded gun. There’s a little silliness in it all, but not too much, and Lara’s cocktail of Eros and Thanatos stuns Ahearn like a cow in the slaughterhouse.” This refers to the goings-on in the novel Bay of Souls, Stone’s only dud. Set in an environment very much like Haiti’s, it is quite influenced by Bell’s own knowledge and experience of that island republic’s allure. Stone visited there twice on Bell’s invitation, once with a surprise companion, the beautiful “Melisandra.” Bell seems a little clueless about her presence at first, but then there is revelation. “Bob wasn’t planning to share a room with me as I had assumed, but with Melisandra.” Before you know it, Stone, “drinking more and more heroically,” nods out at supper and Bell and Melisandra have a moment alone. “She looked at me intently, her extraordinary eyes full of love and fear. ‘I think he really might die this time,’ as if she’d read the sentence off my forehead. For a moment we were completely ‘in the same spirit,’ as Haitians often put it. I must have thanked her for the care she was taking of Bob—anyway I hope I did. She left me in the garden and took Bob away to bed.”

This personal intrusion into the big picture of a subject’s life by a biographer seems utterly inappropriate if not sophomoric, but Bell sappily compounds the gaffe some pages later when he shares with us a letter Stone wrote accompanying the manuscript of Bay of Souls. “I very much hope you will find this worthy. I’ve never sent a manuscript to another writer before, you’re among the first to see it in the light of day.” Bell writes: “To say I was bowled over . . . is a howling understatement. ‘Nobody imagines getting a letter like that from the living writer they most admire,’ I swiftly replied.” (He’s more professionally constrained and adept in the extensive notes and chronology he prepared for the Library of America edition.)

Robert Stone was not a happy man (he probably didn’t think in terms of happiness), but he forced himself to do what he was destined to do—write great novels. How did he do it? He seemed to accomplish the feat in those hours that aren’t part of an ordinary day. Or night, for that matter. He led a hectic if weirdly conventional life, but he saw the It and he recognized the Is with a particularly American awareness and intensity.

The Library of America volume showcases Stone at his fearsome peak. The biography, which measures the man’s life out in pallets of pharmaceuticals, proves mostly that a writer mustn’t trust a fan or a friend too much.

Joy Williams is the author of The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (Knopf, 2015).