Review: Robert Karron on Robert Stone (Part One)

During his lifetime, Robert Stone was revered as an ambitious, prolific novelist whose hard-edged, unsentimental work explored, among other subjects, faith, the struggle to be a decent person in a corrupt world, the allure of drugs and money, and violence. As a review of his third novel, A Flag for Sunrise, put it: “No American writer does crazy dangerous people better.” His books were popular enough to be made into films and draw (in 2020 money) million-dollar advances. Today, his reputation doesn’t loom as large as that of many of his contemporaries, like Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, or Joan Didion—but it should, because we’re living in his world.

Maybe more than any other novelist of his generation, Stone anticipated, thirty years out, the United States of 2020, where one of our “popular culture’s principal artifacts is a sentimentalized view of America,” where “we are not good at subtle arrangements” or “creating ‘understandings’ because so many of us understand completely different things.” He was already saying in 1993 that the country was lethally divided along ideological lines. The image that emerges from two recent books, one a selection of Stone’s essays and another a biography by his friend and fellow novelist Madison Smartt Bell, is of a writer who harbored no illusions, who never allowed sentimentality to creep into what he hoped would be, and what he tried tirelessly, throughout his life, to create—a clear-eyed view of America.

Stone manufactured journalist credentials in order to go to Vietnam to work on his second novel and there encountered “the great American catchphrase of the war,” as he wrote in a 1971 essay for The Guardian: the phrase, “there it is.” “The GIs go around saying it all day long.” The phrase offered a way to talk about the horrors of what was happening with detached resignation. It’s terrible; I wish it weren’t happening; but it is, and there’s nothing I can do about it—there it is. It recalls a similar phrase from Kurt Vonnegut’s, in Slaughterhouse Five, describing the war in Europe: “So it goes.” Another person died today; another village was bombed—it happened yesterday, and it’ll happen again tomorrow; so it goes. The verbs in the two sentences are different, though. There’s no “going” with Stone, no forward trajectory. “There it is” doesn’t anticipate the future, or build on the past. It’s happening, now—that’s all we know. How it links up to yesterday or tomorrow is beyond us.

Stone pins the phrase to the experience of the war in Vietnam but it can also represent Stone’s life, and how he thought about it. As he wrote: “We deceive ourselves, we contemporary people, if we imagine that beneath our feet is a great, sound structure, a vast warehouse called civilization, chockablock with boring, reliable truths and insights.” He shared Hemingway’s disdain for sentimentality, for making thing “pretty,” but, while Hemingway could at least fall back on the masculine archetypes of fishing, fighting, and sailing, Stone found life to be constantly exasperating and utterly confounding. The only activities he fell back on were intoxication—alcohol, cigarettes, opiates, cocaine, acid, pot, later, even Ritalin—and extramarital affairs. His escapes from life were either distractions or destructions, never edifying. (The phrases’s current evolution—It is what it is—defies the one project to which Stone was committed: description.)

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In both of these books, Stone moves through what are often brutal, dangerous, chaotic events stealthily, captures them more clearly than anyone else could, and moves on. Stone traveled frequently. The chapters in Bell’s biography, and the essays in the collection, always find him in a different place—Texas, Vietnam, Cuba, New Orleans, San Diego. Stone was often searching for another event to cover, or another drug to take, another woman to become entangled with. Sometimes, he’d combine all three: on a reporting trip to Haiti he’s both bringing along a mistress and “drinking more and more heroically, on top of whatever his opiate dose might have been”—plus Ritalin in the mornings, to get things going.

In several of Stone’s essays he writes in the present tense. To write about something in the past tense is to claim a kind of knowledge over it. Stone only trusts what he sees in front of him, at that minute. (“Bands of GIs, many of them hopelessly out of uniform in headbands and Japanese beads, wander around checking it all out. ‘Wow,’ they’re saying. ‘There it is.’”) Often the paragraphs don’t connect. Each paragraph, alone, is clear, and the sentences within it cohere, usually in elementary ways: he later wrote, with gratitude, that his parochial-school education trained him “in a writing style that was ‘practical, down to earth, and basic—in its way good.’” But, often, the next paragraph will have nothing to do with the last one, which had nothing to do with the one before it. As if to say, again: All I know is this one part. There it is. He praises a documentary for refraining “in large measure, from moralizing.” “Although the nature of things is my very stock in trade, I can’t fundamentally understand the essence of the human condition, its purpose or its lack of one,” he writes. Recalling that, during World War II, Walt Disney (the leader of what Stone calls “the Disney cartel”) put out a comic book whose conceit was “Tomorrow,” he writes:
Remember Tomorrow? It was a part of that fragile, almost pretend optimism to which the world grew so attached in the years just before the Second World War… In Tomorrow great cloverleaves of monorail carried sleek vehicles—part tram, part space shuttle—past an infinity of art deco towers. Here and there, carrying on amidst all this surreal splendor, were tiny, vaguely unisex figures in tights or tunics—the people of Tomorrow. Sometimes the people of Tomorrow went in couples, sometimes they were in family groups. Mainly content, placid, downright emotionless—there wasn’t going to be anything to get upset about Tomorrow.
He adds, somewhat unnecessarily: “I myself never really saw Tomorrow.”

Stone would likely disdain any attempts to draw a line between his skeptical take on the world and any origins in his experience but, if there’s a Rosebud to be found here, it’s in his childhood, living with a schizophrenic single mother in New York City SROs while attending a strict Catholic boarding school-cum-orphanage, where he felt spared, eventually, to attend as a day student. “The mistreatment of day students was less severe: ‘They only slapped you around in the classroom.’” Stone later admitted that these combined experiences forced him to understand, early on, that life is hard, that “the universe belongs to the strong,” and that “nothing is free”—and this is the world that one finds in the essays and on every page of Bell’s biography. [To be continued!]

Robert Karron is a writer in Los Angeles. 

Book Notes
The Heartland Fall Forum, an annual gathering of midwestern booksellers that I had a lot of fun attending last year, met virtually this year and gave their annual Voice of the Heartland award to Columbus, Ohio, publisher-bookshop-café-gathering space Two Dollar Radio. (Past winners include the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, Wendell Berry, Kate Di Camillo, and Studs Terkel.) Two Dollar Radio (named for a guy in a bar who said, “I’m louder than a two dollar radio”) is a family-run operation that began when husband-and-wife team Eric Obenauf and Eliza Wood-Obenauf started publishing books in their apartment dedicated to “presenting bold works of literary merit, each book, individually and collectively, providing a sonic progression that we believe to be too loud to ignore.” They moved into a brick storefront on “the scenic South Side of Columbus, Ohio” in 2017 and now offer a café-bookshop-performance space (“Two Dollar HQ”), a “Flyover Fest” literary festival, a  micro-budget film division (“Two Dollar Radio Moving Pictures”), workshops, readings, book clubs, and in-store memberships to denizens of central Ohio. The Heartland booksellers praised Two Dollar Radio for having “created a ‘third space’ that has proven to be an anchor to its community” and for giving special effort to elevating marginalized voices.

The nation’s smaller publishers, many of which have a special mission to tell the stories of their communities or bring new stories to their communities, have been particularly threatened by the coronavirus lockdown.  They often count on independent booksellers to recognize their work and advocate for it with readers; even those booksellers that have remained open or conducted business remotely saw very challenged sales during the lockdown and struggled with ways to stay in touch with readers virtually with recommendations (we wrote about this last month). Concerning how small publishers are managing in the lockdown, Mieke Chew of New Directions told Publishers Weekly that the publisher is “cognizant of the need to keep working closely with bookstores to ensure that they stay in business and has been providing authors for virtual events,” even though these don’t always contribute much to publishers’ bottom line. Europa delayed the publication of their big title, the new novel by Italian sensation Elena Ferrante, from June until this month so that “bricks-and-mortar stores, especially independent bookstores, wouldn’t be cut out of the equation by online retailers,” as publisher Michael Reynolds said. Many have seen their offices closed except for skeleton staffs who can walk or bike to work, or are managing completely remotely.

Although early in the pandemic publishers had hoped to return to their offices in the fall, by Labor Day they were telling Publishers Weekly they expected to remain mostly-remote until 2021, and many of the fall events of the publishing season switched to virtual in the closing months of August. Independent publishers reported this month that they expect to manage through the year with a combination of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and online sales, but they worry about how they will market new authors if public events remain restricted, and about the viability of independent bookselling and whether the 2021 economy will give readers enough to support book-buying. A post-covid economy may favor a more decentralized model for book publishing, as publishers develop ways to work remotely, with the benefit of moving the industry away from high-cost cities like New York and perhaps fostering more regional flowerings like Two Dollar Radio, but only if it allows bookselling and book buying to thrive.

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Image: From the covers of The Eye You See With and Child of Light