Review: Robert Karron on Robert Stone (Part Two)

[Read Part One of this post here]

The transition from Stone’s early, troubled years to those of the acclaimed author whose face graces the covers of both of these books is, despite himself, rather dramatic. At eleven, when Child Protective Services comes to take him from his mother, he realizes he has to convince them he’s the perfect child, whose needs are met. He pulls it off. In high school, he joins a gang and comes close to failing math, yet receives his school’s highest score on the state Regents Exam. A college scholarship seems imminent but, at the last minute, he’s expelled, after the administration finds out he’s convincing his fellow students to stop attending church. Instead, he joins the Navy, where, at sea, he reads voraciously (and not crime novels; this is Robert Stone; he reads Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, and Moby-Dick), and, on land, takes in everything he sees, greedily experiencing the world in ways he’d continue as a census taker, a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, and a tabloid reporter—ways that would later serve him well as a novelist.

And then he’s off—a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, the Iowa Writers Workshop, an agent (Candida Donadio), an editor (Robert Gottlieb at Knopf), a National Book Award (for A Flag for Sunrise in 1981), and movie options from Paul Newman. He befriends Ken Kesey, Nick Nolte, and Raymond Carver. In the next few years he’ll be hobnobbing with Henry Fonda and Cloris Leachman. Early on, he meets and marries Janice Burr, and they’ll stay together for the next fifty-five years. Begrudgingly accepting his affairs (they have an “open” marriage, but only Stone seems to capitalize on it), Janice takes on, in addition to her duties as a mother to Stone’s children, the all-too-familiar role, at least for a previous generation, of “writer’s wife,” assisting him in secretarial tasks as he writes novel after novel and becomes more and more famous.

Madison Smartt Bell, a highly respected novelist himself, knows a good story when he sees one, and he presents these larger-than-life facts straightforwardly and unobtrusively. This isn’t a typical biography, though. Bell was good friends with Stone, and, while he doesn’t ignore Stone’s vices, he treats them with a sympathetic understanding usually found in memoirs. At times, he even includes himself in the narrative—for example, he’s on that trip to Haiti, where Stone brings his mistress. It says something about Bell’s forgiveness toward Stone that he’s not more annoyed that Stone complicates their trip; he registers the discourtesy but makes sure the great author’s needs are met.

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Later, when Bell writes that, at a party they both attended in New York, Stone sees him talking to a famous singer and the only thing he thinks to ask Bell is if she’s his connection, for drugs, it’s hard not to shake the sense that Stone used his finely honed observational powers not only to plumb the culture but to find avenues to escape from it. Clearly, Stone was hungry for life—for experiences that’d bring him a deeper sense of it, and more pleasure living in it. In one essay he describes coming “as close to paradise as I ever expect to find myself,” when diving in a coral reef off the island of Bonaire and “descending a little too precipitously.” “At that depth, the glorious colors of the sun-dappled reef began to disappear … I was approaching the levels of nitrogen narcosis and also a depth at which decompression time would be necessary to prevent an attack of the bends if I spent more than a few minutes. But I also felt at the border of a great mystery.” Descending a little too precipitously—that’s what Stone did, all the time, searching for an elusive truth just beyond the boundaries of the safe and the known. When he captures the salient particulars of those experiences that only he’d catch, we’re grateful, but there’s an uneasy sense of the surrounding losses for others. After many years of marriage, Stone and Janice think they might break up; before she’s about to leave (she never does), Stone asks her if she’d consider staying on as his secretary. Bell records the conversation but offers no judgment.

Bell’s biography confirms what readers have long suspected—that many of Stone’s protagonists and plots are borrowed from his life. In Dog Soldiers, the ambivalent, hardened, strung-out hero is a writer whose name is—in case his disposition were not clear enough—“Converse.” Converse harbors hopes for a better world alongside knowledge that there won’t be one. “I’ve been waiting my whole life to fuck up like this,” he notes. And: “the desires of the heart … are as crooked as a corkscrew.” And when Converse tries out a theory: “‘They say the world is coming to an end. They say that’s why it’s so fucked up.’ ‘Wishful thinking,’ Marge said. ‘The world will go on for a million years.’” I’m not sure it needs adding that Converse takes a wrong turn and starts smuggling heroin, or that he’d say: “So many people think they’ve got it all figured out. It’s sad.” The hard-bitten, disillusioned White guy of Stone’s novels may seem of a lost time and place. But Stone forged a literary language for whole categories of experience that American fiction seems in recent years to have handed over to TV and journalism.

Typical of books about successful novelists, the first half of Stone’s biography is more interesting than the second. After Stone’s career takes off, he secures teaching positions (at Yale, Johns Hopkins, Iowa, etc.), buys houses (Connecticut, Block Island, New York), and receives, for his work, larger and larger advances. It’s not as arresting to find out that he sold his Westport house for $345,000, or that Harvey Keitel entertained starring in an adaptation of his new novel, as it is to read that, when he was in the Navy, a fellow soldier tried to rape him, and he was only able to fight him off because he’d had the foresight to “take a spare bunk chain to bed with me.” This isn’t Bell’s fault; it’s how success tends to work.

What is interesting is that, despite Stone’s arrival, he never escaped his childhood; he was forever hounded by the guilt, moral urgency, and threat of retribution that were instilled in him by his Catholic schoolteachers, and also by the sense of precariousness and shame left over from his time with his mother. It’s this legacy that forms the backbone of the biography and informs the restlessness and avaricious curiosity on display in the essays. As Stone understood, early on, “nothing is free”; just because you attain fame, that doesn’t mean you’re going to stop trying to escape yourself, trying to fill the holes your childhood has drilled into you. There it is.

Robert Karron is a writer in Los Angeles. 

Book Notes
The Washington Post had a charming article recently about the first National Book Festival, whose virtual 2020 iteration begins tomorrow. Participants this year include Sarah Broom, Sandra Cisneros, Kate DiCamillo, Mark Doty (book on Whitman reviewed by us), Eric Foner, John Grisham, poet laureate Joy Harjo, Marlon James, N.K. Jemisin, former Book Post partner bookseller Mitch Kaplan, Jason Reynolds, Heather Cox Richardson, Salman Rushdie, Karen Russell, Amy Tan, and Colson Whitehead. The first National Book Festival was the brainchild of then Librarian of Congress James Billington and First Lady (and former librarian) Laura Bush, who descended the Library’s grand staircase of the capital with their spouses for the festival’s black-tie opening dinner: President + librarian, nice combo. Author Thomas Mallon recalled, “It was quite elaborate and very well-attended politically,” and Scott Turow said, “Every Cabinet member save one—which was the protocol at that time—was in attendance.” The library’s historian John Cole notes that the event was nonpartisan by design.

Bush and Billington had the idea for the festival and began planning it shortly after the Bushes moved into the White House, in Laura’s account, and mounted it, spread out on the Mall and the East Lawn of the Capitol Building, six months (!) later on September 8, 2001. Novelist Alice McDermott remembers, “There was a small-town, carnival feel to having it outside. There were lots of kids and characters in book-related costumes wandering around, and there were a lot of balloons.” Maria Arana, then-editor of The Washington Post’s (late, lamented) Book World and the festival’s current literary director says, “You could hear from one tent to another, so you might be delivering a very serious disposition on death and war, and then you have this tent next to you roaring with laughter.” 25,000 people showed up, book-signing lines went on for hours, spilling out of the Library’s Great Hall, and no one wanted to go home at five o’clock when it was time to wrap up. Historian Michael Beschloss recalled that Mrs. Bush, who also thrown a huge White House party with her visiting friends from the Texas Book Festival, “was walking through the crowd, I think between only two Secret Service agents … it underscored this air of informality and no huge need for security.” Three days later all that would change.

The ladies Bush by the way remain a force in American reading. First Daughter Jenna has a thoughtfully selected book club that she hosts from the Today Show; Grandma Barbara’s Foundation for Family Literacy has released as podcasts her early-nineties radio show, “Mrs. Bush’s Story Time”; and Laura has her own foundation supporting libraries. (Laura interestingly has reportedly identified her favorite piece of literature as “The Grand Inquisitor” section from The Brothers Karamazov, also said to be a favorite of Hillary Clinton, who had the opposite interpretation of it.) First Females as a group come to think of it have in recent years been notably bookish. Author Michelle Obama (see Monday’s Book Notes) has been reading a children’s book every Monday over at PBS Kids. Jackie O. worked in book publishing for her last twenty years; her First Daughter Caroline published several anthologies of poetry. This enthusiasm does not always appear to spread to the men in the family.

Meanwhile as the National Book Festival joins other big literary events in going virtual, readers everywhere suddenly have the opportunity to try them all. The Atlantic magazine, so often in the news these days, just finished a virtual version of its own annual festival, developed with the help of an infusion of funds from Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective to try to create the multi-platform magazine of the future. (“Our mission is to bring journalism to life,” says the festival’s web site.) This year the cast included such luminaries as Stacey Abrams, the Reverend William J. Barber, Anthony Fauci, Bill Gates, Ibram X. Kendi, Padma Lakshmi, James McBride, Anna Deveare Smith, Bob Woodward, and a slew of Atlantic writers. The Atlantic lost most its events staff during a round of covid-stirred layoffs in May but, perhaps helped by the efficiencies of digital, has been able to multiply attendance at its virtual events since.

Last spring the American PEN Center cancelled its live World Voices Festival and, in the midst of New York City’s lockdown, produced a “suite of podcasts, videos, interviews, and musical playlists” in its stead. The Brooklyn Book Festival is proceeding digitally during its usual late-September slot. In October, the annual international publishers’ extravaganza, The Frankfurt Book Fair (longtime editor Jonathan Galassi offered a hilarious parody of its social machinations in his novel Muse, reviewed a few years ago by yours truly) will go virtual, giving readers a chance to drop in on a public-facing bit usually reserved for residents of and visitors to Frankfurt. “People were very much looking forward to the fair,” said director Juergen Boos, after the fair wrestled for months with creating an in-person event. “Many hoped [it] would be a signal of the end of the pandemic, but that is obviously not the case, so it is very emotional for all of us.” They will be using AI and special apps to try to reproduce the gossipy, glad-handing experience of the original.

If Zooming with authors your thing, watch out for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in March and the national US publishers’ convention, BookExpo, in May, which traditionally have public-facing side along with their offerings for book professionals. As in so many walks of life, one wonders how much the virtual dimension of such happenings will linger now that we have grown used to them. On top of these of course there are all the virtual readings, Q&As, and signings bubbling forth from the world’s bookstores, libraries, publishers, and authors themselves (e. g.). The Washington Post attempts to compile a schedule.

It does leave one wondering, with this new ubiquity of “appearances,” long relied on to sell one’s book or one’s magazine but until now largely limited by physical limitations on what a body can do in space, alongside real-time podcasts and social media, it feels like the public presence of writers and thinkers becomes more and more about what they say off the cuff and less about the work they toil on for years and store carefully between covers. Concurrently books coverage gravitates toward observing authors as provisional humans rather than the enduring work they do on the page. As the speaking person becomes as easy to disseminate as the printed text, how to hold on to the pause for reflection that technology once built in.

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Image: First edition cover for Dog Soldiers, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin