Where mine is at

Gordon Burn

  • Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone
    Deutsch, 409 pp, £14.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 223 98774 3

When Robert Stone’s best-known novel, Dog Soldiers, was published in 1974, there was a small but significant overlap of material with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s souped-up, superheated journalistic account of the beginnings of the counterculture, published six years earlier. The coincidence of material was in many ways inevitable. Stone had been part of the California bohemian underground grouped around the ‘drug apostle’, Ken Kesey, and his acid-snaffling followers, the Merry Pranksters; and Stone both figures in the narrative of Acid Test and is acknowledged by Wolfe in his Author’s Note: ‘There were several excellent writers, in addition to Kesey, who were involved in the Prankster saga ... Robert Stone told me a great deal about Kesey’s fugitive days in Mexico.’

The stake-out that forms the climax of Dog Soldiers recognisably draws on the six-week-long Pranksters/Hells Angels ‘Trips Festival’ that is one of the set-pieces of Wolfe’s book, relocated by Stone from La Honda, California, to a border-village in Mexico; similarly, the character of Dieter in Dog Soldiers is in part based on the Kesey of Acid Test, and Hicks is modelled on Neal Cassady, the link between the old-style Beat life and the new hippy movement. These kinds of dislocation, transposition and cannibalisation of personal experience are, of course, not only permissible in a novel: they are the reasons for the novel’s existence in the first place. It is something Wolfe himself, for twenty years a tireless sword-rattler and noisemaker on behalf of the non-fiction novel, accepted late in the day, in an essay published as a postscript to his first extended work of fiction, The Bonfire of the Vanities. ‘I found the sudden freedom of fiction intimidating,’ Wolfe confessed. ‘It was at least a year before I felt comfortable enough to use that freedom’s advantages, which are formidable ... The economy with which realistic fiction can bring the many currents of a city together in a single, fairly simple story was something that I eventually found exhilarating. It is a facility that is not available to the journalist, and it seems more useful with each passing month.’

This, though, is not the climb-down it seems. Repeatedly in the same essay, Wolfe restates the views that he had first set out in The New Journalism in 1973, and reiterates his belief that ‘at this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hogstomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.’ Reclaim it, that is, from the ‘Neo-Fabulists and Minimalists’ and writers of ‘faded Audubon prose’, in the name of social realism.

After publishing his Kesey book in 1968, Wolfe writes, he worried that ‘somebody out there was writing a big realistic fictional novel about the hippy experience that would blow The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test out of the water ... After all, among the hippies were many well-educated and presumably, not to mention avowedly, creative people.’ After Radical Chic had come out in 1970, ‘once again I braced and waited for the big realistic novels that were sure to be written about this phenomenon that had played such a major part in American life in the late Sixties and early Seventies: racial strife in the cities.’

Once again the years rolled by, and these novels never appeared. Throughout the Seventies, in common with ‘half the publishers in America’, Wolfe scanned ‘the billion-footed city for the approach of the young novelists who, surely, would bring [us] the big novels of the racial clashes, the hippy movement, the New Left, the Wall Street boom, the sexual revolution, the war in Vietnam. But such creatures, it seemed, no longer existed.’

But this was to ignore, or discount, his informant on the Kesey book, Robert Stone, all of whose novels had taken as their subjects exactly those ‘big, rich slices of contemporary life’ that, as late as 1990, Wolfe was complaining had been cold-shouldered by writers of serious fiction. A Hall of Mirrors, for instance, Stone’s first novel, published in 1967 when he was 30, was an epic attempt to cram all the major issues of the Sixties into a single narrative. ‘A Hall of Mirrors was something I shattered my youth against,’ Stone has said and, reading it, you can believe that. The narrow subject is right-wing extremism and race hatred in the American South. Its larger purpose is to bring back the news of the pop-apocalyptic cultural revolution ripping through America. Dog Soldiers (1974) is Vietnam replayed in Southern California. It follows a three-kilo assignment of heroin and a number of deadhead drifters up, down and across America, and explores the social fallout of the drugs revolution pioneered by Kesey and Stone’s friends in the Merry Pranksters. A Flag for Sunrise (1981) tackles United States adventurism in Central America. Children of Light (1986) is about the dream factories of Hollywood.

Perhaps what makes Stone ineligible for inclusion in the Wolfe canon is that, while his novels have the sheen of social realism, they are not ‘realistic’ in the sense of being the products of a steady and relentless accumulation of detail that is itself the result of dedicated pavement-pounding and on-the-spot legwork.

From the beginning Stone’s central subject has been young, bombed, directionless, wasted, disillusioned America – ‘the desperate, ruthless, wandering, savage part of American life’, in Truman Capote’s words. And so cosmic preoccupations, heavily mysto speculations about the Big Picture, keep breaking through the conventional surface of the narrative like fat wax-headed weeds through city tarmac. Tom Wolfe used a combination of stream of consciousness, saturation reporting and his trademark typographical fireworks to try to get across what it was like to be inside the head of somebody experiencing an acid flash. But Wolfe was a visiting fireman on this scene; Stone was an accredited, paid-up member. Robert Stone novels, like the people in them, have a tendency to lurch between the focused and specific, and the apparently improvised and spacey. He has a habit of bombarding the reader with a welter of (usually) inconsequential and cumulatively surreal details about the life of a character who, after a couple of pages, may be immediately sucked back into obscurity. ‘What’s going on out there,’ somebody in A Hall of Mirrors says, ‘is there are like a few billion people walking around and every one of them has a head with a lot of stuff going on in it.’ ‘I want to find out about humanness,’ another says. ‘What it is. Where mine is at and how I can keep it there when I find out.’

The stoned rap, the junky jabber, is something of a Robert Stone speciality. His people talk like people who don’t know where they are a lot of the time, and a lot of the time they don’t. They consume vast quantities of drugs and drink and, like Smitty, one of the gutter sociopaths in Dog Soldiers, sometimes think they’ve been in Vietnam when they haven’t.

  ‘That’s his way of making out, you know what I mean? He meets a chick and right away she’s hearing about the atrocities. “And then I machine-gunned all the kids. And then I strangled all their grannies. And then we set the mayor on fire” ... The more ghastly, the more horrible, the more they love it.’

Stone was in Vietnam at the end of the Sixties, reporting for the Guardian, and his experience of the war has become like a climate that pervades his fiction. ‘It has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting-place for the diverse activities of people whom no tradition controls,’ as Virginia Woolf once said of sport in the work of Ring Lardner.

Although, according to its foreword, Outerbridge Reach, Stone’s new novel, is ‘a fiction referring to the present day’, Vietnam still leaks a constant drizzle into the life of Owen Browne, ex-US Navy and war veteran and now a yacht salesman and advertising copywriter in the grip of some unnameable but debilitating midlife tristesse. This, together with a staling, non-specifically dysfunctional marriage to Anne, a scribbler for the kind of ‘slick yuppie’ periodicals her husband detests, and Mags, an adolescent daughter who treats him with undisguised contempt, persuades Owen to set off to sail single-handed round the world in a gimcrack boat built for weekend jaunts. Some Emersonian strain is obviously intended here, some evocation of the venerable American cultural myth of continuous exploration, a sense of the archetypal American as an adventurer searching out the furthermost reaches of life. But to anybody familiar with the case of Donald Crowhurst and, more particularly, with The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, published in 1970, Stone’s book raises increasingly uncomfortable questions about when fair use of research material crosses the border into unfair appropriation.

As the line separating fact and fiction grows progressively fainter because of the volume of traffic across it, it is becoming common practice for novelists to acknowledge their sources. At the beginning of The Child in Time, for example, Ian McEwan lists Christina Hardyment’s Dream Babies, David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order and Joseph Chilton Pearce’s Magical Child. In Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis acknowledges, among a number of others, Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, Lawrence Shainberg’s Brain Surgeon and ‘the works of Primo Levi, in particular If this is a man, The Truce, The Drowned and the Saved and Moments of Reprieve’. It is no longer acceptable, if it ever was, to regard journalists and other toilers in the seams of non-fiction as ‘day labourers who dig up slags of raw information for writers of higher “sensibility” to make better use of’ (Wolfe again). There is a disclaimer in Outerbridge Reach which says that ‘an episode in the book was suggested by an incident that actually occurred during a circumnavigation race in the mid-Sixties. This novel is not a reflection on that incident.’ The text includes references to Sir Francis Chichester (who called Donald Crow-hurst’s doomed voyage ‘the sea drama of the century’), Sir Alec Rose, Joshua Slocum, Vito Dumas and other famous sailors: but the name ‘Crowhurst’ is never mentioned. As the only British writer represented in The New Journalism (with a 1966 Sunday Times piece from Vietnam), Nicholas Tomalin would have been no stranger to Tom Wolfe’s view that it was possible for the writer of non-fiction to get completely inside the ‘subjective reality’ of the person or event he was reporting; the aim was to take the reader ‘inside the points of view or central nervous systems’ of the characters, to penetrate their ‘mental atmosphere’.

In The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, Tomalin and Hall recognise that ‘there is a temptation to ... re-create imaginatively thoughts and attitudes of protagonists that can never be known with absolute certainty (how can one tell precisely what was in the mind of a sailor alone at sea?).’ Crowhurst is a book of considerable literary ambition, but its authors restrict themselves to a diet of verifiable information. ‘If, despite this rigorous approach,’ they add, ‘the book should have some of the flavour of a novel, it is simply because the actual sequence of events had the shape and inevitability of fictional tragedy.’

Like Donald Crowhurst, Owen Browne is a flake beset by money worries; like Crowhurst, Browne is under-equipped and under-prepared for his solo circumnavigation of the world; like Crowhurst’s boat, Teignmouth Electron, Browne’s boat, Nona, starts falling apart the first time it is nudged by anything bigger than a ripple; like Crowhurst, Browne starts giving false positions to the organisers of the race and keeping a false log; like Crowhurst, he deliberately closes down all communication with the outside world and starts dawdling in the South Atlantic; like Crowhurst, he suffers an extended period of delusional torment before turning himself over to the sharks.

Numerous small incidents from the Tomalin/Hall book which throw light on Crowhurst’s and his wife’s characters are discernible in Outerbridge Reach. Crowhurst accidentally falls overboard in the course of his boat’s maiden voyage, and so does Owen Browne. ‘For 12 hours he sat at ... his chart table with his bucket beside him, retching every few minutes,’ write Tomalin/Hall. ‘Every few minutes he had to turn away from work to retch over a bucket,’ writes Stone. Clare Crowhurst ‘borrowed a carrier bag from the Royal Hotel and filled it with a hotel meal ... She also included a long, personal letter. She took the carrier bag and carefully placed it on Donald’s bunk’ (Tomalin/Hall). ‘I will give him a letter,’ Anne Browne ‘thought, to read at sea’ (Stone). ‘ “If you give up now,” Clare said, “will you be unhappy for the rest of your life?” Donald did not answer but started to cry. He wept until morning. During that last night he had less than five minutes’ sleep’ (Tomalin/Hall). ‘Lying in the dark he wanted more than anything not to go, wanted it with an intensity that made him feel like weeping. His heart raced. Anne stirred beside him and he was tempted, in his black panic, to awaken her. Then he realised she was awake’ (Stone). One idea was ‘that Donald and Clare Crowhurst should visit a waterside chapel for a few moments of silent, photographed prayer just before the departure. Donald, without Clare, was finally lured to the chapel. Hallworth still has pictures of him there, refusing to pray’ (Tomalin/Hall). ‘According to Duffy’s plan, Browne would spend his last minutes ashore in prayerful meditation in the chapel at the Seamen’s Welfare Association farther down South Street. “But it’s bullshit,” Browne said amiably. “Because I don’t happen to be a church-going fella.” “That’s true, Owen,” Duffy said quickly. “It’s bullshit but that’s no reflection on you” ’ (Stone).

Even the secondary plot of Stone’s novel has precedents in the Bell and Howell 16mm camera and Uher tape-recorder which the BBC gave to Crowhurst to use on his trip. Strickland, a media glibber with avant-garde aspirations, has been hired to make a film of the Owen Browne saga for showing on television. Strickland’s relations with Mrs Browne, and with another former ‘project’, a spaced-out prostitute called Pamela, seem to have been devised by Stone as a way of rehearsing some of his characteristic stylistic riffs. But the writing in these sections remains as becalmed as in most of the rest of the book.