- Bay of Souls by Robert Stone
Picador, 250 pp, £16.99, February 2004, ISBN 0 330 41894 7
Robert Stone was born in August 1937, nine months after Don DeLillo and three – we’re told – after Thomas Pynchon. Dog Soldiers, his second novel, made his name in the mid-1970s, and since then he has stubbornly held his ground on the upper slopes of American literary life. Fellowships, prizes, grants and commissions have rarely been in short supply, and his later books – from A Flag for Sunrise to Damascus Gate – have been much admired. Unlike his more famous contemporaries, however, Stone has never achieved the high renown conferred by the combination of academic enshrinement and great visibility (or, in Pynchon’s case, invisibility). Nor is his work so well known outside the US. Despite some tremendous blurb-work from his reviewers (‘Mr Stone kicks the brain around; we live in heresy; Satan prevails’ – New York Times), he has remained a cultish figure: a bearded professor trailed by whispers of drugs, booze, Vietnam.
And Stone has impressive countercultural credentials. He was friends with Ken Kesey and served as a Merry Prankster, earning a walk-on part in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (‘Stone, still hypersensitive, seeing the FBI and Federales behind every cocoa palm – or else scorpions’). He also did some reporting in Vietnam. But although he has conceded that his interest in religion was reawakened by his experiences with LSD, it would be a mistake to write him off as an ageing ‘head’. His writing is corrosively sardonic about the myths of the 1960s, and his style – if not his material – is almost ostentatiously square: he is impatient with ‘the feyness . . . associated with Writer’s Liberation, the we’re-all-too-smart-for-storybooks number that has become so tiresome’. Dry third-person realism is Stone’s preferred technique, and the clarity of his narratives stands in pointed contrast to the bewilderment of their woozy leading men.
His best-known novels examine political and spiritual corruptions emanating from far-flung outposts of the American ‘imperium’. In Dog Soldiers the Vietnam War comes home in the form of a three-kilo consignment of Vietnamese heroin, which brings sorrow and death to the ex-peacenik types transporting it: ‘So much for the lover, the samurai, the Zen walker’, and so much for the commune, long reduced to a drug-addled cult. A Flag for Sunrise and Damascus Gate propel various Americans – tepid liberals, religious idealists, strung-out psychopaths – into violent collision during, respectively, revolution in a US-sponsored Central American dictatorship and the intifada of the early 1990s. Stone’s efforts in these two novels ‘to carry water on both shoulders’ politically can result in some rather mechanical point-counterpoint business. But there’s constant attention to nuance and ambiguity, designed to ambush the reader into ‘moral surprise’, and an impressively relentless pessimism.
It would be easy to accuse Stone’s novels of excessive butchness, not helped by their frequently thriller-like plots. The chargesheet could be extended to include queasy existentialism, hard-to-define politics, and a tendency for characters to run amok with AK47s. But he’s not Oliver Stone: he has it in for Oliver Stone. Nor – despite his beard, his tan, his Key West holiday home – is he Hemingway Reloaded. He has written literary novels about things that many literary writers have long since auctioned off to journalism. And he has done so without recourse to easy solutions. In Robert Stone’s 1970s imperial outposts, the characters aren’t allowed to act as he described Oliver Stone’s: rarely do ‘the hippies get to tell off flaky "establishment” journalists and too-handsome US military-industrial zombies,’ to everyone’s satisfaction.