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Desperate Characters

Bear and His Daughter: Stories

by Robert Stone
Houghton Mifflin, 222 pp., $24.00

Of the novelists who came into their own in the eventful, scary Sixties, Robert Stone remains one of the most serious and truthful. At first the violent worlds he described may have seemed marginal and extreme, but time would show how close they were to the American grain. Bear and His Daughter is his first collection of stories, and their dates are not given. The dust jacket says they were written “between 1969 and the present,” and they help us understand better a powerful writer whose career deserves more attention than it has got.

Stone’s novels are much more than close-hand, tough social reportage. He seems from the start to have been devising forms of modern tragedy, books in which the given order of things, natural or divine, is radically contradicted by human willfulness or confusion. Since modern experience lends itself so little to the testing of human greatness of classical and Renaissance tragedy, Stone’s had to be a mixed version, one in which public disturbances comparable to those that undo the mighty in Sophocles, Shakespeare, or Racine enmesh relatively ordinary people. Allowing for such reduction of scale, however, the last three decades have in fact offered some fine material for such an intention.

His first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), explored a New Orleans infested by political and religious extremists of the right and by more appealing but doomed victims of cultural malaise—nomadic boozers and druggers, sexually abused women, decent but clueless do-gooders. The book seemed somewhat uneven, as if the author was unsure whether impassive realism or fantastic satire was called for, but it was clearly promising work. That promise was brilliantly fulfilled in Dog Soldiers (1974), which made Stone’s reputation and won a National Book Award. Here, in a post-Vietnam America conceived as a nightmarish extension of the war in Asia, the more alarming elements of government and law enforcement battled to the death with counterculture criminals in the wastelands of the Southwest for the spoils of heroin trafficking. Such a conjunction was, of course, somewhat more surprising then than now.

The novels that followed treated failures of order and of the self in other troubled places. They had larger casts of characters, their actions were more intricate, and they made more concessions to readers not well acquainted with the undersides of American life. A Flag for Sunrise (1981) may have been too panoramic in conception, but its pictures of a Central America wracked by the contentions of oppressive rulers, reckless rebels, the Church, the CIA, and various home-grown and imported crooks was chilling enough even for someone who hadn’t yet heard much about Sandinistas, contras, and the like.

Where Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise owed something to Conrad and Greene, Children of Light (1986) drew on the “Hollywood novel” as Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, and too many others practiced it. Stone, who favors steamy fictional locales, set the book not in Hollywood itself but in Baja California, where a schizoid movie star and her sometime lover, a script doctor and occasional actor, enact a fatal folie à deux while on location for a movie of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Shifting the geographical and social scenery, in Outerbridge Reach (1992) Stone followed the struggle of an uptight ex-naval officer, turned ship-broker during the Reagan years, to win (or seem to win) a single-handed sailing race around the world, while back in Connecticut his corporate sponsors go under and his wife drifts into drink and adultery with a cynical filmmaker.

The main characters in these books have much in common. Most are well educated and somewhat literary, heavy drinkers or drug users or both, attached uncertainly (if at all) to lovers, friends, or family. Many have had Catholic upbringings, and though their faith is gone, its forms and conditions still trouble their spirits. Those who haven’t dropped out of conventional society, as politicians and TV represent it, go through their lives without enthusiasm or conviction. They have a bad time of it in a world they are rightly frightened by; yet most of them accept or even seek high risks, and before the end they witness, cause, or suffer violent deaths.

They are not, in short, mere victims of history. In Dog Soldiers, Converse, the drug-running journalist, thinks, “I am afraid, therefore I am,” and fear is the moral basis of all these desperate souls. Their world gives them plenty to be afraid of—being cheated or framed or killed, overdosing or running out of dope, betraying those they want to love, just going crazy—but essentially their fear is theological. Their memories and even the names and places all around them are heavy with traces of a Judeo-Christian divinity that has gone away, God only knows where. The final battle in Dog Soldiers (is “Dog” here an impious anagram?) occurs at “El Incarnaçion [sic] del Verbo,” an abandoned Jesuit chapel in the Arizona desert now the home of a hippie mushroom cult. A Flag for Sunrise centers on a Central American mission where the liberation theology espoused by an alcoholic old priest and an idealistic young nun has stirred the wrath of the civil powers and the Vatican. (Sister Justin, named for a famous martyr, is tortured to death by the police.) In Children of Light the actress and the writer approach their dooms at a Mexican “shrine” (now a pigpen) called Monte Carmel, named for the place where Elijah destroyed the false prophets of Baal. Owen Browne, the failed circumnavigator in Outerbridge Reach, drowns himself near the island of Ascension.

These are not merely idle atmospheric details. Stone’s is a world of Faustian struggle. Either there is no God, in which case everything is possible or permitted; or, all contrary indications notwithstanding, there is one, although we may know him only through his punishment of our sins, which Stone’s characters seem almost to commit as bids for his attention. Either way we are ultimately out of luck if our purposes are at all serious. Father Egan, the Canadian whisky-priest in A Flag for Sunrise, invokes Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus when describing homocidal maniacs who think they’re doing God’s will:

What they see is real enough, it’s so overwhelming it must seem like God to them. You can’t look on what they see and not run mad…. They’ve been elected. Priests, because they’ve seen it, poor bastards. That’s what Satan is, Pablo. Satan is the way things are. Remember Mephistopheles, eh? “Why this is hell nor are we out of it.”

And the allusion completes itself at the book’s end, when Holliwell, an anthropologist with CIA connections, having killed the young psychopath to whom Egan misquoted Mephistopheles, himself misquotes Faustus’s despairing final speech—“See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!/One drop of blood will save me”—even while recalling that “in Vietnam he had recited the lines in company to amuse and they became a little sunset superstition, a formula in time of stress, never remotely a prayer.”

In the stories in Bear and His Daughter people are cut off from their capacity to pray, while the habitual vestiges of belief remain. In the slightest (and earliest?) of them, “Aquarius Obscured,” a porpoise in a San Francisco aquarium seems to offer spiritual freedom through “the peace of primordial consciousness” to an unhappy topless dancer who, though high on speed and anxious to find a “resolving presence” in the universe, rejects this one as suspiciously Nazi-like. The tone hovers between whimsicality and con-cern, and remarks like “The scene was crumbling. Strong men were folding like stage flats” suggest that the author was saying farewell to his own involvement in the Sixties with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, for whom instability of tone was also a problem.

The other stories are better, though some sound like sketches for or revisions of scenes in the novels. We hear about drugs and crime among gringo counterculturalists in Mexico (“Porque No Tiene, Porque Le Falta”), the perils of dope smuggling in the Caribbean (“Under the Pitons”), eruptions of violence by an alcoholic social worker (“Helping”) and by a photojournalist who grew up unhappily in a Catholic orphanage (“Absence of Mercy”). The two best stories seem from topical evidence also the most recent, and they show Stone’s talents at their strongest even as they suggest that the short story may not be the ideal vehicle for them.

Miserere” opens quietly, as Mary Urquhart, a librarian in a shabby New Jersey city, reads C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian to some attentive black and Hispanic children. Mary, once a drinker, has found stability in her conversion to Catholicism. She wishes grace to the local homeless and prays for the souls of slain Asian gas station attendants. It emerges that she has been widowed for thirteen years, that she once lived outside Boston with her three children and her husband, like herself a cultivated Southerner, that she is fond of mystical poets like Vaughan, Crashaw, and Blake. More troublingly, she and an asthmatic spinster friend are surreptitiously obtaining aborted fetuses from a medical waste company, so that these may be blessed and decently interred by her priest.

But Father Hooke is getting cold feet. A clerical liberal with pro-choice leanings, he worries that they are violating both conscience and Church teachings. Mary accuses him of caring only about respectability, and as their quarrel heats up—she calls him a “nice little happy homosexual nonentity” and he calls her “a cruel bitch”—her terrible history emerges. One winter’s night some years ago in Massachusetts, while literally skating on thin ice, her husband and children drowned, after clinging together for hours in the water within earshot of people who ignored or misunderstood their cries.

Neither Mary’s memory of the catastrophe nor Stone’s rendering of it flinches from its horror:

She was there when the thing they had been was raised, a blue cluster wrapped in happy seasonal colors, woolly reindeer hats and scarves and mittens, all grasping and limbs intertwined, and it looked, she thought, like a rat king, the tangle of rats trapped together in their own naked tails and flushed from an abandoned hull to float drowned, a raft of solid rat on the swells of the lower Cape Fear River. The dead snarls on their faces, the wild eyes, a paradigm she had once seen as a child she saw again in the model of her family.

There are moments this dreadful in Stone’s novels, but in the larger form they feel more complex. There the shock is in effect cradled, qualified by the threads of plot and association that tie it to other events and moods. But at this point “Miserere” has only four pages to go, and the detail threatens to overwhelm its context. In making us acknowledge how awful life can be, the story almost makes us forget that it is a story; to be artistically valuable, emotions as intense as this may need more breathing room than short forms can spare.

Miserere” however, does more than powerfully shock. Mary is not just a victim of almost inconceivable disaster, she’s also “a sick and crazy woman,” a fanatic quite indifferent to what is merely human—“You were my only friend,” poor Hooke blurts out. She’s also a realist, well aware that the institution she’s found refuge in embraces not just well-meaning softies like Hooke but true monsters like the reactionary Slav Monsignor Danilo, who (for a fee) gladly blesses the fetuses and in whom she recognizes “the reeking model of every Jew-baiting, clerical fascist murderer who ever took orders east of the Danube.”

At the end Mary is left with a vision of God that would ruin most believers:

Finally, she was alone with the ancient Thing before whose will she still stood amazed, whose shadow and line and light they all were: the bad priest and the questionable young man and Camille Innaurato, she herself and the unleavened flesh fouling the floor. Adoring, defiant, in the crack-house flicker of that hideous, consecrated half-darkness, she offered It Its due, by old command.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world,

Have mercy on us.

This should be enough complexity for anyone, but such fierce, stubborn belief may be beyond the capacity of most victims of life; and it seems telling, if perhaps coincidental, that the next words in the book—the title of the next story—are “Absence of Mercy.”

The last and longest story, “Bear and His Daughter,” is another shocker about family disaster. Will Smart is a poet in his sixties, a relic of Movement days who still drinks too much and retains his vast capacity for drugs. But the years wear upon him even so—his sexual powers are intermittent, he has a bad heart, and (worst of all) “the end of the Cold War had undermined his status in the United States, his credentials as a rebel.” He still commands good fees for poetry readings, but the invitations come less often.

After getting kicked out of a Tahoe casino for winning too easily at craps, Smart heads for Idaho to perform at a state college where the students are handsome morons and the faculty “incompetent and corrupt”—“enraged ex-nuns, paroled terrorists of the left and right, senile former state legislators.” He means also to visit his daughter Rowan, a striking love-child he once fathered with a radical terrorist on the lam in Mendocino. Rowan, now thirty-one, has gone to college, written poems herself, and done some graduate work. She’s into magic, the occult, and Native American lore, and she works as a park ranger at something like Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Rowan is bright, tough, flippant; she drinks too much and abuses methedrine, despite the efforts of her Shoshone lover and fellow ranger, John Hears the Sun Come Up, to keep her sober. Both father and child show vestigial traces of natural piety. He is trying to reconstruct the text of a poem he once wrote in Alaska but later lost, about salmon spawning in the Tanana River. He recalls fragments like “Life’s champions/Let them teem and die./To survive and teem and die is glory./ God’s will be done,” though he now thinks it might “be well to take the God part out.” Rowan feels a skeptical veneration for “the Temple,” a small cavern at the monument which she shows to tourists. In its “sacerdotal spookiness” it resembles a place of sacrifice, and she likes to tell the visitors—with made-up embellishments—native legends of the ritual killing of Caddoan maidens by the men of the Bear Clan.

We gradually learn the ominous pertinence of such legends to the story of Rowan and her father, whom she calls “Bear.” The neglected bastard daughter has always tried to compete with his legitimate children for his interest and love; she imitates his writing, his excesses, his contrariness. When he comes to Idaho she entices him into drinking too much wine and taking speed, and a terrible secret emerges. Years before, father and daughter had a brief, drunken sexual encounter, and Rowan, now gone over the top, tries to lure him into repeating it. When he ashamedly refuses, she blows his brains out and then kills herself, in the Temple. John Hears the Sun Come Up is left to find them and the lost poem, which she had secretly preserved, and he, like a Greek chorus or some noble survivor in Shakespeare, stoically concludes that not all is wasted—they and their poems will live on forever “out there in the ghost world.”

Stone has never been an ingratiating writer, solicitous of our comfort and diversion, and in these two harrowing stories, as in the novels, he looks so hard for, and at, truly appalling moments as to risk suspicion that it’s become as much a habit as an artistic necessity. But the suspicion is unworthy. Pity and fear still are necessities of tragedy, and the horrors in Stone’s fiction are, after all, conveyed toughly, inventively, sometimes even wittily. His darkness of disposition doesn’t obscure the fun of hearing the edgy, manic repartee of his desperate inebriates, or the sinister doublespeak of the fallen world they and we live in. At one point a stern woman casino guard “asks” Smart,

Are you not all right, sir? Because if you’re not all right, sir, we’ll have to put you in custody of the police and they can see you get whatever attention you might require, if you feel you require attention. That would just be a matter of your own protection, if you required custody. Do you think you require custody, sir? For your own protection?

Letting “attention,” “protection,” and “custody” mean the same thing seems as hellish as anything Mephistopheles said to Faustus, but while such a voice doesn’t make life any less terrible, it may make reading about it more enlivening.

Miserere” and “Bear and His Daughter” have close imaginative ties, down to their elegiac echoings of Blake’s “To the Evening Star,” one of Mary Urquhart’s favorite poems: “Near Walden Pond, no less, the west wind slept on the lake, eyes glimmered in the silver dusk, a dusk at morning. She had lost all her pretty ones” (“Miserere”), and “Her eyes would, like her father’s, look out from lost blue places. High lakes at certain times of afternoon, the evening sky, the cornflower, the shad violet” (“Bear and His Daughter”). In both stories the tragic situation shrinks to a relatively domestic, familial space; in “Bear” the presiding literary revenant is not Faustus, losing the world and his immortal soul, but Lear, losing his royal lendings and then his only true child. Yet, for most of us, King Lear is far more fearsome than Doctor Faustus, and, in these two wonderful stories about horror as an excess of love, Stone’s tragic sense not only persists but, in its move toward the private and everyday now that public life has grown a little quieter, continues to develop very impressively.

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