A Feast of Shadows

When I decide what happened, I’ll decide to live with it.

—Robert Stone, A Flag for Sunrise

We are more than halfway through Prime Green before Robert Stone finally explains the title of his lyrical, witty, evasive, protective, unrepentant, and exasperating memoir. The year is 1966. A twenty-nine-year-old Stone, awaiting publication of his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, is only too happy to quit a hack job at a down-and-dirty New York tabloid and debark for Mexico. His old buddy Ken Kesey, the magus-prankster-shaman, is hiding out near Manzanillo from an arrest warrant in a California drug bust, and Esquire wants an article about it.

In this Mexico “poverty, formality, fatalism, and violence seemed to charge even uninhabited landscapes.” Living in an abandoned animal-feed factory on the edge of a jungle with its own volcano, from a mixed bag of dropouts, expats, acidheads, a “puppy pack of golden-haired kiddies racing over black sand toward the breakers,” and Neal Cassady and his parrot Rubiaco, Kesey has managed to makeshift a community part “Stanford fraternity party” and part “under-funded libertine writers’ conference.” Stone concedes that “there was more hemp than Heidegger at the root of our cerebration,” and “many of us had trouble distinguishing between Being and Nothingness by three in the afternoon.” But looking back as hard as he can, he is still inclined to rhapsodize:

What I will never forget is the greening of the day at first light on the shores north of Manzanillo Bay. I imagine that color so vividly that I know, by ontology, that I must have seen it. In the moments after dawn, before the sun had reached the peaks of the sierra, the slopes and valleys of the rain forest would explode in green light, erupting inside a silence that seemed barely to contain it. When the sun’s rays spilled over the ridge, they discovered dozens of silvery waterspouts and dissolved them into smoky rainbows. Then the silence would give way, and the jungle noises rose to blue heaven. Those mornings, day after day, made nonsense of examined life, but they made everyone smile. All of us, stoned or otherwise, caught in the vortex of dawn, would freeze in our tracks and stand to, squinting in the pain of the light, sweating, grinning. We called that light Prime Green; it was primal, primary, primo.

Vortex, ontology, rainbows, jungle noise—those Sixties. You had to have been there, at the fraught conjunction of ideology, pharmacology, and metaphysics; and many of us who were tend to be proprietary, as if the counterculture were our intellectual property and everyone else is a gasbag marrowsucker infringing on our copyright. And yet Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, Huey Newton, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, Susan Sontag, and so many other comrades, consorts, sidekicks, and performing seals of the Sixties are now silent, their bones picked by right-wing carrion birds. Thanks then be to Stone not least for just surviving, like Ishmael …

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