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A Feast of Shadows

1.

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: Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve.

More than any other living American writer, Stone embodies what remains in our literature of bullslinging Papa and shipwrecked Ahab, road-warrior Beat and ecstatic hippie, borderlands cowboy and flagellant pilgrim. In his fiction workshop this Geppetto has rigged a dozen wounded, cynical, irony-inflected antiheroes, who then hit the barricades and beaches in thrillers every bit as morally complex as anything by Conrad, Malraux, or Graham Greene. These Bogart types seek God, meaning, manhood, personal honor, social justice, and sublime lucidity. They find, instead, religious fanaticism, political violence, dangerous drugs, excessive weather, and human sacrifice.

A Hall of Mirrors (1967) happened on New Orleans for race riots, voodoo, fascism, and Dante’s Inferno. Dog Soldiers (1974) came back from Vietnam, with heroin, to a belltower shootout, a parade of martyrs carrying their heads in their hands, and the crucifixion of a lamb. A Flag for Sunrise (1981) fraternized in Central America with CIA anthropologists, liberation-theology nuns, Toltec stelae, Gnostic heresies, a Jesus who looked like Che Guevara, and a whisky priest auditioning to be the last “Christian humanist witness in a vicious world.” Children of Light (1986) left Hollywood for Mexico, to track down blacklisted radicals, and stumble upon a seared Christus figure that had originally been a cat, “its fur turned to ash, its face burned away to show the grinning fanged teeth.” Outerbridge Reach (1992) sailed to Antarctica to confront Luther, Calvin, Melville, Darwin, and Parsifal. Damascus Gate (1998) infiltrated Jerusalem during the intifada, to traffic with gun runners, jazz singers, Zionists, junkies, psychiatrists, millenarians, and a manic-depressive Messiah. Bay of Souls (2003) sank off the coast of a Caribbean island much like Haiti, among smugglers, spies, and neo-Nazis, to discover Dambala, the serpent of wisdom, and Baron Samedi, with a wheelbarrow.

Don’t expect Prime Green to connect many dots between the personal experience of the author and the fever dreams of these true believers. The story goes that E.B. White was once asked where his stories came from. Oh, said White, I never look under the hood. Stone, although not truculent about it, seems to feel that if he opened up his hood too much, we’d steal his spark plugs. Mostly, even when he knows better, he wants the Sixties to have been a gentle gloaming, a kind of herbivorous timeout for curiosity and fellowship, romance and grace, during which the itchy boy he used to be, too much on his own, became the bearded autodidact who writes strangely Russian all-or-nothing novels.

See him grow up in SRO hotel rooms paid for by disability checks, the fatherless child of a schizophrenic New York City schoolteacher, herself the daughter of a tugboat captain; flee to slummy Chicago to escape the grasp of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; submit to the tender mercies of the Marist brothers at Archbishop Malloy High School; join the navy at age seventeen; become a petty officer and journalist third class, responsible for the ship’s daily newspaper, exempt from helm watches, listening to jazz, consuming Joyce, letting “sonar read us through the icebergs”—which is where Prime Green first zooms in on him in 1958, in the far south of the Indian Ocean, under a dark sapphire sky, in a roaring polar wind:

It occurred to me at one of those moments that I was happier than I had ever been before—with the penguins, the icebergs, the Beaufort scale, and the celestial nimbus clouds cruising above the wind. And happier, I suspected, than I would ever be again.

He has, of course, only begun to roam—Melbourne, Durban, Beirut, Suez; Brooklyn, the Bowery, Birdland, the Village Vanguard, and the Cedar Tavern; New Orleans, San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Beverly Hills; Paris, London, Stonehenge, and Saigon. But no job he later takes sounds half as majestic as this Indian Ocean penguin watch, certainly not selling encyclopedias door-to-door in the Deep South, or the instant-coffee and liquid-soap assembly lines in New Orleans, or a shirt factory on Mission Street in San Francisco. Nor his “writing” jobs, either—the magazine for naval enlisted men, the scutwork at a New York Daily News whose “ideal imagined reader was a bigoted, tiny-minded, gum-chewing lout,” copywriting for a furniture promotion, and the Enquirer-like tabloids for which he wrote such headlines as “Armless Veteran Beaten for Not Saluting the Flag.”

On the one hand, he doesn’t believe “I ever learned anything at all, stylistically, from my years of newspaper and magazine pieces.” On the other, he’s not complaining:

In the days before the MFA programs spread like Irish monasteries in the Dark Ages, replicating themselves, ordaining and sending forth their novices, aspiring writers often did a measure of hack work, the way farmers inevitably ate a pound or two of dirt every year. A little isn’t fatal; if no one did it we wouldn’t have our celebrated popular culture.

All the while, he was looking for something hard to describe, something that seemed, like God and the horizon, always to recede:

Authenticity, whatever it was, resided somewhere else, somewhere that I was not. I’d know it when I saw it, I had even glimpsed it from afar in my travels, but it seemed to evaporate at my approach. Authenticity was out there beyond the vast fields of the Republic, eluding me, but I believed in it faithfully, a place, a magical coast, a holy mountain where folk of unsullied unself-consciousness labored at genuinely valid occupations and justified the race and the nation, where dwelt the thing itself, the McCoy.

This authentic McCoy turns out not to be a location, but a comradeship and a solidarity. Prime Green adds up to a serial thank-you note to those “who shared what we saw and what we were”—to Janice, first of all, the wife who always found a job to pay the bills. To M.L. “Mack” Rosenthal, the poet and NYU professor who coaxed Stone to apply for a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford. To Stegner, who introduced him to his publisher. To Kesey, at least a surrogate older brother if not a substitute father. To the late Candida Donadio, his agent for decades. And to such friendly passing strangers as Ed Victor, the editor who helped ease his way to Vietnam, Judy Coburn, the writer who showed him the ropes once he got there in 1971, and Paul Newman, whom he forgives for WUSA, the lousy movie Hollywood made out of A Hall of Mirrors. To these and other brethren in the culture wars, he is loyal, tutelary, even maternal:

We learned what we had to, and we did what we could. In some ways the world profited and will continue to profit by what we succeeded in doing. We were the chief victims of our own mistakes. Measuring ourselves against the masters of the present, we regret nothing except our failure to prevail.

2.

Around the rocky canyons overhead, raptors rode the updrafts.

—Robert Stone, Prime Green

Of course, we want more, the dirt and skivvy. How come it took him so long to get from sapphire skies and polar winds in the Indian Ocean to the story of Owen Browne in Outerbridge Reach? Would he agree that Times Square clipjoint carny patter loosened up his prose at least as much as the coffeehouses and the drug culture? Did the enigma of his mother’s madness predispose him to disheveled minds? Had he gone looking for God because he didn’t have a father?

Prime Green won’t tell. The youngster we meet in its pages doesn’t in the least resemble the know-it-alls and nowhere men who show up in the novels—Rheinhardt the spiteful alcoholic newscaster in A Hall of Mirrors; Converse the heroin-smuggling tabloid journalist in Dog Soldiers; Holliwell the angry anthropologist in A Flag for Sunrise; Walker the coke-wasted screenwriter in Children of Light; Strickland the manipulative filmmaker in Outerbridge Reach; Lucas the apostate Christian, wandering Jew, and foreign-corresponding masochist in Damascus Gate; Ahearn the failed father and professor of literature and adultery in Bay of Souls. The youngster is learning his trade:

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