In just four novels in almost twenty years Robert Stone has established a world and style and tone of voice of great originality and authority. It is a world without grace or comfort, bleak, dangerous, and continually threatening:
Keochakian took hold of Walker’s lapel.
“People are watching you,” he said. “Always. Evil people who wish you bad things are watching. You’re not among friends.” He turned away, walked a few steps and spun round. “Trust no one. Except me. I’m different. You can trust me. You believe that?”
“More or less,” Walker said.
Keochakian is one of those who flourish in Stone’s predatory world; he knows the percentages—he is Walker’s agent—and is not encumbered by scruples. The less fortunate and less buoyant go under—the boozers, addicts, crazies, and, occasionally, the saints—victims one and all.
Stone has a Hobbesian view of life—nasty, brutish, and short—but is also fiercely contemporary, and not just because he has a marvelous ear for the ellipses and broken rhythms and casual obscenity of the way people talk now. Stone is contemporary because he takes for granted the nihilism that seems to be a legacy of the Vietnam War, that fracturing of the sensibility which began in the Sixties with the disaffected young and continues, in these more conservative times, out there in the streets with the hustlers and junkies, the random violence and equally random paranoia. He is one of the few writers who are at once culturally sophisticated—full of sly quotes and literary references, strong on moral ambiguities—and streetwise.
Perhaps this is because Stone came to literature from a wholly unliterary direction. His father, a railroad detective, vanished before he was born, and his mother was a schizophrenic, an educated woman who ended up as a bag lady, sleeping in doorways, on fire escapes, around Manhattan with her small child. At the age of five, Stone was committed to St. Ann’s orphanage in New York, where the priests taught him about literature and language (he still reads Latin poetry for pleasure), and the New York streets filled in the rest (he was a prominent member of a West Side gang called the Saxons). He was expelled from school for atheism and finished his education in his spare time while serving in the Navy and merchant marine. This, I assume, is why he is authoritative beyond the range of most other American writers about the psychopaths and sadists who cruise the lower depths. Rinaldo Cantabile, the gangland punk in Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, is a commedia dell’arte figure, stylized and eccentric; but Danskin in Dog Soldiers and Pablo in A Flag for Sunrise are created from the inside, convincing, menacing, and as undeniable as the brutes Stone had to cope with from the moment he entered St. Ann’s orphanage.
Stone seems to have left the Navy in time to catch the Sixties at their craziest. He was, for a spell, one of the merriest of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, but unlike the others, he used what was on offer and turned it into literature. Dope is a powerful force in all his novels, but as an addiction that influences behavior and defines personality, not as a source of illumination. In Stone’s books people trail their habits after them like mangy dogs, and the doors of perception remain resolutely shut. Perhaps because of the stern Catholicism of the orphanage or because his deprived childhood gave him nothing to drop out from, Stone seems never to have been tempted by the ersatz religion of the psychedelic movement, or by its cosy community spirit, least of all by its cult of speechlessness. (In Dog Soldiers, the following conversation takes place between Marge, the junkie heroine, and Dieter, a Kesey-like guru who has given up drugs and been abandoned by his followers: “‘Years ago,’ he said gravely, ‘something very special was happening up here.’ ‘Was it something profound?’ ‘As a matter of fact, it was something profound. But rather difficult to verbalize.’ ‘I knew it would be.”‘)
Stone seems to have regarded drugs and booze as membership dues, a generational hazard, but literature and his hard-earned education were ways of bringing coherence and stability to an otherwise notably incoherent life. He was that most unexpected phenomenon, a serious artist among the freaks, a man in love with language among the deliberately inarticulate. His subject is the wayward violence of people at the ends of their tethers and on the edges of society, but his method is measured, orderly, and instilled with a black, bone-yard wit, as though Joseph Conrad, that other mariner turned novelist, had taken on the world of Elmore Leonard.
The characteristic Stone note is a combination of high culture and street smarts, an elegant formality slightly disproportionate to the seedy situation at hand: “Axelrod was in the process of discovering an unwholesome stain on his sleeve.” Axelrod, in fact, has just been struggling with an unruly, vomiting drunk, but the slow-motion circumlocution—“was in the process of discovering”—and schoolmasterly disapproval—“unwholesome”—set the moment off as though in quotation marks, as though a man of sensibility were describing a scene that defies all sensibility.
Stone uses this mock formal style to keep his distance from heroes who have in common an unswerving instinct for trouble: stoned Rheinhardt, in A Hall of Mirrors, who baits a stadium full of primitive Christian rednecks; Converse, in Dog Soldiers, conned by misplaced bravado into smuggling three kilos of heroin from Vietnam to California; Holliwell, in A Flag for Sunrise, who shambles drunkenly across Central America, trailing guilt, self-pity, and destruction. All of them, in their different ways, are skilled provokers of violence in others, yet all somehow manage not to be dragged under with their betters. They have this tenacity in common, along with an understanding of the precariousness and unjustifiability of their miserable existences:
In the course of being fragmentation-bombed by the South Vietnamese Air Force, Converse experienced several insights; he did not welcome them although they came as no surprise.
One insight was that the ordinary physical world through which one shuffled heedless and half-assed toward nonentity was capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death. Existence was a trap; the testy patience of things as they are might be exhausted at any moment.
Another was that in the single moment when the breathing world had hurled itself screeching and murderous at his throat, he had recognized the absolute correctness of its move. In those seconds, it seemed absurd that he had ever been allowed to go his foolish way, pursuing notions and small joys. He was ashamed of the casual arrogance with which he had presumed to scurry about creation. From the bottom of his heart, he concurred in the moral necessity of his annihilation.
He had lain there—a funny little fucker—a little stingless quiver on the earth. That was all there was of him, all there ever had been….
He was the celebrated living dog, preferred over dead lions.
Each of Stone’s heroes has been more half-assed than his predecessor, each concurs in “the moral necessity of his annihilation,” and each survives.
Gordon Walker, in Children of Light, is the most shuffling of them all. He is an aging actor and screen writer, with a boozer’s face, a bad coke habit, and an incurable itch for trouble. When the book opens he is greeting the shining California morning with vomit and dysentery followed by valium, vodka, and cocaine. All this before breakfast. Walker is more than usually bewildered because his wife of twenty years, in an unprecedented burst of sanity, has left him and his two sons are off somewhere in the East, beyond his reach in every way. He is adrift, a one-man disaster zone looking for a place to settle; dimly, he even knows it:
What we need here is less craziness, he told himself, not more.
Then he thought: A dream is what I need. Fire, motion, risk. It was a delusion of the drug.
For Walker, the dream is Lu Anne Bourgeois, a much-married Louisiana girl and Hollywood actress with whom he had, ten years before, the great love affair of his life. Lu Anne is “his dark angel,” another unbridled spirit, another abuser of alcohol and controlled substances, with a precarious grip on reality and an instinct for self-destruction greater even than his own. But Lu Anne differs from Walker in one vital respect: she is a certified schizophrenic who has done time in straitjackets and padded cells and now lives in a twilight world populated by hallucinations she calls “the Long Friends.” The Long Friends are creatures from the graveyards of her Louisiana childhood. They talk French and bicker among themselves, like maiden aunts, over questions of precedence and family history; they leave on the air an old-fashioned smell “like sweet wine and lavender sachet.” In appearance, however, they resemble the nightmare figures of Bosch and Max Ernst:
The creature was inside her dresser mirror. Its face was concealed beneath black cloth. Only the venous, blue-baby-colored forehead showed and part of the skull, shaven like a long-ago nun’s. Its frail dragonfly wings rested against its sides. They always had bags with them that they kept out of sight, tucked under their wings or beneath the nunnish homespun. The bags were like translucent sacs, filled with old things…. Their faces were childlike and absurd. Sometimes they liked to be caressed and they would chew the tips of her fingers with their soft infant’s teeth.
Stone has always had a talent for creating menace out of the most casual encounters. (His friend Kesey once said of him, “Bob Stone is a professional paranoid. He sees sinister forces behind every Oreo cookie.”) But what is extraordinary about the Long Friends is that he makes them as real to the reader as they are to Lu Anne, and rather less frightening than the brutes who surround her in her working life.
Lu Anne is at Bahia Honda, in Mexico, shooting a movie that Walker had written for her years before. She is managing to keep a fragile hold on herself thanks to pills and her psychiatrist husband, Lionel—a surprisingly sentimentalized figure, by Stone’s standards, with a “strong, lean hand,” and a “dry, bitter laugh.” But even before Walker arrives, she has secretly stopped the pills because they take the edge off her acting, and her husband has walked out, taking their children with him and abandoning Lu Anne to the Hollywood pack.
Their leaders are the Drogues, the young director, his wife, and his famous, ancient father:
A director himself for almost fifty years, Drogue senior had been publicly caned, fired upon by sexual rivals, blacklisted, subpoenaed and biographied in French.
The Drogues are like the Callahans in Flag and Antheil and Charmian in Dog Soldiers—rich, sleek, impregnable, and full of contempt:
Young Drogue displayed open palms. “Hey, Lionel, I never suggest. If I want to say something I just up and say it.”
…He sighed. “I just thought everybody should understand everybody else’s feelings. See, we’re Californians. Compulsive communicators. We’re overconfiding and we’re nosy. Don’t mind us.”
For the Drogues, Walker and Lu Anne are mere irritants, barely worthy of their attention because they have “no survival skills.” Lu Anne’s madness is a risk they are willing, temporarily, to take because ” ‘She has a way of being crazy,’ old Drogue said, ‘that photographs pretty well.’ ”
Stone’s time at sea has left its mark on the way his novels develop. Each of them is a journey, with one character slowly making his way toward his appointment with fate, crosscut with scenes of what is waiting for him at his destination. The best and strongest parts of Children of Light describe Walker’s gradual progress south to Bahia Honda. In a seedy hotel full of seedy, menacing people, he has a sad fling with Shelley, his agent’s assistant, who loves him:
She was a clamorous presence, never at rest. Even quiet, her reverie cast a shadow and her silences had three kinds of irony. She was a workout.
He visits Quinn, an aging stuntman and procurer of drugs, and together they contemplate the cheerless distance between their battered present and their risk-taking youth:
[Quinn] was leaning back in the rocker looking at the sky. Walker turned to follow his gaze and saw two people hang-gliding high above the next ridge. They were beautiful to watch and, Walker thought, incredibly high. They seemed to command the wind that bore them.
“Shit,” Quinn said, “look at that.”
“Does it make you paranoid?” Walker asked.
“Nah,” Quinn said. “Makes me fucking cry, is what. Think that isn’t kicks, man? That’s the way to do your life, Gordo. Look the gray rat in the eye.”
“I think we all do that anyway.”
“We’re little worms,” Quinn said. “We piss and moan.”
Stone has claimed that he always smuggles a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins into each book; this—with its poignant yearning for the beauty of a physical world irretrievably lost—is his late-twentieth-century answer to “The Windhover.”
Walker’s last stop before the movie location is to collect downers from “Er Siriwai, M.D., Ph.D., who, born on the roof of the world and reading, Mulligan-like, at the Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin, arrived in America to…become Physician to the Stars”; also their drug pusher and “something very like a medical hit man.” The doctor has evaded prison by skipping across the border to Mexico where he established a laetrile clinic for the unfortunates he quaintly calls his “customers.” He and Walker are two of a kind; both have sold out to the glamour and easy money of Hollywood. The doctor, who discourses in Indian-Irish of great elegance, passes due judgment on his old pal:
“I had a list once, Gordon—not a written list, of course, but a private mental list—of people I thought were supremely talented. Or good at certain things. Or clever but spurious. Or talented but lost or wasted it. I wasn’t just a sawbones, y’see, indifferent to the artistic aspects of the motion picture. I cared”—he touched his heart—“and I loved, I appreciated the work of the people I met in practice. But in your case, Gordon, though I love you dearly, old son, I can’t for the life of me remember the things you did. Or where on me little list you figured.”
Neither, perhaps, can Walker. And that is the whole point of his journey.
Stone has a marvelous gift for fixing a character in the fewest possible lines. Even the walk-on parts buzz with life and individuality:
The woman before him looked like a great many other women one saw in Los Angeles; she was attractive, youthful a bit beyond her years. She seemed like someone imperfectly recovered from a bad illness.
Yet Children of Light lacks the narrative denseness and control of the earlier books, in which every figure had his own part in the plan and met his own special fate. Each stage of Walker’s journey south is rich in wit and detail, but each is complete in itself, a picaresque incident on the road that gives another angle on Walker’s depression and destructiveness, but otherwise contributes nothing to the scheme of things.
The plot begins to move—and then too quickly—only when Walker arrives at the movie location. Stone has sold his previous books to Hollywood and clearly knows, and loathes, that world. Bahia Honda seethes with malice and vanity, with predators and their prey. The most corrupt and troublesome is Dongan Lowndes, a one-time novelist turned highbrow reporter. To Walker, as a literary man, Loundes is the most vicious of all creatures, “an unhappy writer,” but Lu Anne recognizes him as a foul presence with whom the Long Friends are unusually comfortable. Lowndes’s rancid ill-will, Lu Anne’s madness, and Walker’s cocaine-induced fecklessness combine to create a disaster. There is blackmail and a drunken brawl; the lovers take off; Lu Anne has her big mad scene, then swims out to sea and drowns.
Although the tragedy is inevitable—given Walker’s bad habits and Lu Anne’s vulnerability—the payoff seems oddly hurried and unconvincing. Apart, Walker and Lu Anne are subtle and disturbing figures; together, they lapse into actorly whimsy:
“Life too much for you, brother? Huh? What says the gentleman?”
“The gentleman allows that things are tough all over.”
“Gordon,” she demanded, “are you listening to me?” She took her glasses off and gave him a look of pedagogic disapproval. “Show the courtesy to listen to the person in the same bed as yourself.”
The plot, in its turn, also lapses into theatrical conceit. Before the book opens Walker has been playing King Lear and he is “still up on Lear-ness, chockablock with cheerless dark and deadly mutters, little incantations from the text.” Throughout what follows the mutters and incantations continue and the novel’s climax is an updated, topsy-turvy version of Lear’s mad scene: a storm, a ruined shelter, Lu Anne naked, bleeding, raving, and wallowing, literally, in pig shit, with Walker as the Fool, trying to soothe her and trying to survive.
Perhaps this shrillness and melodrama make sense in view of the drug. Walker snorts coke as often and as heedlessly and with as little apparent effect as the heroes of Hemingway’s later books knocked back whiskey. But in the carefully established, beady-eyed world the lovers have left behind, it seems more like grand guignol than King Lear.
It also seems far more slanted than anything Stone has written before. He has always kept apart from the current fashion that confuses fiction with the art of the self and is suspicious of anyone with a strong gift for narrative. Stone, who has a strong imaginative grip on the contemporary American scene and writes like an angel—a fallen, hard-driving angel—is also a marvelous storyteller. He does not take sides and is as much at one with Pablo, the murderous speed freak, as he is with Holliwell, the liberal intellectual.
In comparison, Children of Light seems self-indulgent. Walker and Lu Anne are the only characters with whom Stone seems to have any sympathy, and gradually Walker, the zonked-out disorderly writer, takes over the whole stage. Early in the book he is continually overwhelmed by irrational attacks of panic; later everything drops away so that this unfocused sense of disaster can be fulfilled. Even Lu Anne, whose madness has been defined with such precision, delicacy, and restraint, becomes a mere crazy—a flailing, horrifying puppet. Her final mad scene is the exact point where the narrative unravels into histrionics, as if Stone had lost patience with the harsh and unsavory world he has so elegantly created and settled for something more stagy but less demanding. It is a solution on which Lu Anne herself has passed judgment, in a sane moment, while pondering one of the more overblown stage directions in Walker’s script:
So much popcorn, she thought. To get the character you had to go down and inside to where your grief was. The place your truest self inhabited was the place you could not bear.
This is the kind of truth Stone is reaching for in Children of Light. But to get at it he has sacrificed the intricate, gallows-humor detachment that has made him, in his previous books, one of the most impressive novelists of his generation.
April 10, 1986