Among the Freaks

Children of Light

by Robert Stone
Knopf, 258 pp., $17.95

Robert Stone
Robert Stone; drawing by David Levine

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…

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