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…

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