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.
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:
We take an experience, or a character, an event, and so to speak we write a poem about it. The experience, the voices and personalities, pass from primary process to language.
So, too, for politics. There is very little Stone’s novels do not know about radical history—about Haymarket Square, Eugene V. Debs, Big Bill Hayward, Daniel De Leon, and Henry George, not to mention Jay Lovestone and Sidney Hillman (Mirrors). About Irish vegetarians, Hudson River Bolsheviks, and National Guardian folksinging fund-raisers (Soldiers). About Paul Robeson, To the Finland Station, and the “Internationale” (Flags). About progressive camps, interracial singalongs, and the Nicaraguan revolution (Outerbridge). And especially about Sonia, the half-black daughter of American Communists who sings Sufi jazz in hysterical Jerusalem (Damascus).
Yet nothing in Prime Green suggests that any of this knowledge came to him naturally, from some Uncle Wobbly in the attic. Nor would he have picked it up from the clowns he met in passing—surly Jack Kerouac, insouciant Wavy Gravy, and bum-tripper Richard Baba Ram Dass Alpert. Yes he encounters too many Maoists, both in New York, at the tabloid, and in Palo Alto, disguised as lawyers and therapists. And at a leftist art gallery on Madison Avenue, where such names are dropped as Browder, Bukharin, and that “Zionist crypto-Nazi and agent of the mikado,” Leon Trotsky, he twice runs into Alger Hiss. But he insists that “the more interested in politics I became, the further I moved from accepting any kind of transforming ideology as an answer to my fundamental questions.” That “I was never able to advance (if that’s the word) beyond the old boring liberalism of the two-cheers-for-democracy sort.” And that “ordinary decency” is probably the best that most people are capable of, even novelists. Nor does he devote more than a couple of paragraphs to the civil rights and antiwar movements going on all around him. The war itself is barely a rumor until, rather late, he visits it in person.
Likewise his obsession with an absent God. According to Pascal, as Stone has quoted him in Damascus Gate, “The universe is such that it bears witness everywhere to a lost God, in man and outside him, and to a fallen nature.” It is a sentence that could stand as an epigraph for all of the novels, which canvass religion from the Bible and Dante to the Logos and Kabbala, from the Gita and Krishna to the Tao and Zen, from Gnosticism and herpetology to chacmools and rain gods, from the Lay of Igor to the Nibelungenlied. Reading Bay of Souls, you swot up on voudon, santerìa, and candomblé. Damascus Gate is a postgrad course on kundalini yoga and Meister Eckhart, Tantric Buddhism and the Book of the Dead, Saint Teresa of Ávila and Pico della Mirandola; the Holy Ghost, the Sefirot, the Trinity, and Theravada; the Zohar, the Shekhinah, and Matronit under the dread designation of the moon.
Of none of this is there a hint in Prime Green. The closest he gets to religion, organized or otherwise, is a Zen monastery in northern California the day after Americans have walked all over the moon. But this monastery is a rest stop on his hike across the Santa Cruz mountains, not a point of pilgrimage. He won’t even manage to rouse himself at four in the morning to sit zazen. And if there are spirits in the woods around him, they are as malign as the wild boars: “The Freikorps Kalifornia Bruderschaft was watching, the Manson Family.”
Drugs are a different story. Just as junkies throng the pages of his novels, where there are as many substances to abuse as there are characters to abuse them, including heroin, coke, speed, Quaaludes, Dexedrine, and Dilaudid, so the memoir spends quality time with mushrooms, marijuana, LSD, peyote, ecstasy, heroin, and kif. (We will get to nitrous oxide in a minute.) Drugs, he can’t leave alone. He realizes what they’ve cost—from any memory of his first John Coltrane concert, to the many novels Ken Kesey never got around to writing after 1966, to all the children later lost to “pathological predation.” But he also realizes “there were times when drugs seemed to take you down as far and deep as you extended, to the very bottom of things themselves. How deep that really was, who knows?” If we are impatient with parties in which privileged young people dress up as Alexander Nevsky and trash the place, or pretend to hunt lions at midnight on the golf course, or reenact the raising and burning of Viking boats, or bundle their kids like excess baggage on top of Kesey’s psychedelic bus and blithely plow into Central Park, we are still likely to agree with him that the federales everywhere could hardly wait to use chemistry as an excuse to turn the world into a Panopticon, themselves into border guards, and the young into jailbait.
See Stone staring across Benedict Canyon at Cielo Drive in Bel Air. A page later, he will be smoking Jay Sebring’s dope. The raptors riding the updraft look like Mansons.
I resist the idea of ever having been so naïve, but perhaps I thought we would return to find everything as we’d left it, waiting to be reclaimed. Maybe I believed that if you worked it right you could have all the lives you wanted at once, all the loves, all the lights and music.
—Robert Stone, Prime Green
Early on in New Orleans, early on in their marriage, when Janice is pregnant and Stone is panicked, he is offered a job as Chief Temple Guard in a sort of chitlins-circuit Oberammergau traveling production of the Passion Play, called The Cup—“North America’s most reverent and moving commemoration of Our Lord’s sacrifice.” He really wants to do it. That is, he wants to leave his wife, his unborn child, and the copy of The Plumed Serpent that he’s reading in the New Orleans public library, and light out like Huck Finn for the territory and “the last trace of gypsy life on the continent.” “Oh, wow!” he says to himself. “To have the courage to be brutal and to reject convention and compromise.” On the other, disabling hand, Janice—young, beautiful, innocent, and trusting—“looked as though she loved me.” And so, of course, he loves her back, “and that was fate. If I stood up to leave, my legs would fail, my frame wither, my step stumble forever.” Then:
I felt infinitely relieved, happy for a moment as I would hardly ever be. I thought: This rejoicing shows my mediocrity. Just another daddy Dagwood bourgeois jerk. Because if I had been destiny’s man, I thought, I would have walked…. Your great soul, your world historical figure, would have walked. Not Bob. Not your daddy, children. Leave your mother? No.
Funny, maybe. But ideas about manhood, about what academics are probably calling the performance of masculinity, are as much an indispensable ingredient of a Robert Stone novel as ideas about religion, politics, drugs, and violence. (Outside the pages of A Flag for Sunrise, was there ever another anthropologist who stabbed a man to death in an open boat?) It matters that Stone stayed home with his pregnant wife instead of hitting the road as a temple guard, just as it matters that he wasn’t one of the Merry Pranksters on Ken Kesey’s cross-country Electric Kool-Aid Acid bus trip. (He would emerge to greet them on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he had been holed up finishing his first novel.) It also matters that when he finally felt bad enough about Vietnam, he went there, with a pen instead of a sword. It’s as if the behaviors of Stone’s characters, so often deathward, exhaust and repudiate the possibilities and excuses of Rambo manhood—of masculinity according to the testosterone seizures of Hemingway, Mailer, or even Malraux, who told us in Lazarus that modern man is fashioned “on the basis of exemplary stereotypes: saint, chevalier, caballero, gentleman, bolshevik….” Whereas the behavior of Stone the offstage novelist suggests that manhood could also mean homesteading and caretaking. For something completely different, why not Johnny Appleseed, Walt Whitman, or Charles Kuralt? Quaker Oats instead of Spanish bull.
Which brings me to that nitrous oxide. Having decided in 1969 to leave California all over again and go back to England, the Stone family attended a farewell party featuring nitrous oxide in balloons that turned out to be condoms. “Here,” he says, “I steel myself for confession. Few readers will fail to experience outrage at what I now feel bound to disclose.” And he’s right. What he discloses is that the kids were with him. They too flew higher than a kite: “We’d been getting loaded watching small innocent children sucking gas on condoms.”
Not so funny. At least no funnier than it is when Timothy Leary, in Robert Greenfield’s new biography of the Sergeant Pepper and Jim Jones of lysergic acid, passes out tabs of LSD and little pink psilocybin pills to anybody dropping by during a pajama party for his daughter and her eight prepubescent girlfriends who then must fend off horny dope fiends with advanced degrees.* For that matter, from his own report in The Further Inquiry, Kesey wasn’t much better on his famous bus. When one passenger “on the greatest acid high in the history of the world” flipped out and ran naked “into the goat-herds, raving in thorny despair,” they dumped her in a loony bin in Houston and rolled on giggling into the Day-Glo night, playing the mandolin. You expect this kind of behavior from compassionate conservatives; you hope for better from such Pranksters as Stark Naked and the Slime Queen. They had no politics except “fluting to the ants on the spilled shrimp,” nor the common sense God gave a tractor, and when it came to a crunch, they seemed never to have heard of Stone’s “ordinary decency.”
I wonder—and it seems to me that Robert Stone is wondering, too—if too many Sixties icons were too often grandstanding to take responsibility for their own wounded; if an excess of flower-smoking Yippies, bombhead Weatherpeople, and tantrum-throwing cadres drowned out the very idea of Bob Moses in Mississippi in all those seasons of blood. Admittedly, I say this as someone whose younger brother vanished into the limbic wastes while his druggie buddies were so busy munching mushrooms and strumming sitars that they failed to notice or to care. I recall thinking on Election Night 1988, when Hunter Thompson showed up two hours late at the Roxy in Alphabet City, waving a rifle and wearing a rubber Richard Nixon mask, that we were showing off instead of hunkering down, and that wild borks waited for us in the American bush.
There is a shadow on the counterculture and Robert Stone sees it. He is not at all a stranger to the horrific visions prompted by hallucinatory drugs. One night at a Coltrane concert in North Beach, having taken twelve capsules filled with peyote, he sees the “Great Lizard of the Dawn of Time” snaking behind his eyelids, and the music appears to him as “gorgeous silk bands of the brightest richest red.” He runs out of the room, his face a “grinning rictus of terror,” and tries to recover his wits on a bench, whereupon he discovers that his real socks are soaked in real blood. Later, hiding out in Mexico with Kesey and a cavorting band of friends and parrots, he romanticizes the bugle call from a nearby naval base as “the triumphalism of the vanquished, the heroic, engaged in disastrous sacrifice.” Upheaval and desperation in Mexico supply a satisfying stage set for the group’s aggrandizements: “We had ourselves an opera. Or as someone remarked, a Marvel comic. The concept of real life was elusive.”
After Beatles lyrics are scribbled in blood on the wall of the house on Cielo Drive:
It was saturnalia time in Hollywood, a very grim feast of the meaningless. The youngsters disappeared from the boulevard as though the bad father of the feast had eaten them.
Meanwhile, upstairs in northern California:
Things were speeding out of control before we could define them. Those of us who cared most deeply about the changes, those who gave their lives to them, were, I think, the most deceived. While we were playing shadow tag in the San Francisco suburbs, other revolutions were counting their chips…. We had gone to a party in La Honda in 1963 that followed us out the door and into the street and filled the world with funny colors. But the prank was on us.
Finally, looking back with a furious sorrow:
We wanted it all; sometimes we confused self-destructiveness with virtue and talent, obliteration with ecstasy, heedlessness with courage…. We wanted to die well, every single day, to be a cool guy and a good-looking corpse. How absurd, because nothing is free, and we had to learn that at last.
Malraux, before he raptured up into the Ministry of Culture, used to think out loud in his novels about how to die with dignity, in the absence of God, having acted meaningfully on behalf of others. To this recipe, Stone adds a killer spice, demanding to know how much these actions cost, the price the rest of us will pay for confusion, heedlessness, and our thralldom to those lunatics into whose ears the insinuating gods have whispered—for example, in A Flag for Sunrise, the young officer of an airborne group in Vietnam who says to the anthropologist, Holliwell, “If you oppose me, I will win. You will lose.” Holliwell asks himself how such men came to think that “providence” was on their side:
Seeing visions, hearing voices, their eyes awash in their own juice—living on their own and borrowed hallucinations, banners, songs, kiddie art posters, phantom worship. The lines of bayonets, the marching rhythms, incense or torches, chanting, flights of doves—it was hypnosis. And they were the vampires…. Inevitably they grew bored with being contradicted. Inevitably they discovered the fundamental act of communication, they discovered murder.
Reader, I give you the authentic world-historical Christian humanist Dagwood McCoy.
February 15, 2007