Robert Stone Essay - Critical Essays

Robert Stone American Literature Analysis

Stone, called “a beat-generation Carlyle” by Thomas Sutcliffe and “the strongest novelist of the post-Vietnam era” by Walter Clemons, writes as an American romantic, intrigued by the exotic and the faraway, by worlds that promise wealth or adventure but that prove sadly disappointing. In these alien locales, he discovers home truths as his characters obsessively pursue the American Dream in New Orleans, Vietnam, Southern California, Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and even Jerusalem. When they fail to accept responsibility and act unwisely, their wealth or dreams of success turn to ashes, and their personal lives disintegrate. In the face of the unknown, their nightmares overwhelm them. Dieter, in Dog Soldiers, claims to have “succumbed to the American dream,” which he defines as “innocence” and “energy,” and describes his friend Ray Hicks as “trapped in a samurai fantasy—an American one” of “the Lone Ranger” or “the great desperado” who “has to win all the epic battles singlehanded.” Later Dieter claims that his mountain retreat is “[t]he last crumbling fortress of the spirit” as the world breaks down into “degeneracy and murder”: “We’re in the dark ages.” His final line sums up part of the message in all Stone’s novels—the moral vacuum in which Americans exist individually and collectively—a message Stone interprets as “an act of affirmation” amid looming catastrophe.

Stone’s strength as a writer has been his ability to render true the obsessions of the baby-boom generation and the tragedy of their excesses. He has been brilliant at capturing generational Zeitgeist, the spirit of each benchmark decade. In the 1960’s A Hall of Mirrors took a sharp, satirical look at romantic pessimism in the face of racial prejudice and right-wing extremism. In the 1970’s he captured the naïve cynicism of failed upper-middle-class idealists and their involvement in romanticized drug-dealing and gunrunning plots—during the war in Vietnam in Dog Soldiers and during a would-be Latin American revolution in A Flag for Sunrise.

Children of Light depicts the selling out in the 1980’s of the dreams of the 1960’s as potential artists, novelists, and actors have lost their vision and yielded to crass commercialism. Outerbridge Reach captures the corporate lies and betrayals of the 1990’s: a corner-cutting promoter faking a heroic exploit and unable to face the consequences. Bay of Souls, whose middle-American protagonist finds himself in Haiti, his mistress a Voodoo cultist with a Colombian drug connection, depicts Americans losing their souls in their obsessions with exotic Third World ways—becoming opportunistic, and driven to sleep with the devil and profit from the experience. Damascus Gate ushers in the new millennium with all the craziness, fears, and expectations associated with significant endings and beginnings.

Thought-provoking and emotionally engaging, Stone’s works relate the individual to the trends of his or her time and raise questions about responsibility and choice. He engages in teasing pronouncements—for example, calling truth “a trick of the mind” that confounds logic in Outerbridge Reach, dismissing the idea of God working through history as a “delusion of the Western mind” in A Flag for Sunrise, and creating absurdist images like that of a blind shortwave fanatic tapping away in Morse code to unknown listeners perhaps thousands of miles away, promoting an odd assortment of goods.

His self-destructive characters pay the price of national and personal ignorance and irresponsibility. A Flag for Sunrise ends with the idea that “[a] man has nothing to fear . . . who understands history,” yet Stone’s characters continually fail to understand history in any of its contexts. Converse, in Dog Soldiers, says, “I don’t know what that guy did or why he did it. I don’t know what I’m doing or why I do it or what it’s like. Nobody knows. . . . That’s the principle we were defending over there [Vietnam]. That’s why we fought the war.” Converse’s personal blindness about motive and reason as representative of America’s blindness is quintessential Stone.

Stone’s novels define the romantic illusions of the trendsetters of the 1970’s and 1980’s. His characters attempt to toy with outlaws, but in a bourgeois setting; the mafiosi, the drug dealers, the gunrunners, and the revolutionaries often prove too violent and unpredictable to be tamed. Echoing an ironic 1968 French student poster, Stone suggests, “We are all undesirables,” afloat morally and emotionally. His characters are cynical drifters in some way at odds with the law or the government; they are “students of the passing parade” (Dog Soldiers). His priests have lost their vocations and have turned to whiskey and a wishful humanism to compensate; his nuns seek a political commitment and martyrdom that will help them overcome the boredom and their doubts about their calling; his professors muse on universal meaning but have difficulty coming to terms with simple daily decisions of right and wrong. A middle-aged professor, angry at his wife for coddling their son and cold from long fruitless hours sitting in a treetop, sees in the crosshairs of his gun an equally frustrated fellow hunter cursing loudly the dead doe that repeatedly tumbles from his wheelbarrow as he struggles to haul it home and, for a moment, considers the unthinkable. Israeli soldiers threaten a Palestinian youth trapped in a cul-de-sac, and Gaza refugees stone and chop up a stranger—surely a Jew—in a spinach field.

His characters shift with the prevailing winds; caught up in movements beyond their understanding, they continually betray one another without guilt and without self-knowledge. They are rootless wanderers of mind and world—sometimes violent, often at the end of their tethers. William Shakespeare’s line could well be said of each of them: “He hath ever but slenderly known himself.” Michael Ahearn, having tasted the wild flavors of the Caribbean and lost his soul, returns home to hardscrabble fields of dead corn, glacial rock, derelict barns, and a “mackerel” sky, spooked by the “unimaginable.”

Many of Stone’s characters are burnt-out figures, at one time extremely competent but now pulled down in an inevitable spiral by irresponsible incompetents. There is a sense of a cultural breakdown, of misplaced dreams, of the despair that comes from losing hope. Often Stone sets up a dangerous fool, and someone gets killed or hurt as a result. His characters contemplate or commit suicide: Geraldine Crosby in A Hall of Mirrors, Marge in Dog Soldiers, Holliwell and Naftili in A Flag for Sunrise, the neurotic actress Lee Verger in Children of Light, Owen Browne in Outerbridge Reach, and the AIDS-weakened brother in Bay of Souls. In “Bear and His Daughter,” the illegitimate daughter of a well-known poet kills her father and herself when he can neither remember a poem she thinks he wrote for her nor respond to her crank-driven need for physical confirmation of affection. Stone’s characters ask one another what they are worth and find the answer depressing: “A little cinder in the wind, Pablo—that’s what you are.” Like Holliwell, they hover “insect-like” on the edges of societies they can never truly penetrate, like strangers from some other planet.

Often there is a truth-telling speech; therein the main character tells his audience what he really thinks, but either no one hears or they hear only what they want to hear. In A Flag for Sunrise, the drunken and insulting Holliwell attacks Uncle Sam and exported American popular culture as a moneymaking conspiracy to pander to the ignorant and the vulgar abroad; he warns Latin Americans that in the end “Mickey Mouse will see you dead.” A further insult is his suggestion that American popular culture is no worse and is in some ways better than what was originally there. In A Hall of Mirrors, Rheinhardt, in an ironic parody of reactionary prose, claims that a napalm bomb dropped in Vietnam is a “bomb with a heart,” the heart of “a fat old lady on her way to . . . the world’s fair,” innocent and motherly and pursued by a fiendish black with rape in his heart. His words are like an outrageous jazz riff played upon American fears and obsessions. His audience, however, hears nothing of his maunderings as it goes about its riot.

Influenced by Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness (1899) he references at the beginning of Dog Soldiers, Stone notes through Hicks that “The desires of the heart . . . are as crooked as a corkscrew.” Stone is interested in the grammar of dominance, power plays, accommodation, and victimization. His imagery repeatedly connects humans to fish and a bleak bottom-of-the-ocean competition—the food chain as metaphor. He captures a sense of cosmic menace—the unseen terror of the deep—in nihilism and conflict: race wars in A Hall of Mirrors; the Vietnam War and drug wars in Dog Soldiers; crazed killers and guerrilla warfare in A Flag for Sunrise; war against inner demons in Children of Light; personal disintegration in Outerbridge Reach; drug lords, AIDS, and military juntas in Bay of Souls; nihilistic apocalyptic fervor in Damascus Gate.

Stone’s style is expressionistic and often surreal, yet his fiction is also firmly rooted in a solid sense of place. The third-person point of view often reflects the febrile imaginings of one of the central characters, with a resulting exaggeration of mood through intense emotion. Holliwell, for example, skin-dives down the sheer wall of an offshore reef, and his sensitivity toward what may or may not be a killer shark or other undersea creature (or perhaps even the watery grave of a murdered woman) transforms a casual outing into a symbol of psychological and philosophical evil, the “lower depths” where “sharks” await the adventurous. In Damascus Gate, the River Jordan, electrified with sunset colors, seems to reverse its course and surge uphill, a shared drug-induced hallucination of religious hysteria. These fine scenes are typical of Stone’s method. Stone says of his art in Modern Fiction Studies, “fiction refines reality and refracts it into something like a dream [serving] to mythologize . . . in a positive way a series of facts which of themselves have no particular meaning.”

Yet Stone’s settings are also drawn with a sharp realism. New Orleans, Saigon, Southern California, Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Jerusalem are all recognizably real places, locations one can visit and identify. It is perhaps this contradictory nature of Stone’s style that has attracted filmmakers to his novels and yet has marred the two books transmuted to the screen, A Hall of Mirrors and Dog Soldiers. Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Anthony Perkins could not save WUSA, the film version of A Hall of Mirrors, from critical and popular disdain, and even Rheinhardt’s wonderful drunken speech scene is tame and flat. Similarly, Nick Nolte, Michael Murphy, and Tuesday Weld could not rescue Who’ll Stop the Rain? from being a provocative failure. The considerable strengths of both films lie in the “exteriors” they share with their respective novels—the images of New Orleans’s French Quarter, lakefront, and municipal auditorium in the first book and of Dieter’s mountain retreat in the second. Memorable vignettes capture emotional intensity: an Israeli smuggler stoned to death in a Muslim village, a drunken hunter at odds with his wife setting his sights on a self-righteous neighbor, a grieving mother seeing in bundles of aborted fetuses smuggled out of a local hospital (for last rites) her own dead children frozen in the thin ice through which they fell while skating.

The film lacks the gripping force of character created by Stone’s prose, the sense of solidarity and identification he induces between reader and diverse, often fairly unattractive characters. Melodrama traditionally asks its audience to connect with heroic figures so perfect that the audience would like to become them; it is no mean trick to bring one into the skin and psyche of the Rheinhardts, Hickses, Holliwells, and Walkers. One guesses that Stone’s novels will never make great films, as they rely so heavily on the writer’s skill with prose. If Stone is right in “The Reason for Stories” that the purpose of fiction is to “expand human self-knowledge” and decrease “each individual’s loneliness and isolation,” then he is indeed teaching a sympathy for the “losers” of the world, the self-damned and marginal people normally ignored by mainstream fiction.

At the sentence level, Stone’s prose reflects the same mixture of expressive emotion and realistic description delineated above. Stone has a journalist’s eye for detail and for short, intense dramatic scenes, a poet’s ear for dialogue, and an English teacher’s sense of the subtle nuances of language and the importance of a complex interplay of images and scenes that gain weight and meaning from their interlocking patterns. To these he adds imaginative drive and a vision of the “convolutions and ironies of events.”

A Hall of Mirrors

First published: 1967

Type of work: Novel

Three down-and-out characters, suffering and self-destructive, face the racism and fanatical right-wing extremism poisoning American society in the 1960’s.

Winner of the William Faulkner Award for best first novel and filmed as WUSA in 1970, A Hall of Mirrors, as Stone says, takes the United States as its subject and has built into it “all . . . [Stone’s] quarrels with America,” but most particularly right-wing “exploitation of the electronic media.” Some have called it a story of the dark night of the American soul, or more particularly a distillation of the disparate elements that made up the 1960’s. Its title comes from Robert Lowell’s poem “Children of Light,” in which the puritan children of light become the corrupted, evil children of night, “the Serpent’s seeds,” and the whole world is inverted into a hideous hall of mirrors where “candles glitter,” a reflected image of “might-have-beens.” Thus, the children of the night in this novel, three rootless drifters seduced by illusions, must face a perverted potential, distorted and tainted. One of them, Rheinhardt, even turns the reference into a play on vampires and a bloodsucking world where all is not as it seems.

Once a brilliant classical clarinetist, now a failure and an alcoholic, Rheinhardt is down-and-out in New Orleans and happy to espouse any cause in order to be taken on as the rock disc jockey of a right-wing radio station, WUSA, whose motto, “The Truth Shall Make You Free,” is perverted by the reality of its racist message. Rheinhardt’s refrain is “I am not dead . . . I am—but hurt. Defend me friends, I am but hurt.” Stone calls him his “scapegoat” and “alter ego.” The second child of the night is a lonely, abused, and scarred country girl from West Virginia. Geraldine, who seeks love but finds only bitter alienation (“they’re about to lay me low” becomes her refrain and later, to Rheinhardt, “you done undermined me, love”). She is ignorant and down-and-out, but decent, and her affair with Rheinhardt only brings her more pain and disillusionment. The third child of the...

(The entire section is 6452 words.)