Robert Stone Essay - Stone, Robert (Vol. 5)

Stone, Robert (Vol. 5)

Stone, Robert 1937?–

Stone, an American novelist and short story writer associated with the San Francisco counterculture of the Sixties, wrote the prize-winning novel Dog Soldiers.

During the waning days of U.S. involvement in Viet Nam, a journalist named John Converse takes up with a bored American expatriate woman in Saigon. She invites him to buy an interest in three kilograms of pure heroin. Once this deadly package is safely Stateside and distributed to her friends, Converse will earn $40,000. He agrees, persuades an acquaintance, Ray Hicks, to smuggle the heroin to California. There, Converse's wife Marge will take possession and pay Hicks off.

The stark evil in this plan quickly flowers into nightmare….

Dog Soldiers is more than a white-knuckled plot; it is a harrowing allegory. The novice smugglers evade a sense of their own villainy through sophistry or indifference. Converse rationalizes that in a world capable of producing the horrors of war, "people are just naturally going to want to get high." Hicks concentrates on the exploit's challenge and itches to hurl his own aggressiveness into the void he imagines around him. Marge, already hooked on pills, accepts the heroin's arrival as fated for her.

Such equivocations blind them to the truth of their situation, which is also the novel's truth. The heroin is as shackling a possession as the bag of gold in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. Indeed, it is worse. Chaucer's three thieves at least thought that the gold was benign. Their catastrophe stemmed from disregarding Christian doctrine: radix malorum est cupiditas (greed is the root of all evil). Without a moral compass, Stone's characters cannot even plead ignorance. The irony that the heroin's value is rooted in its destructiveness does not escape them, but they cannot drop it. Its force has irradiated their world. They know of no good that will shelter them….

This elemental tale is played out against a backdrop of the here and now. Heroin brings the Viet Nam War home to a sunny California filled with burnt-out cases from the '60s: deracinated hippies, faded gurus, old people driven mad by the gap between promise and truth. This Western strip of civilization has become a collection of competing manias, and its traces—rooming houses, motels, highways—are perched on the edge of primitive wilderness. Driving out of Los Angeles, Hicks comments on the quick change of scenery: "Go out for a Sunday spin, you're a short hair from the dawn of creation."

Novelist Stone's language is spare, constantly earning maximum effects with all but invisible efforts. A military career is summed up as years "of shining shoes and saluting automobiles." Much of the novel is dialogue, simultaneously as laconic and menacing as a scene by Harold Pinter.

Brooklyn-born Robert Stone … spent time in New Orleans and San Francisco during the early '60s as an "active participant" in the counterculture. Some of these experiences spilled out in A Hall of Mirrors (1967), a surrealistic vision of a New Orleans rife with political paranoia. This second novel confirms the talent betrayed in A Hall of Mirrors and reveals added discipline. The book has its flaws, of course. It occasionally luxuriates in baroque bleakness for its own sake. For example, Converse's addled mother is gratuitously trotted on like a lab specimen. The characters' motives, seen through moments of fragmentary introspection, are not always adequate. Still, most of Dog Soldiers is as precise as the cross hairs on a rifle sight. With fearful accuracy it describes a journey to hell and pronounces an epitaph on a time that has not ended.

Paul Gray, "Flowers of Evil," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), November 11, 1974, p. 111.

Part melodrama, part morality play, "Dog Soldiers" offers a vision of a predatory, insensate society from which all moral authority has fled. It is a world in which innocence or vestigial remnants of decent behavior prove fatal to their owners: Hicks, whom the author sees as a kind of latter-day samurai, is nearly violent enough to survive, but he is done in by his loyalty to Marge. All of this corruption and vulnerability, this savagery and stoned withdrawal, this combination of passion and cynicism works convincingly, for Stone is a very good storyteller indeed. (pp. 111-12)

Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1974.

If one were forced to choose the most important novel of the year, [Dog Soldiers] would be it: on the surface a gripping chase across Southern California involving three kilograms of heroin; deeper than that a stunning immorality tale about war and dope and violence. Don't expect to be elevated; this is not a cheering book and there are no very good guys in it. As one of the characters observes, "The desires of the heart are as crooked as a corkscrew." Robert Stone writes like a Graham Greene whose God is utterly dead, and he favors the same sort of setting, the same juxtaposition of the exotic and the banal. (p. 1)

Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), December 8, 1974.

Robert Stone's first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, was a baggy, zany affair, filled with goodies like "a California of the mind." Dog Soldiers is anything but zany; it is tight and, although exciting, grim. Whereas the texture of A Hall of Mirrors was hallucinogenic like its characters' grass, Dog Soldiers owes its insistent rhythm to heroin addiction and a kind of accelerated greed which are the book's subjects….

Dog Soldiers raises several old-fashioned questions about the nature of fiction…. All the characters' lives are sordid, violent and grim, relieved only (if at all) by unpleasant cynicism…. None of them is interesting except as a new subspecies, the counterculture turned ratty and sour. They deserve their own misery; they are addicted to it.

Perhaps Stone wants to make some sweeping indictment of America. Perhaps he is a moralist of the Vietnam war…. The implication is, of course, that … the American addiction [is] to violence, the embrace of weaponry, produced the Vietnam war, dope addiction, smuggling, and police brutality and corruption. It's an easy message—even if it may be true.

The trouble is, the characters in the novel all deserve what they get. The children blown out of sleep to death are merely a formal gesture, a nod toward what we all viewed for years on TV with dinner. None of the victims is made real…. Unlike the Vietnamese children these people could choose better lives. If there are moral objections to the war or to American life the book fails to make them. Where everyone deals, no one suffers. It's hard to care very much…. Greed and fear do not make a man.

But they do make a plot. Despite my profound moral disgust at this novel, my utter inability to sympathize with the characters, and my suspicion that my good liberal notion that the Vietnam war is as American as apple pie is cheaply manipulated, I have to admit I read the book straight through, addictively flipping the pages. Like James Dickey's Deliverance, to which similar objections might be made, this novel relies brilliantly on suspense: Will they make it? Who will kill whom? For the moment, at least while you read, these questions are paramount; they take precedence over What does it mean? and Is it art? Here, then, is the second issue Dog Soldiers raises. How important is plot, that excited concatenation of events, in the final assessment of a novel? What does it mean to be contemptuous of the characters and skeptical of a book's morality and yet to enjoy the reading.

Because these questions are unanswerable, Dog Soldiers compels a grudging admiration. It may even be that the reader's addiction to the plot is a counterpart as real as sympathy to the character's violence, greed, and fear. Suspense is the reader's scag. (pp. 29-30)

Joan Joffe Hall, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 4 & 11, 1975.

Robert Stone's second novel [Dog Soldiers] is … really good, reminded me frequently of Hemingway (the epigraph from Heart of Darkness extends the line further back) and has thus far met with universal praise. Good as the book is, it may be that its subject matter—Vietnam and drugs, the Great Confusion and various momentary stays against confusion—is partly responsible for the acclaim….

[The] story is as elaborately twisty, as challenging to try and follow along without leaving something out, as a Raymond Chandler thriller, say The Big Sleep; the dialogue is ever-present, arresting and often very funny indeed—Lenny Bruce funny, that is…. No friendly author-narrator, winking at the reader, stands behind these assorted losers, these junkies, creeps and U.S. riff-raff circa 1970. (p. 159)

Stone sees all his characters as funny little fuckers—dog soldiers who soldier on but just may be inclined, things being what they are, to speed up the trip towards death. As with the earlier Hall of Mirrors, it is a claustrophobic world; barely a moment of impulse allowed in the direction of a better life; no figure from his ill-assorted gallery likely to take time out to read, oh, say Wordsworth or Dickens, or make up a large corned beef sandwich on rye and watch the late show. Everybody is tainted, even the old people round the television in a cheap hotel … have "reptile faces." If it weren't for the razor's edge of comic brilliance, the rich lore about other modes of behavior (I speak as an East Coast Straight), the flick and spring of exchange—hardly conversation—this would be a dreary and deathly book. But no, the novel is the book of life said the dying Lawrence as through gritted teeth he saluted Hemingway and Huxley and would have The Day of the Locust. Reading Robert Stone's book you know more about how life was never worse than in 1974 and how art is still art, doing ruthlessly and strangely what it does. (p. 160)

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1975.

Dog Soldiers is a truly grim book, relentless in a way that makes other books claiming to look at the dark side of American life seem at least slightly deflecting or palliative in their final effect. Robert Stone's publishers say he offers a "vision of our predicament," but if that were true one could turn aside, call it just a vision and Stone a grouse, and that's not the way it works. Dog Soldiers does not expose, or show, or put on a performance for readers. It is an absorbed realistic novel, telling a story, always working to get it told right, much closer to Theodore Weesner's The Car Thief in this respect than to Something Happened or Gravity's Rainbow, which are "visions" of life that a reader can finally take or leave. As a result, one presumes, these books can be popular in a way that Dog Soldiers, homely and serious as wood, beautiful only in its integrity, will probably never be….

Stone seems to have realized, here more than in his first novel A Hall of Mirrors, that he wanted to see the lives of his main characters as having shapes for all that they seem to have none, and to use plot as his major means of articulating those shapes….

It's not daily life in the usual sense we are considering, because these lives have no habits or direction; still, it is only the moment-to-moment experience in which Stone is interested. Even people who have no characters have lives. Stone cannot love his characters, or urge us in any way to admire them, because they are not lovable or admirable. But they count, he keeps insisting, which is why the book is so grim. How much easier it would be to think they don't matter….

Stone, as I see it, is a nineteenth-century moralist, as eager as Carlyle or George Eliot to make the precise assessments required to judge the choices made by an individual or a society. John Converse has scurried about creation with casual arrogance, and there is no better judgment to be made. Yet if aimlessness, destruction, and institutional wantonness do not preclude choice and so do not preclude judgment, they make Stone's task far different from that of any writer of a century ago. What if one did see the bombs fall on the Cambodians? How easy then to make judgments, and of anything but oneself. Converse, at that moment, only cries. But … as he remembers the scene, after having chosen to put the world once again murderously at his throat, he neither shrinks nor sentimentally implicates himself in the bombing. He … can only soldier on, a dog, but alive….

Dog Soldiers could have been one of the best American books of his generation. The first half does something with all the myths and clichés about current living that no other novel I know has done: it takes on the grimness of our worst fears about ourselves and gives meaning to the lives it thereby embodies. Such unappetizing characters these are, such figures for satire and horror stories—yet that is not the sense we have of them at all. (p. 9)

The more seriously Stone takes his characters, the more carefully he brings their aimlessness to a decision, the more he eventually either jettisons the aimlessness or falsifies the decisiveness and its importance. I'm not sure how he could better have pondered his materials and his wonderful first half, but the remainder is good writing that seems divorced from a wider purpose than its own existence, and so seems just like writing.

The problem here is an old problem, one that has haunted the realistic novel as it has persisted in these latter days when, though the novel itself is alive and well, the conventions with which the realistic novel began certainly seem dead. The myth had it that the atomization of society destroyed the importance the novel as a form had sought to impart to individual lives. To support the myth, one could point to the way many of the best novels of the past generation have invested importance only in the imagination of the performing novelist; language is set free, the result is comic, visionary, and grotesque by turns. But the realistic novel has persisted, and at its recent best, as in Dog Soldiers, it does so not as a literary vestige but as a way of still seeing and knowing the life that goes on. Converse, Marge, and Hicks are not complex figures, but they are not symbolic figures or mouthpieces either. The first half of Dog Soldiers takes them as they are, and seriously, without once overrating their importance; the second half falls victim to a plot, as so many older realistic novels do, that does not so much realize these characters' lives as finish off an action in which novelist and characters have become enmeshed.

Yet even in its most headlong and least effective pages, Dog Soldiers shows Stone's clear eye for detail and clear-eyed determination to see these lives through to some end without sentimentalizing them. Throughout, thus, his integrity gives us a sense of learning at first hand what most of us have known only as hearsay or freakout. He brings the news, as novelists are supposed to do; he makes one think we have only begun to understand our immediate past. (p. 10)

Roger Sale, "Bringing the News," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), April 3, 1975, pp. 9-10.

In Dog Soldiers, the action moves—along with plenty of heroin—from Saigon to America, bringing the war home. Robert Stone is a very sure writer, and his characters—the journalist (sort of); his wife; and the carrier, a savvy dumbhead—slide into destruction along with their sense of decency. It's not entirely their fault or Robert Stone's. On the other hand the author doesn't openly take on the challenge of why they are destroyed, though perhaps if he did the book would not be in print. Moments of really fine writing peak through the book's early leisure. And when it is tough it is very tough. He does not risk his readership with self-confrontation, but plays with murder and flashes of unpleasant insight into depravity. It should appeal to people who want to mind-mess both with drugs and with those who lose hardest. Stone shows his own kind of heroism here by taking on the exploration of a world that most people don't deal with by choice. (p. 3)

John Bart Gerald, in Bookletter (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the April 28, 1975 issue by special permission), April 28, 1975.