Prime Green

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2113

Robert Stone’s memoir of the 1960’s, aptly named Prime Green to suggest the spirit of renewal and revitalization that defined the era for him, is designed as a corrective to the spate of recent volumes that demonize and denigrate the counterculture that Stone has recalled with a clear-eyed and candid...

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Robert Stone’s memoir of the 1960’s, aptly named Prime Green to suggest the spirit of renewal and revitalization that defined the era for him, is designed as a corrective to the spate of recent volumes that demonize and denigrate the counterculture that Stone has recalled with a clear-eyed and candid depiction. Robert Greenfield’s Timothy Leary: An Experimental Life (2006), for instance, is a study that is relatively accurate in terms of the factual information it offers but that misses the idealism and enthusiasm that were the crucial components of a vision of social reality that inspired a significant segment of those Americans born during or just after World War II. Like Stone, who was born in 1937 and raised in New York City by a single mother afflicted with a bipolar disorder, they took part in some of the most dynamic and disturbing events in American history, but the passage of time and the political agendas of some prominent commentators has resulted in a negative distortion of these moments. Stone’s very readable book provides a necessary balance by recalling with what Richard Ford accurately identifies as “unnostalgic compassion and intelligence” what Ford designates “those tumultuous times.”

Stone’s highly acclaimed novels A Hall of Mirrors (1967), Dog Soldiers (1974), which won the National Book Award and was the basis for the film Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), A Flag For Sunrise (1981), and Children of Light (1986) are set in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as are the stories in his short-fiction collection Bear and His Daughter (1997). Stone followed what in retrospect seems like a classic American route toward his vocation. As he outlines in the inviting opening pages of Prime Green, he joined the Navy after graduating from high school, following in the tradition of Ishmael, who established a format for a young man yearning for the kind of experience that he might transform into literature. As Herman Melville’s archetypal questor states, “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” Among many others, Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg all embarked from a New York port, and Stone, already far in advance of most collegiate English majors in his familiarity with classical and contemporary literature, took to sea as both an avoidance of a specific, limiting job and in response to the call of faraway places. In a passage akin to the narrator’s description of his first view of the East in Joseph Conrad’s Youth (1902), Stone writes:In the Strait of Malacca, I saw the thousand little ringed lights of the fishing-pirate junks of the Malay sea people. Picking past their craft we heard their flutes and bells. It was a faraway ocean but was what I’d come for. Passing the Lipari Islands headed for Beirut we passed between Scylla and Charybdis. From the peak of Stromboli great rich salvos of flaming molten rock were tossed in the smoky air. The ocean smelled of the Malvasia grapes that grew on the slope.

Stone’s evocation of his sojourn on the USS Arneb, “an ungainly naval transport ship with the lines of a tramp streamer,” serves the essential function of introducing the narrative consciousness of the memorist, the mind through which the reader will experience the world and the voice that will make it vivid. Stone’s skills as a writer of imaginative fiction are evident here, his descriptive powers engrossing, his sense of character compelling, and his ability to develop a supple but firm narrative structure that carries a kind of wandering expository thread skillfully constructed. As he relates his reactions to an endlessly varied seascape and the rituals of the Navy onboard, the captivating quirks of his personality emerge, as well as some of his core principles.

While the narrative is in the form of an ongoing present, it is apparent that the retrospect of a mature man is operative. When Stone observes that “history’s narratives are being revised to suit our sorry times,” his political perspective begins to take shape, and when he says that he admired the “Australian dimension” that “provided a sometimes prevailing good humor and a tolerant sense of absurdity,” he is speaking for his own way of being.

The narrative turns toward the familiar “education of a young man” mode when Stone begins his first job as a very low-level employee of the Daily News, enrolls at New York University, and attends a few sessions at the Hagen-Berghof acting studio. Relatively down and out in the city, Stone is ecstatic about his freedom and the city’s myriad possibilities, and, as he states summarizing the cultural turning that was beginning to gain momentum, “Rock and roll was coming. It would change everything.” Interspersed among other observations are casual literary allusions, indicative of Stone’s self-directed, eclectic course of reading and his ambitions. As his ship wallows amid icebergs, driven by a fierce wind in Antarctica, he hunkers below deck, staying “with Leopold Bloom as long as I could” in the copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) he has from the Norfolk Library. He does not mention that it is newly published, but he relates that Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) was “one of my other traveling books,” and he tells how he had “amassed a small collection of magazine rejection slips” during his time in the Navy, encouraged by a handwritten note on the form from The New Yorker that advised, “Try us again.”

To this point, the contents of Prime Green are essentially prologue. The heart of the book appears in an almost offhand fashion when Stone meets a classmate, Janice, who becomes his wife in a brief chapter that seems just as interested in Stone’s attendance at the Seven Arts Gallery coffee shop where he heard Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Ray Bremser, and Ted Joansgods and lesser deities of the burgeoning Beat sceneread poetry.

He and Janice move to New Orleans in 1960 and start a life together that, contrary to many unions launched as the decade arrived, endures and evolves in ways that represent the trials and triumphs of Stone’s life. Following a familiar path, Stone moves from one mundane job (encyclopedia salesman, actor in religious pageant) to another, the fascinations and temptations of the city partially compensating for the hardships of raising a family with hardly any money, while gradually realizing that the nature of his experiences were leading toward what he saw as “something like a novel.” Troubled by a persistent sense “that authenticity, whatever it was, resided somewhere else,” a kind of restlessness that also resulted in an inclination toward sexual adventure, he realized on a fundamental psychic level that his soul as a man and as an artist required an ultimate faithfulness to his craft and to Janice, resisting the immediate lure of various illicit pleasures. “I also knew at about that moment that I would never leave her, not ever, that this thing was forever,” he recalls. What was not resistible, nor even considered improper, was the allure of the growing drug scene. Stone’s entrance into the regions of psychic exploration and excess brought him into close proximity with some of the most prominent people of the entire epoch.

Casual use of marijuana was a common practice among the inhabitants of what Kerouac called the “subterranean” strata of society, easily available at jazz clubs, then ubiquitous among anyone associated with a bohemian subculture. At the same time, as Stone recounts with an insider’s experience and a scholar’s further investigative knowledge of a large phenomenon, the discovery of psychedelic substances led to a national craze that was responsible for a transformation in American society that has been summarized by the term “the Sixties.” For Stone, whose descriptions of some of his mental excursions are terrifyingly beautiful, the perils were apparent, but the allure was sufficient to overcome reluctance. Part of the appeal was the attraction of the company he joined, and its hero/leader, Ken Kesey.

Kesey had already published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) when Stone met him. His portrait of Kesey is a masterpiece of appreciative understanding, capturing the “transactional charisma” of an exceptionally gifted man who knew the power he had and tried to use it decently. Awed by Kesey’s energy and insight, Stone sees him as a man “who personally embodied the winning side in every historical struggle that had served to create the colossus that was nineteen sixties America: An Anglo-Saxon Protestant Western American White Male, an Olympic-caliber athlete with an advanced academic degree, he had inherited the progressive empowerment of centuries,” while recognizing that there was also a Gatsby-like quality that could not be easily conveyed:His ability to offer other people a variety of satisfactions ranging from fun to transcendence was not especially verbal, which is why it remained independent of Kesey’s fiction, and it was ineffable, impossible to describe exactly or to encapsulate in a quotation.

However, as Larry McMurtry tellingly observed about the deceptively named “Merry Pranksters” as a “floating court” for Kesey, “There were always a few good friends who were not of the court. Wendell Berry, Robert Stone, myself.” Stone’s presence on the bus, on which the Merry Pranksters careened across the country, enables him to catch the excitement, excess, stupidity, and damage that followed in Kesey’s wake, his capsule images of people like Kerouac and Neal Cassady, “famous long ago” as Bob Dylan put it, revealing the sadness without deflating the enticement of that now legendary journey. Stone’s time with Kesey as a fellow semi-outlaw when Kesey was hiding out in Mexico completely captures the psychic sense of romantic adventure and drugged-out, even dangerous, “drunken dumbshow” (as Ginsberg described it) that marked the moment.

At the same time, Stone was attending to the novel he had imagined in New Orleans. He got off the bus in the middle of the country, had some perilous encounters with heartland hostility while traveling east alonean implied parallel with Kesey’s wild rideand carried his search for “authenticity” across the Atlantic to Paris and London, where his life shifted from a student’s bottom view (Paris) to a privileged person’s pleasures when Hall of Mirrors was published in the United Kingdom in 1968. When Paul Newman called to request permission to film the novel, with Stone as the screenwriter, in spite of his view of Hollywood as responsible for a significant portion of the rampant stupidity of American popular culture, Stone accepted immediately. His frustration and disappointment with the filmmaking process were predictable and probably inevitable, but he liked Newman immensely and saw him as a “considerate man, of grace and reserve . The better I got to know him, the more I liked and respected him.” In one of the most revealing expressions of his fundamental philosophy, Stone decries all dogmatic ideologies, insisting: “Ordinary decency, I thought, was about the best of which I, and again most people, were capable. And it was not so easy at that, not so ordinary.”

Just when the urgency that has been driving the narrative seems to diminish slightly, its episodic elements perhaps undermining the imminence of revelation previously apparent, Stone juxtaposes the Moon landing with the Manson murders, bitterness overwhelming the fading vision of a corrupted hippie dream, his own life sinking toward a party where everyonechildren includedis consumed by a desperate grasping for the nitrous oxide high that mingles blissful oblivion with greed-filled aggrandizement. Disgusted by his deterioration, Stone goes to Vietnam in an attempt to reconnect with the idealism that marked the start of the decade, to try to do something useful in “the heart of darkness.”

The last section of the book, taut and trim, is evidence of the “authenticity” of Stone’s account. Without overstating his expectations (“I was not over there to be Ernie Pyle or Richard Harding Davis”noted war correspondents), the density of detail and the intensity of feeling that Stone brings to the narrative are a testament to the seriousness of his inquiry. His novel Dog Soldiers, not mentioned here, was built on the foundations of this experience. The final chapter, “Epilogue,” is both an epitaph and epigraph for the era. As he says, recalling Walt Whitman’s proclamation about the Civil War (“I was the man; I suffered; I was there”), “I knew a few things,” and while he is as hard on himself and his peers as real wisdom demands, his envoi to an epoch reflects his ultimate judgement: “Measuring ourselves against the masters of the present, we regret nothing except our failure to prevail.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 46

The American Spectator 40, no. 4 (May, 2007): 68-71.

Booklist 103, no. 6 (November 15, 2006): 17-18.

Commonweal 134, no. 3 (February 9, 2007): 25-26.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 18 (September 15, 2006): 943.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 2 (February 15, 2007): 36-38.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (January 7, 2007): 1-10.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 40 (October 9, 2006): 45.

The Wall Street Journal 249, no. 5 (January 6, 2007): P12.

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