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...
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