Robert Stone Long Fiction Analysis
Intrigued by the exotic and by disappointed promises of wealth or adventure, Robert Stone writes as a disillusioned American romantic whose characters unsuccessfully pursue the American Dream in New Orleans, Vietnam, Southern California, Mexico, or Central America. Their failure to choose wisely and to accept responsibility, however, turns their dreams of wealth to ashes, destroys their personal lives, and creates nightmares. Their plight has paralleled that of the national culture as it has coped with shattered ideals and government corruption in the 1960’s and after. In many ways, Stone’s works have paralleled the concerns and obsessions of the baby-boom generation.
Throughout his work, most of Stone’s characters are blind to their inner motives and to the destructive results of their acts. 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 [in Vietnam]. That’s why we fought the war.” 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.” A number of them contemplate or commit suicide.
Overall, Stone’s characters are self-destructive men and women of their times, hooked on alcohol, drugs, greed, or egocentricity, paying the price of national and personal ignorance and irresponsibility. They are rootless wanderers of mind and world—sometimes violent, often at the end of their tether, engaging in various forms of sophistry, rationalization, equivocation, or indifference. There is a sense of a cultural breakdown, of misplaced dreams, of despair and loss of hope. Caught up in movements beyond their understanding, they continually betray one another without guilt and without self-knowledge.
In A Flag for Sunrise Stone’s final image of the world is the cold, hostile one of the sea: at times delicate and beautiful, but always predatory. In fact, Stone relies on this image throughout hiscanon, with his metaphors and images repeatedly connecting humans to fish and the bleak bottom-of-the-ocean competition. Thereby he captures a sense of cosmic menace, nihilism, and conflict: race wars in A Hall of Mirrors, Vietnam and drug wars in Dog Soldiers, crazed killers and guerrilla warfare in A Flag for Sunrise, and war against inner demons in Children of Light. His true villains are casual, feckless individuals who act without thinking or feeling and survive at the cost of others’ pain and death.
Stone is one of the most impressive novelists of his generation because of his journalist’s sharp eye for detail and for short, intense, dramatic scenes; his poet’s ear for dialogue; his English teacher’s sense of the subtle nuances of language, images, and interlocking patterns; his imaginative drive; and, most important, his commitment to understanding and facing up to the moral ambiguities of America and Americans.
A Hall of Mirrors
Stone’s first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, takes a sharp, satirical look at romantic pessimism in the face of racial prejudice and right-wing extremism in the 1960’s. M. T. Bingamon, a “superpatriot” demagogue, exploits the racist fears of poor whites with the aid of Brother Jensen, alias Farley the Sailor, a con man, philosopher, and supposed missionary, head of the Living Grace Mission. A cynical misfit and drifting disc jockey, Rheinhardt, and a naïve and idealistic social worker of wealthy southern parentage, Morgan Rainey, become pawns in Bingamon’s power plot. Rheinhardt espouses Bingamon’s cause to preserve his position as the rock disc jockey of radio station WUSA, while Rainey conducts a “welfare” census that brings only pain and loss to those whom he seeks to help. The final third of the novel is an apocalyptic Armageddon, a surreal and nightmarish description of the violent, racist “patriotic” rally the station sponsors and of the ensuing riot. Rheinhardt’s parody of reactionary speeches sums up the illusions negated by Stone’s novel: “The American way is innocence. In all situations we must and shall display an innocence so vast and awesome that the entire world will be reduced by it. American innocence shall rise in mighty clouds of vapor to the scent of heaven and confound the nations!”
Stone’s characters have lost their innocence, and all is emptiness, ashes, and betrayal, as the coldhearted and cold-blooded dominate. Ultimately, Rainey is seriously wounded in the madness of the political rally, but Rheinhardt drifts on. His girlfriend, a basically decent woman brought low by circumstances and misplaced affections, is stunned by Rheinhardt’s indifference and, picked up for vagrancy, commits suicide in her jail cell. Rheinhardt, Geraldine, and Rainey’s private hall of mirrors reflects the American nightmare wherein civilization proves a farcical hell, dreams are distorted, and action fails.
Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, in turn, capture the naïve cynicism of failed upper-middle-class idealists of the 1970’s and their involvement in romanticized drug dealing or revolutionary plots. Dog Soldiers depicts the tragic costs of the Vietnam War in its ongoing effects back home: the difficulty of telling friend from foe and the disintegration of moral certainties, loyalties, and conscience. It argues that the war poisoned American values and produced a loss of faith that infects the survivors. In the novel, former marine Ray Hicks, a drug smuggler from Vietnam, finds in the United States love, betrayal, craziness, and ambiguity. His trusted friend John Converse, a journalist on assignment to Vietnam, enlists Hicks’s aid to smuggle three kilograms of pure heroin home from Vietnam for a share of the anticipated forty-thousand-dollar profit. Converse classifies Hicks as a usable “psychopath” but does not understand that he...
(The entire section is 2488 words.)