Robert Stone 1937-
(Full name Robert Anthony Stone) American novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Stone's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 23, and 42.
Author of the National Book Award-winning novel Dog Soldiers (1974), Stone has earned distinction for his exceedingly dark explorations of contemporary social and moral disintegration, particularly as presented through the experiences of cynical American expatriates, Vietnam veterans, and drug addicts whose self-destruction belies a longing for spiritual meaning in an apparently godless world. Though his works are typically plotted as thrillers—rife with violence, betrayal, and insanity—they are also marked by a profound, though inherently uncertain, religious sensibility. In Dog Soldiers, Children of Light (1986), and Outerbridge Reach (1992), Stone places ethically dubious protagonists in extreme—and often ironic—situations to create cautionary tales about the difficulty of acting as a moral being in an indifferent and overtly hostile universe. In other novels, such as A Flag for Sunrise (1981) and Damascus Gate (1998), Stone underscores the problem of resolving fervent and abiding faith with a distant, and seemingly unknowable, deity.
Stone was born on August 21, 1937, in Brooklyn, New York, to C. Homer Stone and Gladys Catherine Grant. Stone's father abandoned his mother during her pregnancy, leaving Stone fatherless from birth. His mother, a schoolteacher, came from an affluent family, but suffered from schizophrenia and had to be hospitalized soon after Stone's sixth birthday. When no members of his family would take him in, the New York family court system decreed that Stone would live at Saint Ann's, the boarding school that he had been attending. After Stone's tenth birthday, his mother was released from the hospital and the two began living in inexpensive hotels on Manhattan's West Side. Stone continued at Saint Ann's, where he began writing short stories. Although an unenthusiastic student, Stone won a New York State Regents' scholarship largely on the strength of his writing talent. However, just before graduation, he was expelled from St. Ann's for converting another student to atheism. Stone subsequently joined the Navy, serving as a radioman during two Mediterranean tours of duty, where he witnessed combat during the Suez Crisis of 1956. He eventually passed his high-school equivalency test and earned a job as a Navy journalist. In 1958 he returned to New York and took a job with the Daily News. He began taking creative writing classes at New York University, where he met Janice Burr, whom he married in 1959. In early 1960 the couple moved to New Orleans, where they lived for the next eight months. During this time, Stone worked as a census taker, a dock laborer, and a door-to-door salesman—all the while gathering material for what would be his first novel. In late 1960 Stone, along with his wife and a newborn daughter, moved back to New York, where he worked as an advertising copywriter. During this time, he wrote the first thirty pages of a novel, which he sent to the creative writing program at Stanford University; he was accepted into the program on a Wallace Stegner fellowship in early 1962. While at Stanford, Stone worked on his novel and took part in the early LSD experiments led there by writer Ken Kesey. After the birth of their second child in 1963, Stone moved his family back to New York so that his wife could pursue a psychology degree at City College. In the summer of 1966, Stone finished his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, which was published the next year and won the William Faulkner Award for best first novel. In 1968 Stone sold the film rights to the book and wrote the screenplay for its film adaptation, WUSA (1970). Stone moved to England for two years, returning to the United States in 1971 to teach creative writing at Princeton University. Early in 1971 Stone traveled to Saigon (now Ho Chi Mihn City) to cover the Vietnam War for an English magazine. Enthralled and repelled by the expatriate underworld he discovered there, Stone immediately began working the material he uncovered into a novel, Dog Soldiers, that earned him the National Book Award. In early 1976 Stone traveled for several weeks through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. The situations he encountered there eerily resembled those he had seen in Vietnam years earlier, and he was soon at work on a novel set in Central America. The resulting book, A Flag for Sunrise, received an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award and John Dos Passos Prize as well as nominations for the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In the late 1970s Stone resumed his teaching career and, between 1979 and 1983, taught in five separate creative writing programs, including those at Stanford and Harvard University.
Stone's first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, is set in New Orleans during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. The story follows Morgan Ranie, an idealistic census-taker, who discovers that the census is being used to legitimize a plot to remove poor African Americans from the state's welfare rolls. In an effort to thwart the scheme, Ranie befriends Rheinhardt, an alcoholic disc jockey at a right-wing radio station, hoping to coerce information from him. However, the charming and thoroughly amoral Rheinhardt is more than a match for the young Ranie, and he decides to string Ranie along, partly for his own amusement. While Ranie does succeed in winning over Geraldine Crosby, Rheinhardt's good-hearted but troubled girlfriend, the novel ends tragically, climaxing with a race riot engineered by a racist multi-millionaire. Ranie is killed and Crosby hangs herself after being unjustly arrested. Stone's second novel, Dog Soldiers, is laced with his characteristic black humor but is entirely devoid of sympathetic characters such as Ranie and Crosby in A Hall of Mirrors. Instead, the plot focuses on former Marine Raymond Hicks, a Nietzschean and stoic, who contracts to smuggle a bundle of heroin, valued at several million dollars, from Vietnam to Berkeley, California. After being double-crossed, Hicks teams up with Marge, a drug addict married to John Converse, one of Hicks's old Marine Corps friends. The pair then flees to the site of an old counter-culture commune in New Mexico with corrupt government agents in pursuit. As a scathing critique of the moral vacuum that resulted from the collapse of the ideals of the 1960s, Dog Soldiers is not without a moral center and Stone continually juxtaposes the ideals of Hicks—who sees life as a constant struggle for power—and John Converse—who will do anything to live another day.
In A Flag for Sunrise, Stone explores the moral framework of Gnosticism, a philosophical school which holds that the universe was not created by the divine but rather by a dark power and that only a scant vestige of the divine in the universe exists in each human being. The novel is set in Tecan, a fictional Central American country on the verge of a communist revolution. The action centers around a Catholic mission headed by Father Charles Egan, an aging alcoholic, who is working on a book about Gnosticism, and Sister Justin, an idealistic nun in her twenties, with ties to the revolutionaries. Just before the revolution commences, two Americans visit the mission—Frank Holliwell, an anthropologist and Vietnam veteran who is searching for an utopian paradise, and Pablo Tabor, a deserter from the Coast Guard who is looking to make a fortune in the drug trade. For a period of ten days, the characters struggle to find their moral place in the universe, but at novel's end, all have fared badly. Sister Justin is murdered for her part in the revolution and Holliwell, concluding that there is no good in the world, has converted to Gnosticism. Children of Light also explores the idea of the unavailability of God, though without the overlay of social criticism that marked Stone's previous novels. The protagonist, Gordon Walker, is an actor and screenwriter who has just finished a three-month run playing the title character in King Lear. Walker journeys to Baja California, where Lu Anne Bourgeois, an actress and former lover, is starring in a film he wrote. Stone's build-up to the reunion is ominous, however, as both characters are on the verge of nervous breakdowns. Walker, despondent over the departure of his wife and the bleakness of the role he has played for the past three months, is sinking into depression, alcoholism, and drug use. At the same time, Bourgeois has stopped taking her anti-psychotic medicine to help her acting and is beginning to show the symptoms of her schizophrenia. In Outerbridge Reach, Stone again examines personal disintegration with the story of Owen Browne, a conservative middle-class copywriter, who clings to his right-wing political and social ideals, despite a corporate scandal that rocks the yacht brokerage where he works and his own disturbing experiences as a naval officer during the Vietnam War. When given the opportunity by his company to circumnavigate the globe by himself, Browne eagerly accepts, much to the dismay of his wife Anne. Browne's preparations for the trip, which are largely slapstick misadventures, are filmed by Ronald Strickland, a documentary filmmaker hired by the yacht company even though he is known for cynically exposing the follies and hypocrisies of his subjects. The novel presents two equally tragic tales. The first is Browne's ill-fated expedition. Unable to exist on his own, he quickly descends into hallucinations and madness, destroying his homing device and creating a false captain's log. The second is Anne's gradual submission to Strickland's sexual advances, prompting her to become filled with self-loathing and resolving to embark on a solo voyage of her own.
In the seven stories collected in Bear and His Daughter (1997), written between 1969 and 1997, Stone revisits many familiar themes from his novels with his characteristically dark sense of humor. “Under the Pitons” follows a group of drug smugglers in the Caribbean, while “Aquarius Obscured” involves an amphetamine-addicted stripper who experiences a religious epiphany during an encounter with an aquarium porpoise. In “Miserere,” Stone uses a woman who smuggles aborted fetuses from a clinic to be baptized before burial in order to examine the concepts of fanaticism and faith. In the title story, an aging poet's gradual decline is horrifyingly hastened when a reunion with his estranged daughter goes terribly awry. Stone shifts his thematic focus almost entirely to religious themes in the novel Damascus Gate, presenting a detailed examination of the minutiae of Jewish theology and the unique messianic fervor of those who travel to Jerusalem, which Stone terms “Jerusalem Syndrome.” Though the protagonist of the story is a journalist named Christopher Lucas, the true central character of the novel is the teeming city of Jerusalem itself. A recent arrival in Jerusalem, Lucas is writing a book on the city's apocalyptic religious cults. In the course of his research, he becomes involved with Adam De Kuff, a manic-depressive native of New Orleans who believes that he is the Messiah. Lucas also falls in love with one of De Kuff's followers, Sonia Barnes, a young Sufi jazz singer who is half-Jewish and half-African American. Though the novel's main plot revolves around this trio, there are dozens of secondary characters and subplots involving fundamentalist Christians, Israeli settlers, Hamas operatives, Mossad agents, and, most importantly, a plot to bomb the Mosque on the Temple Mount. In 2003 Stone published Bay of Souls which follows the tribulations of Michael Ahearn, a middle-aged English professor living in Minnesota who experiences a mid-life crisis. Ahearn returns from a hunting trip to find his wife has been injured while rescuing their adolescent son who was freezing to death from exposure. Subsequently, Ahearn becomes infatuated with a female colleague, Lara Purcell, and follows her to a Caribbean island called St. Trinity. On the island, he witnesses a series of voodoo ceremonies in which Lara tries to reclaim the soul of her late brother, an AIDS victim. Ahearn also participates in a diving expedition to recover contraband from a sunken plane and inadvertently becomes involved in an island war and a military junta.
Stone has been highly regarded by critics for his scathing critiques of political hypocrisy and moral ambiguity among 1960s-era radicals, revolutionaries, and artists. The overt social and political content of A Hall of Mirrors and Dog Soldiers has established him as a trenchant commentator on the anomie of contemporary American life in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Reviewers have been impressed with Stone's broad erudition, as evident in novels such as A Flag for Sunrise and Damascus Gate, in which he grapples with the complexities of theology and religious belief. However, some have contended that Stone's work is often overly ambitious, arguing that certain novels—most notably Children of Light—have failed under the weight of his philosophical concerns. Many critics, however, have approved of Stone's efforts to raise political discourse to the level of moral discourse. Despite the occasional critical resistance to the bleakness of his worldview, Stone has received near universal praise for his technical abilities as a novelist, particularly his ability to create characters with genuine psychological depth. Even in Stone's least favored book, Children of Light, reviewers have still found his portrayal of the emotional decline of the two principals to be dramatically effective. Stone has also been regularly praised for his realistic dialogue, with critics noting that Stone's effective use of vernacular diction and slang enables him to portray the inner workings and social reality of his characters. Stone has additionally been commended for his literary craftsmanship, displayed in his ability to present lively action sequences and to navigate longer expository passages on topics such as the minutiae of sailing and the philosophical intricacies of Gnosticism. Several critics have considered Bay of Souls to be one of Stone's strongest efforts, citing his descriptive detail and precise narrative as highlights of the novel. Other reviewers have asserted that the plot suffered from too many plot threads and an overabundance of themes and adventures. Amy Wilentz, despite acknowledging that Stone “can create gasps of awe with his paragraphs,” has commented that “the taut line that should keep [Bay of Souls] moored is lost amid uncharted twists and turns.”