With the death in January of Robert Stone, at the age of 77, the United States lost one of its grand masters, a novelist of keen intelligence and supreme integrity whose work never shied from addressing such daunting questions as the problem of faith in a godless age.
In Stone's books, as in Joseph Conrad's, the value of human life always hangs in the balance, and his characters, because of their frailty, confusion or plain mean-spiritedness, often serve to diminish it. That's certainly the case in Dog Soldiers (1974), a classic tale of the paranoia and duplicity of the Vietnam era, now reissued by Picador.
At the novel’s centre is John Converse, a jaded freelancer based in Saigon, who gets involved in a drug deal to earn some easy money – or so he assumes. In exchange for arranging to smuggle three kilos of heroin into California for a former lover Converse will make a cool twenty grand. But he soon feels uneasy about the mission and wonders if that’s because he finds it morally objectionable.
Moral objections can be slippery in Vietnam, however. Sometimes, as Converse has learned, they are overridden by “larger, more profound concerns.”
He recalls an incident known as the Great Elephant Zap, when machine-gunners in US planes mowed down elephants (a true story) because they were “enemy agents” carrying supplies for the Viet Cong. The Zap left everyone disgusted, but the memory leads Converse, hyped on pot and Scotch, to a cockeyed revelation. “And as for the dope, Converse thought, and the addicts – if the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high.”
So much for the moral objection. Converse has overridden it. As for his malaise, it’s merely fear: “It was the medium through which he perceived his own soul, the formula through which he could confirm his own existence.”
In this remarkable passage, with customary insight, Stone deconstructs the hapless logic that governed the United States’ conduct in southeast Asia, showing how its ripple effect threatened to corrupt an entire society.
The bungled war grew into an obsession, one he came by honestly. After the success of his award-winning debut novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), set in the New Orleans of hipsters and hucksters, he moved to London and decided to see Vietnam up close – a duty, he felt, for an American writer of fiction. He obtained press credentials of a sort from Ink, an underground paper, and bought a plane ticket. He lasted six months and departed in a state of shock. The war "was this enormous, endless, boundless, topless, bottomless mistake", Stone told the New York Times, "something I was not used to seeing the United States do". His outrage colours every page of Dog Soldiers.
Converse's path to the big score quickly turns rocky. His partners in crime are equally unsuited to the task. His wife, Marge, a cashier at a sleazy San Francisco porn theatre, has a taste for opiates herself, and his courier, Ray Hicks, an old army buddy, is a probable psychopath who studies The Portable Nietzsche and "cultivates the art of self-defense".
Hicks, too, is uneasy about the job. Dealing smack is bad karma, he believes, but he agrees to deliver the stash to Marge. “Why not, he thought. There was nothing else going down. He felt the necessity of changing levels, a little adrenalin to clean the blood.”
That “why not” echoes through the novel like a mantra. In the absence of moral objections it’s possible to construe every act as permissible, even excusable, from slaughtering elephants to dropping napalm on innocent civilians.
Among the dark pleasures of Dog Soldiers is Stone's inimitable style. Few writers can match his range. He swings from baroque literary flourishes to down-and-dirty street talk, creating a rhetoric all his own. His dialogue is tart and blackly funny, one reason Hollywood latched on to his books as movie material. (Stone wrote the screenplays for Dog Soldiers, filmed in 1978 as Who'll Stop the Rain, with Nick Nolte, and for A Hall of Mirrors, filmed in 1970 as W.U.S.A.)
For Hicks the nightmare starts at Marge’s place. She’s strung out on Dilaudid and doesn’t have the money he’s owed on delivery. Worse still, two men break into the house while they’re arguing. They claim to be feds; Hicks subdues them: “‘You know these guys?’ Marge shook her head. ‘We’re Federal Agents, lady,’ the blond kid said. ‘You’re in plenty of trouble.’ Marge looked at him for only a moment. ‘Are they?’ she asked Hicks. ‘They’re take-off artists,’ Hicks said. ‘That’s who they are.’ ”
Whoever they are, they want the heroin. Hicks and Marge escape, hitting the road through southern California’s low-life enclaves and attempting to unload the drugs. Converse, back home, falls victim to the phoney feds, who savagely beat him and drag him along as they track the fugitives. All the elements of a highbrow thriller are in play.
The chase ends at a commune near the Mexican border, where Hicks once basked in the hippy glow. That scene is now as dead as the Summer of Love, and the resident guru zones out on home-made rose- hip wine. Hicks and his pursuers engage in an apocalyptic shoot-out, and it’s fair to say, without revealing the details, that no one is better off in its aftermath.
Converse and Marge, reunited again, are on the lam without the heroin, although scarcely a happy couple. “‘Why does this shit happen to me?’ he asked Marge. ‘Do I like it?’ ‘You manage to handle it,’ she said. ‘Handle it?’ He was outraged. ‘One thing I hate,’ he told her, ‘is tough-mindedness. It repels me.’ ‘Sorry,’ she said.’ ”
Some critics cite
as Stone’s best novel, but surely
lag for Sunrise
(1981), his Central American epic, or
(1992), about a solo sailor who betrays himself by cheating to win a race, are just as accomplished.
And for sheer enjoyment there's his memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (2007), an account that begins aboard a naval transport ship in Antarctica and features his adventures with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. The title refers to the greening of the day on Manzanillo Bay in Mexico, where Kesey hid out for a while – primal, primary, primo.
Stone's short stories will also reward the reader, particularly the anthologists' favourite, Helping.
Robert Stone was a gentle, humble man, the child of a schizophrenic mother and an absentee father. For four years from the age of six he lived in an orphanage run by Marist brothers. Largely self-educated, he carried his learning lightly. Stone had a finely tuned sense of humour, qualified as a first-rate raconteur, and loved a drink and a good conversation.
When Stone was last in Dublin, some years ago, we talked about the world’s ongoing miseries over a pint. Our only hope for the future, he suggested, was to imagine that we’re better than we are.
His characters usually fall short of the mark, but the books they inhabit will last a long, long time.
Bill Barich's many books include Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California and The Sporting Life. Laughing in the Hills: A Season at the Racetrack will be reissued in October