Robert Stone’s writing has often been called “moral.” This loaded, pop-gun adjective is often levelled to no meaningful effect at novels also called “political,” as if to distinguish them from “small” novels, or novels about dogs on roller skates, but Stone himself didn’t reject the term. As it applied to his fiction, his understanding of “moral” seemed to go something like this: Writing is an act of perception. Real perception requires steadiness and courage. The writer’s job is to present things as they are, and not as they’ve otherwise been presented or as we would have them be. This accuracy of perception, tested on the level of language, is the main charge upon the writer. The furthering of perception is necessarily a moral act.
“Is it possible,” he wrote, “to postulate the idea of a successful novel about people, or about animals, for that matter, in which the living of life is reflected, that exists beyond the signal area of any moral reference points?” Is such a question dated or simply beyond the contemporary? All Stone’s allegiances were to the old school. He cited Conrad as an influence. He told very good stories. He ventured far to find them. He adhered to the classical idea—Heraclitus informing Sophocles and the long history of the novel—that “character is fate.” If he was at all trapped by convention, and we sense the trap only now and then in his later work (some staginess in the dramas or their endings), most of his writing escaped inherited limitations through a sheer breadth of language, imagination, intellect, and experience. “The way I learned it,” he once said, “you have to be able to write, and you have to be able to think.” If only more writers learned it this way.
Among the obsessions to which his talent seemed suited were spiritual impulses and theological nuggets. Early in A Flag for Sunrise, an American anthropologist gives a drunken, disastrous public lecture at a university in a fictional Central American country. A listener asks from the floor if there’s a place for God in his understanding of things. “There’s always a place for God, señora. There is some question as to whether He’s in it.” Everywhere in Stone’s fiction are characters in crises of belief, enduring badly a failed spirituality that they try to escape through drugs, alcohol, or other forms of mock transcendence. In the prose, these pursuits can result in highly lateral, impressionistic moments and passages that skirt the maw of senselessness without relenting of the resonances to be found there. Quoting an example or two is almost pointless out of context. See the brain coral dive in A Flag for Sunrise, the truly harrowing dark of Mary Urquhart on her mission to baptize aborted fetuses in the story “Miserere,” the soundings of religious delirium in Damascus Gate. See the passage in Outerbridge Reach in which Owen Browne, alone in the vast Antarctic, steps ashore, sees skua gulls diving and tearing flesh from a blinded penguin, and beneath a sun hanging “out of time” begins to hallucinate that he’s a ship unto himself, navigating by a solar order:
There were bone hooks fastened to his flesh, inserted under the muscle so that he could swing free. Hide lines bound him to a pole, the central pole, the axis of the world. He swung around, in the ancient deasil motion, at varying angles to the blue horizon. . . . The line groaned as it turned on the bit. . . . The rational, algorithmic Sun Dance. . . .
Stone was especially good at writing the extreme mind-states of nightmare and madness. For a paycheque, the alcoholic Rheinhardt in A Hall of Mirrors works by day for a right-wing New Orleans radio station; by night, he dreams he’s trapped in a sound-proofed booth, seeing on studio floor planks “small bright-eyed animals with furred parabolic ears rising from their heads, who came forward in darts and rushes to peer in at him and press bared teeth and quivering nostrils against the glass. Cavies, he thought. They were called cavies.” In Children of Light, the schizophrenic actress Lu Anne catches a glimpse inside her dresser mirror of one of the creatures she calls The Long Friends: “Its face was concealed beneath a black cloth. Only the venous, blue-baby-colored forehead showed and part of the skull, shaven like a long-ago nun’s. Its frail dragonfly wings rested against its sides. They always had bags with them that they kept out of sight, tucked under their wings or beneath the nunnish homespun.”
We know certain writers by the strangeness of their signatures struck from out of the dark of their particular loneliness. Though Stone can be very funny, the passages above describe versions of astonishing remoteness. Facing an existential isolation requires bravery. No wonder then that so many of Stone’s characters come to have their nerve tested. As a form the novel allows for interiority to be run up against the social and outwardly dramatic. Stone believed it a “melancholy fact” that “while you can have moral cowardice along with physical courage, you cannot really have moral courage without physical courage.” As with everything else in his work, the question of nerve is more complicated than it seems. From a young age, Stone had difficult experiences thrust upon him—a schizophrenic mother, an often violent boarding school—and later actively sought them out. He was there, with his brand of realism, in civil rights– era New Orleans, Vietnam-era California, Reagan-era Central America. These first three novels—A Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers, and A Flag for Sunrise—are hard to top as an opening set to a realist’s writing life. But as he knew, simply being in the middle of big trouble isn’t enough or we’d have had thousands of novels from every side of each historical conflict and atrocity. Writing in Brick on Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Stone observed that the novel
and its author seem to have appeared out of the seamless American ether. Stendhal had seen Marengo and Moscow in flames. Tolstoy had commanded troops in the Caucasus. Crane’s most strenuous experience before the composition of The Red Badge of Courage seems to have been a semester catching for the Syracuse University baseball team. . . . Modern readers, the sort of readers that Crane was in a sense creating, highly value authenticity. We’ve been trained to it. . . . But if the existence of The Red Badge of Courage proves anything, it’s that fiction justifies itself entirely on its own terms.
There’s more formal daring in some Stone paragraphs than is found in whole books by interesting anti-realists. His mark is in the syntax, humour, and diction. The juxtapositions of highbrow–lowbrow language and experience often seem physically alive. (Such juxtapositions are commonly identified as “American,” though the class mixing that generates this language has always been American only in the hemispheric, non-European sense, and is now broadly global urban.) Wherever it might come from, Stone obviously valued the authentic, the actual, which leads back to the moral and engages the political:
There are two basic facts in life. We are out here in this stuff, whatever it is, whatever it’s called . . . Thursday. And we are not alone out here. Fortunately, we have each other. Unfortunately, we have each other. At which point, politics necessarily commences.
As narrative vessels, and to some extent by their riggings, Stone’s novels can be recognized from a distance. He didn’t search out radically new storytelling structures or test the relation between author and reader in audacious ways. And yet his best books seem as generously imagined as those rhetorically self-aware novels praised for the ways they respond to shifting realities through ingeniously modified forms. For Stone, the old agreements between writer and reader, as long as they were honoured and not cheapened for political or commercial reasons, were enough to bust us back into the real:
Meretricious fiction does the opposite of what fiction is supposed to do. The reassurance that it offers is superficial: in the end it makes life appear circumscribed. It makes reality appear limited and bound by convention, and as a result it increases each person’s loneliness and isolation. When the content of fiction is limited to one definition of acceptability, people are abandoned to the beating of their own hearts, to imagine that things which wound them, drive them and inspire them may be a kind of aberration particular to themselves.
Stone’s fiction is moral precisely because it’s clear-eyed, often bleak. It’s a stay against loneliness and fear, acknowledging the shared enterprise that we keep getting wrong. Reality always needs a talking-to. The novels feel like necessary counters to the way of things. A certain voice, describing a certain darkness, partially, if briefly, dispels that darkness. Stone said hard things that need saying about those parts of living shaped by personal and mass delusion, and ill intent, such as they once were and remain, out here, on Thursday.
Brick editor Michael Helm last appeared in our pages with his essay, “On Robert Stone,” in issue 95. His new novel, After James, was published in 2016.