A Novelist’s Ambition to Define America

Robert Stone set out to capture the national condition in fiction, a goal that’s more relevant than ever.

illustration of Robert Stone
Ernesto Artillo

Robert Stone was one of those novelists who try to wrap their arms around America itself. His career spanned almost 50 years, but he never really stopped writing about the ’60s and their fallout—American power and virtue collapsing in an eruption of violence and drugs and moral chaos, under the 10,000-mile, decades-long shadow of Vietnam. In 1971, Stone contrived to get a London alternative weekly to send him to Saigon so that he could research a novel about the war that was consuming American life. “I realized if I wanted to be a ‘definer’ of the American condition, I would have to go to Vietnam,” he later said.

Stone’s America is a dark place, but its failures are commensurate with the scale of its aspirations. His protagonists—they can be roughly divided into seekers and ironists, each representing aspects of their creator—are haunted by a vision of life more abundant, a sense of possibility that’s betrayed by their own weakness and the destabilizing undercurrents of history. His prose, with its potent mix of hard-boiled irony, romantic excess, and violent dissolution, can render the mood of a whole period instantly indelible. “If the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men,” thinks John Converse, the small-time American journalist in Dog Soldiers (1974) who’s preparing to smuggle heroin from Saigon back to the States, “people are just naturally going to want to get high.”

Stone once told an interviewer that his subject was “America and Americans.” That kind of ambition produced his best work, but in a way it also dates him. The ’60s feel antiquated, and so does the notion of the novelist as definer of the national condition. Whose America?, readers today would ask. Which Americans? In our fragmented time, the project seems presumptuous, if not delusional. We no longer look to novels for essential reflections of a national narrative. Just five years after his death, Stone, one of the major postwar novelists, is in danger of being forgotten.

Madison Smartt Bell, a friend of Stone’s and a novelist himself, is making a bid to secure Stone’s place in American culture by publishing the first full-length biography of him, Child of Light, while editing a collection of his nonfiction and a Library of America volume of three of his eight novels. A look back at the writer and his work, especially his earliest novels, turns out to be well timed. In books that deserve to endure, Stone anticipates the present in surprising, unsettling ways.

Stone was born in 1937 in Brooklyn. He was abandoned early by his father and raised by his mother, Gladys, a public-school teacher who suffered from mental illness, possibly schizophrenia. Their life together was unstable and isolated, “two against the world,” he later said. They moved among single-room-occupancy hotels and, after Gladys’s condition cost her her job, homeless shelters. Stone enrolled in and sometimes boarded at a Catholic school on the East Side of Manhattan, where, between frequent beatings, the Marist Brothers taught him to read Latin and write well. Catholic education also induced a short period of intense religiosity, which, after it ended, left a lifelong hole in Stone’s soul where God had been.

By Bell’s account in Child of Light (compulsively readable but reliant almost exclusively on Stone and his wife as sources), Stone survived his grim childhood thanks to intelligence, street wits, and the ability to retreat for long periods into his imagination. He suffered from besetting fears and bouts of rage and depression, and in his teens he began the heavy drinking that both sustained and plagued him all his life. Drunkenness and atheism got him kicked out of high school just before he was to graduate with a coveted college scholarship. He enlisted in the Navy for three years of stability, working as a radioman and journalist on a research expedition to Antarctica. After mustering out in 1958, he returned to New York, where he met a young student named Janice Burr in an NYU writing class. When she became pregnant, they married (and stayed married for 55 wandering, often strained, ultimately “unbreakable” years). In 1960 the Stones moved to New Orleans for a year of lousy jobs and bohemian poverty.

The New Orleans of early-’60s civil-rights battles, with its assortment of right-wing racists, do-gooders, pot-smoking hipsters, and con artists, gave Stone the material for his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, published in 1967. “Stone’s approach to the sociopolitical situation is utterly oblique,” Bell writes. “With the characters paying little attention to it, it simply builds itself out of inchoate dark matter, like the late-afternoon New Orleans rainstorms.” A Hall of Mirrors traces a geometry that Stone, a master of novelistic architecture, would go on to use many times: He intercuts among three protagonists who drift along on events, almost without agency, sliding downward but struggling toward some meaning that they never reach, gathering great narrative momentum as they converge on a plane of social tension that’s headed toward an apocalypse.

Rheinhardt, a “juicehead” and former clarinet virtuoso who has squandered his talent out of self-destructive spite, arrives in New Orleans by Greyhound in the aftermath of Mardi Gras. He stumbles into a job as an announcer for an ultraconservative radio station, fabricating inflammatory reports that today ought to be called fake news. The station owner, a plutocratic bigot named Bingamon, explains to Rheinhardt: “People can’t see because they don’t have the orientation, isn’t that right? And a lot of what we’re trying to do is to give them that orientation.” Bingamon’s purpose is to incite hatred and start a race war that will crush black people’s political aspirations. Rheinhardt is too lost in private despair to object.

He falls in with Geraldine, a young drifter from West Virginia—one of Stone’s few successfully realized female characters. For a time, Geraldine and Rheinhardt make a wounded pair in the French Quarter, until he can’t bear the intimacy and drives her away. These scenes are full of a strange pathos, as when Rheinhardt notices a cigarette burn on Geraldine’s stomach and says,

“You been ill used. You’re a salamander.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re a salamander because you walk through fire and you live on air.”

Geraldine closed her eyes.

“I wish,” she said.

The third protagonist is their upstairs neighbor, Morgan Rainey—a disturbed seeker after “humanness,” his own and others’, who goes door-to-door conducting surveys in black neighborhoods and becomes the unwitting tool of Bingamon’s scheme to gut the welfare rolls.

These three meet their separate fates in the novel’s long climax, Bingamon’s Patriotic Revival, a stadium rally in which a staged riot spins out of control. Stone was a realist—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos were among his influences—and a lifelong believer in the moral valence of fiction; he shunned the surrealism and metafiction of his contemporaries John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon. But A Hall of Mirrors, like much of Stone’s other work, ends in a hallucinatory spasm of altered consciousness and rhetorical excess. Geraldine, stoned and desperate, searches the stadium in vain for Rheinhardt, who is onstage, wasted, preparing to conduct an imaginary symphony orchestra. On cue, he exhorts the crowd of thousands with a perversion of virtuosity that displays Stone’s power to combine irony and terror:

“Let us consider the American Way … The American Way is innocence,” Rheinhardt announced. “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! Our legions, patriots, are not like those of the other fellow. We are not perverts with rotten brains as the English is. We are not a sordid little turd like the French. We are not nuts like the Kraut. We are not strutting maniacs like the gibroney and the greaseball! … When your American soldier fighting today drops a napalm bomb on a cluster of gibbering chinks, it’s a bomb with a heart. In the heart of that bomb, mysteriously but truly present, is a fat old lady on her way to see the world’s fair. This lady is as innocent as she is fat and motherly. This lady is our nation’s strength. This lady’s innocence if fully unleashed could defoliate every forest in the torrid zone … In her mind there is but a single thought, and it is this: ‘Iowa’s never so pretty as in May.’”

Rheinhardt’s performance is a fun-house mockery of the kind of political theater that has lately risen from underground to occupy the main stage of American life. Years later, Stone said of his first novel: “I had taken America as my subject, and all my quarrels with America went into it.” They were a lover’s quarrels, equal parts longing and disillusionment, held in a tension that never broke either way. Morgan Rainey’s blighted idealism is as central to Stone’s vision as Rheinhardt’s fluent nihilism is.

Stone is often compared to Graham Greene, perhaps because they both wrote about Vietnam and America’s destructive innocence abroad. Stone admired The Quiet American—“It carries a weight of truth that America and American readers will have to live with”—but he was no fan of Greene’s and rejected any lineage. For Greene, American innocence meant moral and spiritual shallowness, “the absence of any kind of inner life,” Stone once wrote. For Stone, it meant just the opposite: the amplitude and excess of America’s self-myth, the striving that ends in ruin. In Prime Green (2007), his memoir of the ’60s, and particularly of the cohort of acid-dropping artists and showmen gathered around Ken Kesey, Stone wrote:

We were one of the generations to which the word “Romantic” might be applied—the offspring of a period inclined by history to highly value the Dionysian and the spontaneous, to exalt freedom over order, to demand more of the world than it may reasonably provide. We saw—may we not be the last to see—this country as blessed in its most generous hopes.

Or, as the protagonist of Stone’s third novel says, “I think what’s best about my country is not exportable.” That novel, A Flag for Sunrise (1981), is about Americans caught up, messing up, in a Central American revolution. The Stone stand-in is an anthropologist named Frank Holliwell. Having compromised himself on behalf of his government by doing intelligence work in Vietnam, Holliwell is involuntarily drawn to repeat the mistake in the imaginary country of Tecan. On his way there, Holliwell stops in another Central American country to give a speech. But scotch and a lack of reading glasses conspire to turn Holliwell’s address into a biting and hilarious improvisation on American culture that recalls Rheinhardt’s hallucinatory oration at the Patriotic Revival. “In my country we have a saying—Mickey Mouse will see you dead,” Holliwell tells his audience, to silence. “There isn’t really such a saying,” he admits.

“My countrymen present can reassure you as to that. I made it up to dramatize the seriousness with which American popular culture should be regarded. Now American pop culture is often laughed at by snobbish foreigners—as we call them. But let me tell you that we have had the satisfaction of ramming it down their throats. These snobbish foreigners are going to learn to laugh around it or choke to death.”

As the audience of North Americans and locals grows hostile, Holliwell changes key and begins to describe another, older American culture, “a secret culture … the one we live by.”

“It’s a wonderful thing—or it was. It was strong and dreadful, it was majestic and ruthless. It was a stranger to pity. And it’s not for sale, ladies and gentlemen. Let me tell you now some of the things we believed: We believed we knew more about great unpeopled spaces than any other European nation. We considered spaces unoccupied by us as unpeopled. At the same time, we believed we knew more about guilt. We believed that no one wished and willed as hard as we, and that no one was so able to make wishes true. We believed we were more. More was our secret watchword.”

Stone’s first three novels—A Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise—can be read together as an inner history of the cataclysmic time when Americans first lost faith in themselves. He went on to write another eight books—novels, short-story collections, his memoir. None of them quite matches the level of the early work, as if his talent required an era on the scale of the ’60s to realize itself. Stone continued to conjure various apocalypses, but they felt strained and unpersuasive as his subject, “America and Americans,” shrank in the age of the hedge fund and the personal computer. In his later years, Stone seemed to do his truest work—including “Helping” (1987), a masterful short story about a couple brutally confronting the husband’s return to drinking; parts of his sailing novel, Outerbridge Reach (1992); and Death of the Black-Haired Girl (2013), his final novel—on a more intimate canvas as the ’60s receded.

The shattering of national myths is a rich subject for fiction, and one can be forgiven for thinking that as a source of irony and pathos, it can happen only once. Yet the theme might be infinitely renewable. In the years since Stone’s death, in 2015, American life has taken a turn that he would recognize as a subject fit for the strenuous demands of literary art. The berserk has returned to the public square, more extreme than ever, in a guise that seems new and yet also recalls earlier intrusions. The Patriotic Revival that climaxes A Hall of Mirrors now occurs on TV 24/7. The demagogic radio-station owner now runs the country. An ambitious young writer could do worse than to take a job at a local-news website in Baltimore or Elkhart, Indiana, in order to gauge the American condition today, while steeping in the work of a novelist who transformed our aspirations and follies into literature.

This article appears in the May 2020 print edition with the headline “Robert Stone’s Dark Dream of America.”