Robert Stone was the son of a schizophrenic single-mother who became a high school dropout, former acid user, and a National Book Award winner. He survived an unstable childhood to become a prophetic voice of the ’60s. He published eight novels and a memoir before passing away in 2015 at the age of 77.
To decode Stone is to expose the layers of conflict and craft that made him the novelist that he was. William Heath, an award-winning Frederick-based author and historian, took on the challenging task of compiling Stone interviews for “Conversations With Robert Stone.” The book, selected by Michael Dirda of The Washington Post as holiday book pick, opens with Heath’s 1975 conversation with Stone when Heath was a professor at Vassar.
“He’s given brief [interviews] before but we really grilled him about his two novels at that point and about the sixties in his life and so forth,” Heath recalled. At the time of the interview, Stone had published “A Hall of Mirrors” and “Dog Soldiers” that explored segregated New Orleans and Vietnam War drug trafficking.
Stone’s ability to live in different worlds inspired his writing. After his father abandoned the family, Stone often vacillated between his mother’s schizophrenic world and a strict Catholic boarding school. Following a stint in the Navy and NYU, Stone moved with his new wife, Janice, to New Orleans where he saw the racial dynamics of the ’60s firsthand.
Stone “got exposed to the South, both from the white side and the black side,” Heath pointed out. In an interview with Robert Solotaroff in “Conversations With Robert Stone,” Stone recalled a time when he was arrested for peddling without a license by police officers who questioned if Stone was really selling encyclopedias to African-Americans.
As a census taker as well, Stone visited the homes of those who were exploited and those who benefited from racial exploitation. He bridged the two in developing Rheinhardt, a character in “A Hall of Mirrors” who is “working for a right wing radio station, even though he’s cynical about it,” Heath added. “Right wing radio was very powerful in the early ’60s. Particularly in the South because very rich people like H.L. Hunt and others were funding it. And then of course it was mainly firing people up about the dangers of Civil Rights and Communists and so forth. Nowadays the agenda has shifted. It seems now a foreshadowing of our present situation.”
Heath, who has his own historical fiction book on Civil Rights activist Bob Moses, sent an advanced copy to Stone in 1985. They fostered an acquaintance out of mutual respect for each other’s work.
“Obviously [Stone] had a rough life, but he had a very cultivated manner. He’s a wonderful example of the self-educated person. He had always a certain kind of gravitas about him. A seriousness. He always took time, as I do too, between books. He averaged about seven to eight years between novels.”
Part of what took “A Hall of Mirrors” so long to complete was Stone’s consumption of acid. Ken Kesey, known for writing “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” was a frequent drug partner and the leader of an acid-loving commune, The Merry Pranksters. “Kesey had worked in a mental institution and somehow got involved in preliminary drug testing where they were asking for volunteers to try out, among other things LSD,” Heath said. “So Kesey brought it back to his house so Stone and the other people who were in that entourage began some fairly heavy use of LSD and other related drugs, shall we say.” This was documented in Tom Wolfe’s book, “Electric Kool-aid Acid Test.”
“Stone was in the middle of all this. He can legitimately say that he was there at the creation of the counter culture, in its drug-taking, counter-values dimension.”
Stone’s drug use later subsided. For his following books, the duration between publication of the books was not because he was “goofing off,” Heath said. “It was because he was very deliberate and very calculating and very deep into what he does.”
For “Dog Soldiers” Stone spent several weeks experiencing the declining Vietnam War. He revealed the dark side to the drug filled euphoria of the ’60s. The plot twist to “Dog Soldiers” is that the “Drug Enforcement Agency are smugglers themselves” in the Vietnam War, Heath said. “They get dupes to smuggle dope and then they smuggle their dope. It’s sinister on several levels but I think what’s brilliant about that book is that both the early chapters capture Vietnam in a very memorable way and then the later chapters capture what I would call the souring of the ’60s. How the late ’60s spun out of control.”
Heath cited that Stone was not a perfect writer. He could struggle with endings that would unravel, including in “A Hall of Mirrors.” But Heath noted that Stone’s legacy includes writing “one of the best debuts in all American literature.” “A Hall of Mirrors,” in Heath’s words, “captures aspects of the ’60s that no one else has.”