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Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties
By Robert Stone
I admit it, although not without fear of ridicule, I often fall hopelessly in love with male narrators. I know it sounds schoolgirlish, perhaps silly, but it is easy to be seduced by smart literate men, to lose yourself in their willingness to reveal themselves about matters of love and sex and women and the particular vulnerabilities they face as thinking men in a brutish world.
Looking at the handsome picture of a young bearded Robert Stone on the cover of his new memoir about his wild adventures during the turbulent 1960s, I waited to be transported back to the madness and euphoria and ceaseless self-questioning that seemed to electrify that era. Not with this guy.
The now 70-year-old acclaimed novelist seems to hail from an earlier time, almost pre-hippie, when male entitlement, narcissism and professional competition ruled the roost. Without an ounce of flower-child blood in his pragmatic and ambitious makeup, the often unpleasant and unsentimental Stone, seemingly fueled by his own healthy dose of class anger and resentment, often shines a harsh and cold light on his '60s experiences as if he is on a campaign to rid his readers of certain illusions we might have.
What is clear is that wherever anything was happening, Stone was there. Yet, the reader can't help but shake the uncomfortable feeling that the author himself could never quite fully feel his own life anywhere.
Perhaps the genesis of Stone's joylessness began in the single furnished room he shared with his Jewish mother in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in New York where he grew up desperately poor, dropping out of high school before he was 17 to join the navy. His memories about his mother feel vague and ambivalent and laced with threads of hostility and shame. The only vivid recollection he shares with us is that when she was cross, she would cruelly lay out two chilling scenarios for him to consider, the possibility that he might just "wake up one morning and find her gone - gone, vanished into thin air, never to be found. The other, which bothered me less, was that some dismal morning would find me with my head severed from my body; some mothers were capable of such things, and I might do well to imagine she might be one of them."
It is clear that his early life was without grace or certainty, but his restless moodiness seems to have been inbred. The author confesses that he "harbored a secret conviction: that authenticity, whatever it was, resided somewhere else, somewhere I was not."
The young and not-yet published writer set out to find something to appease him and uncannily seemed to wind up always landing dead center in the hot spots of the culture wars that were erupting throughout America. At poetry meetings in Greenwich Village, he befriended the Beat poets, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and others, with his pretty young wife and little baby in tow.
Under assignment for Esquire magazine, he followed writer Ken Kesey to Manzanillo, Mexico, where he lived with him and an assortment of writers and artists and eccentrics; all of them often losing all sense of time for days on end to sun-filled nonstop drug feasting and stargazing. Always there was endless chatter about the books everyone was planning to write, but no one seemed to be doing much writing then.
In California, where he won a fellowship at Stanford University for writers with potential but no academic credentials, he often listened in local clubs to the live dazzling jazz sets of John Coltrane, and heard much chatter about the head-jerking humor of Lenny Bruce, who was performing nearby. For a brief moment it seems the sheer exuberance of everything exploding at once caught him, and he admits decades later that "maybe I believed that if you worked it right, you could have all the lives you wanted at once, all the loves, all the lights and music."
Robert Stone is recognized as one of our most revered American novelists. His work is lavishly praised by major critics as brilliant, moving, masterful and transcendent. Some have commented on the almost hallucinatory quality of his fictional prose. His work has won him the National Book Award (Dog Soldiers) and he has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Yet, outside the protective realm of his fiction, he often falters here, resistant to the scrupulous self-examination a memoir demands. For example, whatever regrets he may harbor about his admitted infidelities to his wife or his inattentiveness to his children, he keeps to himself outside of a few dismissive comments about things he may have possibly overlooked. Regarding his wanton drug use during his younger years, sometimes in close proximity to his children, he offers little insight into his own self-destructive impulses that allowed him to repeatedly take such risks.
It seems that although he has sincerely attempted to write a book about the 1960s and its meaning and role in our collective consciousness, as well as in his own personal life, he hasn't really figured out what it meant for him, or for us for that matter, and he seems unsure about its overall effects on the society we live in today.
Any old hippie will tell you that Stone simply misses the main point. The 1960s was never predominantly about its luminaries, be it Bob Dylan or Ginsberg or Kerouac, nor was it about the sexual freedom or the drugs or the rock 'n' roll, or the political upheaval, or the turning upside-down of all previously held notions about race or class or gender. It was always about a feeling, the one you got when you heard the harmonica riff before Neil Young started to sing, a sound heartbreaking and heart mending all at once. I don't think Stone could ever hear it.