WORN face looms through the grimy pane in the old front door, and tightens in apprehension.
Robert Stone squints at the presence on his porch. It could be a fan, and "I A don't want to be hassled." Which is why he doesn't want anyone to know the name of this placid college town in western Massachusetts. "I'm known for writing about strange people and violence," and it has occurred to him that the occasional nut case drawn to his novels might also be drawn to him.
A magnet for wackos. And why not: His portraits of hollow-souled berserkers and moral zombies are wrought with a grisly conviction that has earned him a National Book Award and a solid roster of critical acclaim, especially the new book, "A Flag for Sunrise," 75,000 copies of which have just been loosed on the world. But who wants the real thing around? Not Robert Stone, who at 44, with the parchment-dry skin of the reformed bohemian, says he's easing into "embourgeoisement."
Not that it's a Lord & Taylor daydream here in the big red frame house where he lives with his wife, Janice, a social worker. There are, of course, the matching Buick Skylarks in front of the ramshackle barn and the do-it-yourself pool out back. But inside, Kee-Kee the Siamese cat is up on the kitchen counter, gnawing at chicken parts. And the living room is pure Kerouacian heedless funk. The ancient overstuffed furniture is matted with hairs from his German shepherd named Bounce, a rumpled daybed sags under the poster for "Who'll Stop the Rain," the movie made from his second novel, "Dog Soldiers," and slithering heaps of records crowd the floor in front of the dusty stereo.
A room for a man who is used to just passing through. "I made it my business in my earlier life to be around where things were happening," and now readers can "see some of what they've experienced refracted through me," Stone says, bright blue eyes at odds with his shy calm and accentless voice.
"He looks very quiet and well-mannered," says his daughter Deidre, 21, who runs a cosmetics business in a nearby town, "but actually he's very angry." And the self-proclaimed bourgeois, sinking into a bus-station waiting-room slouch, confirms that he is hounded by hostility -- "undischarged energy that comes of my childhood, my adolescence" -- and nagged by "unspecified, free-floating guilt, and also religious guilt."
A microcosm, he believes, of our national pathology. "Society is getting more and more dangerous -- no one has the margin of protection that they used to." Moreover, as "the old ideologies evaporate," so does a sense of meaning. That's why his books "force people to experience violence and chaos -- and then invite them to contemplate evil, which we now call vestigial animality."
Indeed they do. Among the whiskey-sick, drug-ugly existential desperadoes crawling through landscapes that are the moral equivalent of Nevada, there's not a winner in the lot. Not the characters in "Hall of Mirrors" (1967) who arrive in the scummy side streets and hipster garrets of New Orleans: Reinhardt, the glib and cynical drunk who cannot outrun his own guilt; Geraldine, the country girl whose face is mutilated by "something they open oysters with"; Morgan Rainey, the anguished social worker who searches among the city's blacks for his lost faith. "The quiet, joyous voice that for him was the voice of God had broken, grown distant and fallen away before a terrible maimed chorus, the million-throated howl of a Godless earth, transfixed with note, with death, with darkness."
Not Converse the devious writer, nor Hicks the Nietzschean bully of "Dog Soldiers" (1974), which follows a drug deal from Vietnam to its bloody culmination in the Rockies. Converse goes to Saigon to find a literary subject, but loses his moral bearings. "It had become apparent that there would be no book, no play. It seemed necessary that there be something." So he buys three kilos of pure heroin. But when rival predators descend on the deal, Converse, too weak to carry through, loses the junk (and his wife) to Hicks ("I feel like a walking pair of teeth"), a soldier whose "head was going bad." "Accumulated venom" is "fouling his blood" until the fight forces him into action: "the serious man, the samurai . . . takes the worthiest illusion and takes a stand . . . This is the one to ride until it crashes." Which it does.
And certainly not the burned-out cases of "A Flag for Sunrise" who converge on a Central American revolution. Pablo, the AWOL sailor who finds himself running guns to the rebels, makes Charles Manson look like Bo Peep. Tortured by utter purposelessness, "His mind's eye started flashing him . . . death's heads, swastikas, the ace of spades. Dumbness. Dime-store badness." He will kill anyone who is threatening to "turn me around." He collides with Holliwell, the cynical anthropologist and CIA flunky who hopes by toying with the cause to bridge the abyss of his self-contempt ("Drunk again, boozy ripe, ready to sniffle with promiscuous fervor over lost fathers and hillbilly songs") and lessen his loathing for his own culture: "In my country we have a saying--Mickey Mouse will see you dead."
Yet Stone is no simple vice-monger. These books are moral test cases, his vagrant characters pestered by a glint of the sacred, mirages of God "just on the edge of vision." ("Gimme a rush, Jesus," says the benzedrine-popping Pablo, "if you truly want me for your personal sunbeam.") This "element of the numinous" mixes with the gore and remorse into a sour-mash spirituality redolent of Nathanael West and Flannery O'Connor.
But Stone belongs to two literary traditions that extend back to Twain and beyond: the migratory sociopath and the American picaresque -- the myth of divination by turnpike, epiphany on the road. Both find their counterparts in a life that is the key to, and nearly as strange as, his fiction.
Born in South Brooklyn, he never knew his father, who worked on tugs in the harbor and "split when I was an infant," leaving him with his mother, who was in her 40s when he was born. His parents were not married. "My mother told me when I was about 25," Stone says. "I found it very romantic." His mother, who died 10 years ago, was a schizophrenic who lost her job as an elementary school teacher, worked as a chambermaid in the Savoy Plaza Hotel and lived with her only child in cheap hotels on Manhattan's West Side. At 6, Stone attempted to enroll himself in school, got caught and was placed in an orphanage for four years before returning to his mother and a Catholic school.
"I saw myself as different from everybody else," Stone recalls. His vague mix of Scot-Irish meant that "I wasn't very ethnically identifiable. And in a milieu that was very family-oriented, I had to cover for my mother's eccentricities -- which were considerable." When her attention would wander suddenly, "I would tell people she was deaf. I was kind of ashamed of her."
No wonder he "began trying on different ways of being." One was to read voraciously, and with precocious discrimination, in public libraries. While following Sam Spade on the radio ("it uses your visual imagination") and a lot of film noir, he was also chewing through Dickens, Conrad and Dos Passos, and insists that he read Thomas Carlyle's "The French Revolution" at 10. "I knew about the fall of the Bastille from the Classic Comic Book."
At the same time he "dabbled in small-time teen-age thug-iness -- just the usual, hanging out in poolrooms, getting in those elaborate ritualized combats." He would buy a bus ticket out of town whenever he could, and eventually, "just to show what kind of outrageous character I was, I'd get a lot of beer in the morning and go to school drunk." (His story about "a bunch of kids drinking in Central Park" won a high-school fiction contest sponsored by NYU.) By 16, his devout Catholicism began to fade, and he was kicked out of school, "accused of going around being militantly atheistic." The loss of faith was traumatic, Stone says, because his view of the world was "above all things, moral." The anguish was compounded by social pain: "It was being put to me a lot that I was a wrongo."
He found himself between rage and guilt, the urge for middle-class respect and boho apostasy. So do his characters: Each novel has two major male figures at such psychic antipodes. And always on the road, which has a dark side for Stone. After years spent among "a whole lot of passing-through, marginal, insubstantial people, my mother and I were looked down on by people of substance, family people." And even when he was fighting on the street, "respectability was what I was after in a way." But not in conventional terms. "No, I wanted it both ways."
Huck Finn, in the same circumstances, hit the road. Stone found a carnival in Utica, then joined the Navy in '55 ("It was what everybody did when they left school") and traveled around the world as a radio man and journalist, returning to New York in 1958. He enrolled at NYU but soon dropped out to work as a copy boy for the New York Daily News. After two years, "I saw that I wasn't going anywhere," and lit out with his future wife, Janice, for New Orleans.
Why New Orleans? Stone leans forward, eyes crinkling in incomprehension. Why do birds fly? "It was just romanticism," he says, like someone else would say, "just a head cold." "It was a kind of rough, wild, crazy city in 1960, all the color you could want." He worked in a coffee factory, took a role in a traveling passion play, did some radio acting and wrote poetry, which he read to jazz in "that beatnik scene down in the French Quarter."
"There was a level on which all this was sort of self-consciously literary," he says. "I was looking for Dos Passos' America. Of course, it wasn't there any more." But he got the material for his first novel, as well as a marriage, his daughter Deidre and very little money. "Sometimes the restaurants would give us bread and gravy, but a lot of times we just didn't eat." Deidre recalls that "when I was little, I always thought my parents were criminals because they were always talking about how we were poor and saying that something or other was illegal." "We were talking," Stone says, "about buying marijuana."
He was also buying a lot of booze. He had a drinking problem which had begun in the Navy, but "all of a sudden I was living in a world where I could get drunk every day." "The alcoholic sensibility is something I write about," Stone says, "and I was close. Part of the cult nature of 'Hall of Mirrors' is because of that, and I have a whole lot of friends who are alcoholics."
Finally he came by enough money to send his wife and daughter back to New York, and he hitchhiked up, taking a job writing furniture ads and "trying to deal with the whole New Orleans thing" in prose. "I had been reading 'The Great Gatsby,' and I had fallen in love with the novel."
On the strength of his first chapter, he got a fellowship to Stanford, and the Stones were rolling again. They moved to Menlo Park, where he met Ken Kesey. Stone, who "kind of shared with some of these people the ambition for changing the style of American life," dropped out and turned on. The drugs reawakened his lapsed sense of the sacred: "I discovered that my way of seeing the world was always going to be religious -- not intellectual or political -- viewing everything as a mystic process." And the chemical camaraderie became a surrogate family. "I still feel close to them -- that's my gang, that's my college." They weren't a bunch of cream-puff hippies: His friends "were people who basically believe in military honor, who admire physical courage, who appreciate the transcendent aspect of war as a test, a context in which one's manhood and honor can be manifest." Of Kesey, still a good friend, Stone says, "He has always been a western conservative cowboy," and calls "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" a "complex right-wing parable."
But even on the bus, Stone was a wrongo: "Not having come from a middle-class household, I was not making discovery of the open road. I was really moving toward the embourgeoisement which I have since attained." Life in Kesey's traveling menagerie, which began as "enormous fun," lost its direction. "We were always laughing that it should mean something, but we didn't know what it was," and soon "a lot of people who had their own thing to do were splitting off." Including the Stones, who returned to New York.
In 1965, looking for work while he finished "Hall of Mirrors," and now with a second child (his son, Ian, now a college freshman), Stone answered an ad in The New York Times, and found himself working for a tabloid called The National Mirror: "an imitation of the National Enquirer which lacked the Enquirer's delicacy and good taste." No wonder. Instead of the normal system of taking weird wire-service stories and embroidering them with fantasy, "we worked without a net," Stone says: "We'd smoke a lot of hashish, invent headlines and then try to write stories to match them." The results included "Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds," "Mad Dentist Yanks Girl's Tongue" and "Exploding Cigar Kills Nine," which Stone wrote and later mentioned in a section of "Dog Soldiers."
Their only "invaluable tool" was the atlas: "We would look up the towns to make sure that they really didn't exist." One of the writers was "a mime who was a fanatical Maoist," and who used the horoscope column as a propaganda vehicle: "Don't be afraid to ask for a raise, Sagittarius, because your boss always keeps a certain percentage of the value of your labor."
"I always wondered what kind of creeps were writing that stuff," Stone says. "And I found out it was me." But he was saved from the pulp biz when "Hall of Mirrors" was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1967, won the Faulkner prize for first novels, and got Stone a Guggenheim fellowship. A small purchase on acclaim, but it was not his style to reach for more. "Wherever the big-time New York literary scene was, I never found it," he says, "although I went to a party at George Plimpton's once." Instead, he took off for London ("I really didn't have a reason"), where he spent the next four years, except for trips to Hollywood as screenwriter for "WUSA," the ambitious project made from "Hall of Mirrors."
There were advantages: "I had an office in the writers' building, and that used to amaze my friends. They'd get stoned and call me, and the secretary would answer, 'Paramount Pictures, Mr. Stone's office.' And they'd just groan, 'Oh, wow!' and hang up." But he became disillusioned at the product -- "I could see the film wasn't going to be any good, and I had no control, everybody could make changes" -- and disgusted at the "power games." For example, Stone was irked once when his secretary said, "Front and center for Mr. Rosenberg," the director. It reminded him of how little respect he had in the production hierarchy, and he told somebody about it. So "they fired the secretary for saying that. They did that to please me!" Stone concludes now: "Within every good book there's a bad movie waiting to be made."
He had long been interested in Vietnam, which he considers a watershed for the national psyche and a ghastly bonanza of moral ambiguities. As Converse says in "Dog Soldiers," "You can't blame us too much. We didn't know who we were till we got here. We thought we were something else." So when the editor of the British biweekly INK asked Stone to go, he arrived with more enthusiasm than duties. "I didn't have a cable card, so I wasn't filing any hard news," and made his way into the society of marginal journalists where "I got to know more about the dope scene in Saigon than I wanted to -- everybody was smoking heroin," including Stone, and many Americans were trading in it: "even reputable journalists who were traveling to Vientiane."
Combat was frightening. In "Dog Soldiers," Stone writes: "In a manner of speaking, he had discovered himself. Himself was a soft shell-less quivering thing encased in a hundred and sixty pounds of pink sweating meat. It was real enough. It tried to burrow into the earth. It cried." But the dope scene was worse, and "I began to feel safer going up to the line than staying in town."
INK folded while Stone was there, and the few stories he did file -- on the Saigon rock festival of 1971, a piece on tunnel warfare and one on the SEALS in Cam Ranh Bay -- went into the Manchester Guardian. After a few months, sure that he had the stuff for a novel, he left. "I kind of felt guilty about not staying. I should have had more experience." (Only the first few pages of "Dog Soldiers" take place in Vietnam, none of them in combat.) He also feels guilty about not being in the fighting. The soldiers "were having their friends killed, and here we were in our safari jackets," Stone says, and his knees begin to knock together restlessly. "If I had been of the age . . .," he says, and the thought dies in a sigh. "The soldiers never spared the press. They'd say, 'I hope you get killed. I have to be here, but you're here because you like this s---!' "
He came back to London, started on the book, and was offered a teaching job at Princeton. Naturally, he took it, and has been an academic drifter since -- at Amherst, University of Hawaii and most recently at Harvard. "Dog Soldiers" won the National Book Award in 1975, but Stone found the satisfactions few. "The publishers took me out to an expensive lunch, and I got more letters from kids in prep schools." And as for being lionized, "I think that it was important that that not happen -- that I become anything other than an ink-stained wretch in a room. You have to keep hungry."
But not too hungry: Stone agreed, "against my better judgment," to work on the screenplay for "Who'll Stop the Rain," the second time his title had been changed. "Hall of Mirrors" became "WUSA," he says, "because 'M*A*S*H' was big then, and they wanted to use initials," and "Dog Soldiers" was scrapped because "after a market test of the title, Transamerica seemed to believe that women especially had a negative reaction to dogs and soldiers." Again, Stone was unhappy with the product, and finally quit the script when "I couldn't agree to changing the character of Marge." But in the end "the feeling was good, and Nolte was wonderful." The box-office return was not: "It played all over for three days." He blames it on halfhearted marketing.
He immediately began work on a historical novel set in Europe, which might have become his third book and will probably be his next. But after a lecture gig, "I found myself with $1,000 in my pocket and decided to go to South America" for some diving. "It's like acid -- ripeness beyond belief. The fish are such innocent, beautiful creatures, but what's going on down there is . . . " and he clamps his hand shut, jaws-like.
In Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, he "began to see what the American presence in Central America was like," picked up reverberations of Vietnam, and decided that "Somoza and his people were like the 100 worst dope dealers on 116th Street." He returned twice more, seeing the shape of a novel, aided by some knowledgeable acquaintances in foreign affairs and by his friend Peter Mathiessen, who helped him with research in Key West.
Stone is concerned that some people will construe "A Flag for Sunrise" as left-wing political preaching. In portraying the revolutionaries, he says, "I tried to give the devil his due." But "Marxists and political radicals who believe that man is innately good" -- that by some tinkering with the social structure, a Rousseauish sweetness will prevail -- "are philosophically wrong." Like his mentor Carlyle, who brought an unremitting skepticism to both sides of the French Revolution, Stone thinks that "mass man is a dangerous creature -- it's the same mentality that produced Hitler and Stalin."
It is much harder for Stone to describe what he does believe in, except that "the myth of original sin is onto something." But "I wouldn't want it to be thought that I represent a position of comfortable despair," he says. By exposing readers to ugly ambiguities, he believes, he is abetting "the awareness of ironies and continuities, showing people that being decent is really hard and that we carry within ourselves our own worst enemy."
An earnestly bourgeois aspiration. And as you watch Stone shoveling up the veal parmigiana, or walking to the less expensive drugstore for his prescription ("a touch of gout") or kidding with Deidre ("I bet he didn't tell you that he watches 'Days of Our Lives,' did he?" "Only three times!" Stone protests. "With my son!") you can almost believe his solid burgher number.
Almost. But the paperback and movie sales of "Flag" are due soon, and for Stone, a lump of money has always been a ticket to ride: "I think I've been here long enough," he says. After all, "I've walked out on all the scenes. But eventually I may look for a place to really stay."