To be alone in a windowless room with Robert Stone. It gives one pause.
Any of his first three novels demonstrates beyond argument that Stone's imagination is populated with twitchy misfits to whom life is a game of chicken played on mountain roads without guardrails. This is the man, decorated with literary awards though he may be, who sends deluded samurai heroin dealers to hole up in Southern California motels (in "Dog Soldiers"), who causes murderous drifters and cynical drug runners to collide with zealots, priests and the CIA in Latin America (in "A Flag for Sunrise"). Violence and betrayal emanate ominously from the pages.
Stone has been talking for several years about what he calls his "embourgeoisment," the abandonment of rambling and psychedelicizing for a more settled life. "You have to work at a novel every day," he observes in a voice that's actually rather gentle. "You have to be in fairly good shape." He looks harmless enough, a bit Kris Kringle-ish with his white beard and fine gray hair and thick sweater. And the room in question is merely a conference room in his publisher's offices.
But his new novel, "Children of Light," is not a comforting one. This time, Stone's characters sink into miasmas of madness, anomie and dope on a movie set in Baja, quite of their own accord; they don't need a Latin revolution or the post-Vietnam syndrome to propel them. When it comes to getting strung out, Stone says cheerfully, "Hollywood will do just fine."
Robert Stone goes to Hollywood? It's more that Robert Stone has been to Hollywood. He's written several screenplays, hung around lots of sets and heard lots of stories.
He found it "a little bit, in a civilized, downbeat way, like being on a crazy island ruled by a mad dictator." In the movie business, Stone reports, "I've met some of the best people I know and some of the worst people I've ever encountered . . .
"I knew enough about it to explore that condition," he decided. "It was relevant enough to America and to Americans, which is my basic theme, to write about."
Inside the conference room, Stone's pale eyes wander, as though checking for exits. But that may be because he's just returned from arts festivals in Australia and New Zealand and is, by his own admission, "slightly spacey" from the long flight.
"One of the things that puzzled me," he is musing about Hollywood, "was the element of gratuitous cruelty . . . the ability to use up talent with this prodigality, as though it were inexhaustible, as though people were replaceable. To buy up people's talent and then just completely crunch it and throw it back in their faces."
It may be partly his own talent -- which has won him the Faulkner Award for his first novel, "A Hall of Mirrors"; the National Book Award for "Dog Soldiers"; and an American Book Award nomination for "A Flag for Sunrise" -- he has in mind. The movie business, he says dryly, "is not the most successful aspect of my career."
Stone adapted "A Hall of Mirrors" for a movie awkwardly titled "WUSA" (initials were big after the success of "M*A*S*H"), which starred Paul Newman and "turned out rather badly," Stone recalls. "I really thought about taking my name off it. I was prevailed upon not to. It would be 'letting the side down.' I was very unhappy." And the movie was a flop anyway.
He actually resigned from his next project, the transformation of "Dog Soldiers" into a 1978 Karel Reisz film called "Who'll Stop the Rain?" In Stone's grim novel, Marge is a passive pill freak who joins a doomed heroin-smuggling scheme out of a combination of aimless kick-seeking and chloroformed morality. The filmmakers, Stone says, "were worried about where the sympathy was going to be invested. Marge was made to be utterly innocent of any collusion." The finished movie had "wonderful performances" by Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld, but Stone was again disappointed and the head of United Artists distribution was even more unhappy. "He hated it so much that he did everything he could to kill it," Stone says calmly.
Another screenplay, written with a British collaborator, died for lack of financing. "A Flag for Sunrise" was optioned but remains unproduced. Out of such episodes, plus the hanging around with movie makers that a younger Stone thought important, comes "Children of Light." One might suppose its portrayal of movie making (one part hysteria, one part faithless manipulation, add coke and shake) would guarantee that it would never become a movie.
Stone smiles. Such naivete'. "The film industry loves nothing more and does nothing better than making movies about the film industry."
He will never adapt another of his novels for the screen, however. "Movies are above all photography," he says. "You don't need dialogue. Movies got along fine without it for years. It means, for writers, that writing for movies is not very much fun. It's not rewarding."
But, yes, he's still susceptible to the idea of adapting someone else's, or writing an original. "It's an empty dream, but one always sort of hopes."
Empty dreams are a familiar Stone theme; it's not surprising that he uncovers them on a movie location as well as in right-wing plots, left-wing insurrections, mission hospitals, one-time ashrams and Berkeley bars. Still, the new novel's relatively tame setting has brought a few murmurs from critics, who almost universally genuflect before Stone's biting dialogue and well-wrought sense of dread, but wonder if the fate of a Hollywood production can quite sustain so much despair.
"Obviously the life and death of hundreds of thousands of people is more important," Stone agrees, quoting from Rick in "Casablanca" about the problems of three little people not amounting to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But as the quote itself demonstrates, "no writer of my age and generation" -- he's 48 -- "was not to some degree influenced by movies . . . People's attitudes toward movies made the movies, as a phenomenon, particularly important in forming the American self-image . . .
"I'm bracing . . . for flak from people saying, 'With the world coming apart and the danger of war on every hand, how can you turn to something as secondary, as relatively trivial, as the problems of people making movies?' "
But after his last book, Stone remembers, a critic reviewing "A Flag for Sunrise" advised him "to stop using war and the suffering of millions. If I wanted to find existential angst, I should look in my own bathroom mirror. So this one is people looking in bathroom mirrors. You can't win." He shrugs, with a little laugh. "Either you're exploiting 'the suffering of the masses' or you're taking on 'a minor subject.'
"God willing, I will write more complicated stories again. Turn to questions of war and peace and politics again. But I'm quite proud of this," he says of "Children of Light," which he describes as less "Dos Passos-like" than his earlier works, a "simple two-character story."
It's comical, too, in a horrifying sort of way. "It's fun to be funny," says Stone. "I like to think there's an element of transcendent hope in the grimness." Like characters in Beckett plays, he says, the people in "Children of Light" find "even on the edge, this clownishness, this humor."
It's the humor Stone will highlight later in a reading at the Three Lives Bookstore in the Village. He plans to read the pages in which Gordon Walker, screwed-up screen writer, meets his one-time lover Shelley at a decaying seaside hotel called the San Epifanio -- "a structure so outsized and crummy that the sight of it could taint the nicest day." He also wants to read the cameo appearance of Dr. Er Siriwai, Hollywood's favorite prescription-writer, who lit out just ahead of the posse and now, presiding over a cancer-cure clinic in Mexico, presents Gordon with "the only genuine Quaalude in the state."
He's looking forward to the evening. Having been "off and on an actor," he says, "I sort of like performing."
Stone has been a startling number of things off and on, including a resident of an orphanage while his mother was hospitalized for schizophrenia (his father was never in evidence), a Navy man who read Melville aboard ship, one of Ken Kesey's acid-dropping Merry Pranksters, and a fabricator of bizarre "news" stories ("Exploding Cigar Kills Nine!") for a sleazy tabloid. That history, his candid discussions of his adventures with dope and alcohol, and most of all the books he writes make one skeptical of his claim to solid citizenship. But it's true, he says. "I'm working harder. Maybe I'm more aware of time. I've got a word processor. I'm trying to speed things up." He says he's drinking less, even if his characters aren't. ("They do seem to carry on," he agrees, indulgently. "Eventually I'll have to take measures.")
Embourgeoisment -- Stone's wooden house in Connecticut is now equipped with a VCR -- "is a good life style in terms of getting work done," he says. To finish the short stories he's working on, the big novels he wants to return to, "you can't feel unhealthy, dissipated, hung over, strung out . . . whatever word you want to use.
"Mens sana in corpore sano," he adds, sounding sincere if mildly embarrassed. One is hard-put to remember a single character in a Stone novel with a sound mind in a sound body. It definitely gives one pause.
The crowd wedged thigh-to-thigh on the carpets at the Three Lives Bookstore waits patiently. It seems appropriate that Stone be a little late for a reading. He might even do something outrageous, like Holliwell, the ruined anthropologist in "A Flag for Sunrise," who shows up raging drunk for a university lecture in Central America. These are true fans -- a number of people are lugging three or four well-read hard-covered volumes, more than a decade's worth of Stone's fiction, for the book-signing to follow -- and word of his embourgeoisment may not have reached them.
But he arrives shortly and moves through applause to the stool and lamp that await him. Novelist Steven Millhauser has headed this bill, reading from his new "In the Penny Arcade," but Stone is the star.
It feels a bit like ghost stories around the campfire, the lights dimmed, the listeners cross-legged and spellbound on the floor, the storyteller in a circle of light from a clip-on lamp. Stone gives the buffoon in the San Epifanio bar scene a W.C. Fieldsian voice. He has a brogue for Dr. Siriwai, who was educated in Dublin before becoming "Physician to the Stars." He gets lots of laughs; the crowd itself seems surprised at how many. Could the remorseless chronicler of the wasted be lightening up?
Stone himself had claimed earlier that clean living and hard work wasn't quite so dramatic a change for him as it might seem. "I've always pursued order and orderliness," he had said, though, "It has, to a greater or lesser degree, eluded me."
Afterward, though -- with the lights up and people pressed three-deep around him for autographs -- it seems that however orderly he seeks to become, it's Stone's disorderly walking wounded that attract the fans. People read him because he's dangerous.
"He writes about people in despair more powerfully than anyone I've ever read," says a young woman for whom Stone has graciously enscribed "A Flag for Sunrise" with his plain handwriting: For Jenny, with best wishes.
In fact, one middle-aged man presenting three novels for signing professes a bit of disappointment at the jolly reading. "They're much more frightening," he says of Stone's books, "when you read them yourself.