Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1994 Issue

Notes on the Stone Age

By T.H. Kern

"I really believe in insight," says acclaimed novelist Robert Stone. "It's part of the doctrine that truth is beauty--which is true." Stone joined The Writing Seminars faculty two years ago amid much fanfare. Few would have guessed then that his stay at Hopkins would be so brief.

One fall afternoon, novelist Robert Stone is sitting at a group of tables wedged together in a small Homewood classroom. The room, in the basement of Gilman Hall, is drab and simple, ornamented only by the hum of fluorescent lights. Twelve undergraduates, quiet and smartly dressed, sit around the tables in a horseshoe configuration. It is past 4:30, nearing the end of class, and Stone is talking about sound and prose.

"Prose is very much like music," he says, his somber face lit by a hint of energy behind the eyes. "It attempts to induce in its reader an altered state of consciousness. That altered state of consciousness should be a continuous process, so that the lines, the words, the sounds connect in the way that notes in music connect. When you write, you're trying to crowd somebody out of their space in a good cause. When it fails, when the music fails, it's disrupting that process--you're losing the game."

As Stone speaks, in a low, reedy voice, his body remains still except for his head, which at times juts forward at the chin, as if pulled by the force of his syllables. With his thinning gray hair and silver beard--a brilliant white around his mouth--he has the look of an experienced sea salt, someone who looks into the sun without wincing.

He continues. "That is why it is called art. Because there is a certain suggestion about it of sleight of hand. You don't get caught using the machinery." These comments are the latest in a series of criticisms Stone has been leveling at a story written by one of the students in the class.

True to form, his critique has been methodical and precise. He has picked out weak spots in the story's plot and dialogue, questioned the behavior of the characters, revealed faults in the narrative, and expressed concern over the story's refusal to acknowledge moral conflicts lurking beneath its smooth surface.

Stone has been dismantling the story for 20 minutes, and many of the young writers in the room are beginning to look tired, even a bit peaked. Half an hour before, each of them had spoken about the story at hand, giving pointed, thoughtful comments and listening to what the others had to say. Now, however, they are slumped in their chairs, staring at the floor or out the window. One is doodling. Unconsciously, these students are performing a pantomime familiar to every teacher: an intellectual sitdown strike, the we quit of classroom body language.

Stone, however, continues to plug away, oblivious to the lethargy that has invaded his classroom. Right now he is focused on a passage where a character sits in the "urban silence" of his apartment. "Ought we not know something more about where he is sitting in the apartment?" he asks, frowning. "For the scene to be set, for the experience to begin, we need to know something more about where he is located. The phrase seems to make things less precise than they ought to be. It's like shorthand, and it reads like shorthand--it sounds incomplete."

Unexpectedly, the professor falls silent. The clock has wound into the final moments of class, a few minutes before five. A peal of student laughter comes from the sidewalk outside. The more fidgety of the students begin to relax; it's almost over. A number of them start to put their papers away and talk quietly among themselves.

But Stone isn't finished. A moment later, he resumes his commentary. Papers once again come quickly into view, and one student, annoyed at being held captive, makes a face at one of his classmates--his expression says, Yikes.

Both in person and in print, Robert Stone comes across as a person of distilled mental energies, the kind he can neither ignore nor shut off. Stone, 57, joined The Writing Seminars as a professor two years ago, filling the shoes of longtime fiction guru John Barth, who then became professor emeritus. His appointment marked a shift in tone for the department, and for the head fiction post in particular. Though he brought with him impressive credentials as a novelist and teacher (at Princeton, Amherst, and the University of California-San Diego, among others), his austere body of work (often compared to the novels of Melville and Conrad) provided a sharp contrast to Barth's more intellectually playful oeuvre.

But then, if the Writing Seminars had been seeking levity, they might have tried courting somebody else. Stone's reputation is built largely upon five novels, written over the past three decades. Though few in number, his books--A Hall of Mirrors (1967), Dog Soldiers (1974), A Flag for Sunrise (1981), Children of Light (1986), and Outerbridge Reach (1992)--etch a vision of the world as stark and disturbing as any in contemporary American fiction.

Most of Stone's characters are preoccupied with a desire for some kind of resolution in their lives. Caught in middle- age ennui, or simply feeling stagnant, they manufacture quests and adventures for themselves to hurry along the life transformation that they imagine as their own. What they find once out of the gate, however, is not brisk reward or success, but a world with a seemingly bottomless capacity for chaos and punishment. Entanglements that at first seemed minor reveal additional, knotted fibers; strong people lose their resolve; bad luck showers down from above. Once caught, Stone characters spiral progressively deeper into situations where there is, as one observes, "damn little justice and no mercy."

One archetypal struggle comes in Outerbridge Reach, Stone's most recent novel, which was both a national bestseller and a nominee for three major literary awards. It details the midlife tribulations of Owen Browne, a Vietnam veteran who works as an advertising copywriter for a recreational boat company. Browne is haunted by Vietnam, but not by memories of combat: it is his vision of self, his sense of patriotism and moral justice, that have fallen into disrepair, needing he knows not what to fix them. When circumstances conspire to give him the chance to race a sailboat alone around the world, he volunteers, having convinced himself that his life demands the validation of a potentially deadly test of courage.

Once at sea, Browne discovers flaws in his craft, loses his bearings, and begins to reassess the curve of his entire life--a sequence of events typical of Stone's characters. Halfway through the book, the journey begins to bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Browne's larger plight, as a man adrift:

Listening to the wind, Browne recalled that, with luck, noise was the worst part of certain experiences. Lashed within his bubble, he struggled with the helm. For hours it had been blowing over sixty miles an hour_. Surfing down the crests brought a double vertigo. Each slide promised to bottom out into nothingness itself, each stalling of the rudder brought him the sickening impotence of an unresponding helm. In each trough his bow dug deeper into blue water, the vessel shuddering as though scalded as she tried to rise. He felt he was riding the edge of a green wall that closed off possibility, thinly balanced, accelerating and about to fall. Spinning out, every minute.

The dismal marshalling of elements in Stone's novels can fast lead one to the question of why anyone would read them. The answer, simply, is that they encase total worlds that are convincing and evocative, resonant in ways that few novels today attempt to be. "Every now and then I'll read something contemporary that gives me the distinct feeling it is pressing on my life and may hold out the chance of changing me in some way," says critic Sven Birkerts, who reviews books for The New Republic and is author of the book American Energies. "In A Flag for Sunrise I remember that distinctly--thinking that this was not something I was merely reading, but that was really assaulting me the way books did when I was 12 or 14."

A critic remarked years ago upon Stone's "cruel wit," a phrase that still brings a smile to his face. "There is in the world cruelty, gratuitous cruelty, and of course that fascinates me," he says after class one day. "People seem to require that they hurt each other. To a degree, I am going for the slight shudder when I write."

Indeed, Stone has an astonishing ear for the ways in which people speak to each other when they have nothing left to lose. In his most recent published short story, "Helping" (1987), the protagonist, Elliot, breaks an 18-month abstinence from alcohol and is con- fronted by his wife, Grace. Elliot, furious at his own weakness, is indignant. After a round of self-assessment typical of Stone's characters--Elliot regards life as an unpleasant necessity--he lashes out at her: "'What you have to understand, Grace, is that this drink I'm having'--he raised the glass toward her in a gesture of salute--'is the only worthwhile thing I've done in the last year and a half. It's the only thing in my life that means jack shit, the closest thing to satisfaction I've had. Now how can you begrudge me that? It's the best I'm capable of.'"

Encountered in person, Robert Stone comes across quite differently than on the page. A compact man of medium height, he has a disposition at once bearish and gentle. His customary attire is casual slacks, workshirts, and sweaters, faintly dusted with hair from his beard. His expression tends to blankness, though his eyes are often furious with activity. At the same time, however, Stone is quiet and courtly--he doesn't look like he could assault anything, in print or otherwise--and he wears an air of reserve that at times seems as if it will fold him into some invisible corner of himself.

It is only in extended conversation (or when the discussion heats up in class) that Stone breaks his genteel demeanor and speaks with conviction, as if trying to propel his thoughts into the back of an amphitheatre.

"I really believe that everything is harder than it seems," he says one day in the office he shares with John Barth. "Getting through the day is much harder than it seems. This is, of course, an extension of the Jansenist belief that life is by itself difficult, but I really think that it's true. Life is difficult. It is difficult to behave well. It is difficult to find meaning in life. It is difficult to behave honorably, and it is difficult to be truthful."

Born in New York City, Stone spent the first 16 years of his life living with his mother in furnished rooms and apartment hotels, mostly on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His mother, a schizophrenic, had for years been a schoolteacher. "She was a cultivated person," he recalls. "And our relationship was really quite warm. She read, and she liked art. She behaved as though books were important things." Stone did not know his father and does not mention him.

After being kicked out of Catholic school at age 15, Stone joined the Navy, where he earned a high school diploma during four years at sea. He spent most of his free time reading--fiction, poetry, philosophy--and returned to New York in 1958. He attended New York University for a semester and met Janice Burr, whom he married late the next year. The couple have three children, all grown. Janice, who has a master's degree in counseling, now works as his editorial assistant. "It's become sort of a family business," he explains.

When Stone was at Stanford on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in the early 1960s, he and Janice began spending time with the novelist Ken Kesey and his group of "Merry Pranksters," whose exploits Tom Wolfe eventually chronicled in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The Kesey association has brought Stone a bizarre fame and credibility over the years; much of the drug scene he witnessed during the period later filtered strongly into his novels. But Stone remembers the time less glamorously than Wolfe. "Wolfe makes it sound like fun, and it was," Stone says, trailing off. "But it was something else as well. You could never be sure when somebody was going to put something--acid or something else--in your drink."

With his usual proclivity for adventure, Stone has in recent years written substantial articles on Fidel Castro's Cuba, gays and lesbians in the military, cocaine abuse in America, the Republican National Convention, and the sheltered elites of communist Eastern Europe. All of these were pieces based on his own reporting. Earlier this spring Stone had hoped to join a flotilla of medical supplies bound for Cuba, planning to write about the trek--this just after a research trip to the Middle East, which is the setting for his next novel. "I really travel far too much," he laments, concerned that it slows the progress of his fiction.

Reading Stone's magazine pieces, which are as purposeful in their way as his books, one wonders what the man does for recreation. When asked to contribute a piece to Esquire for its 60th Anniversary Issue, subtitled "60 Things Every Man Should Know," Stone joined the ranks of essays about boxing, women, fashion, and maleness with "You Only Die Once." It chronicled a scare he had in the 1960s with a suspected brain tumor, and told of his trip to the clinic for a scan, which then involved boring holes in the skull--while the patient was conscious, of course. Stone's tumor proved benign, but that doesn't make the piece any less disturbing. As usual with his writing, the scare is the primary point: the scare and the introspection it brings about.

Though Stone doesn't say so, it is clear that he views the scare as a useful tool to urge people toward self- examination, a habit he finds in rather short supply in America today. It is something that he believes is sorely needed. In his view, the United States lost its collective sense of purpose during the upheavals of the 1960s. Three decades later, the country has yet to move beyond the loss of certainties that accompanied the period, and remains in a state that Stone characterizes as "a moral crisis"--a situation, appropriately enough, much like that which plagues many of the characters in his novels.

"There were structures that people turned to for moral guidance, and those structures have for the most part lost their own self-confidence," he says. "No new ones really seem to have replaced them. Anybody who has raised kids knows that it's a really tough time to raise children_. You have to practically invent a moral system for them. They're going to question; where are the answers to their questions? We don't know. We've lost faith in our traditions."

But can a good scare, even if delivered by a work of literature, make any difference in the way people conduct their lives, run their nations, and maintain their morals? Yes and no, according to Stone. "I really believe in insight," he says quietly. "Insight makes people better. It isn't enough to make someone over, but it is a moral force. It's a positive moral force, because it locates the individual, it helps the individual locate himself in terms of the world and in terms of other people. And that is part of a good thing. It's not the whole good thing, but it seems that we have little else, that I'm aware of, than our energy and our insight."

It is telling that, in his seminars, Stone does not bring any of his larger philosophical views to bear on discussion. He doesn't talk politics; he doesn't talk about his own books. He does not cultivate the buddy-buddy camaraderie many writing teachers do; but he doesn't play pedant, either, and he doesn't condescend to his students. He just sits in his chair and listens, a famous writer who is paid to teach students how to write.

That doesn't mean that surviving a Stone seminar is a breeze. "I remember when he did my first story, he said it was 'obvious' and 'sentimental,'" recalls graduate student Elizabeth Harris with a laugh. "And when you're starting out, that's kind of depressing to hear. But it raises your standards. It makes you aim higher next time."

Harris continues, "Sometimes he would tell people their work was missing an epiphany--what he called the poem of the story. And that is really an intangible thing, but it is tremendously helpful. The best thing about Stone is that he pointed out things that no one else could see, and he was very blunt."

Like anyone, Stone has good weeks and bad. Teaching is his job, but not the purpose that propels him through life. He is, after all, a novelist. Balancing the two jobs he views simply. "When it's the thing before you," he says, "do it as best you can." He has prejudices about some varieties of fiction, which has alienated him from some students and endeared him to others. He has a tendency to miss details in a story from time to time, for which he apologizes on the spot.

For some reason, or perhaps no reason, he inspires fear among his students. A number of them declined to be interviewed about him. One day at the start of his graduate class, Stone dropped into his seat and regarded the group. "How are you all going?" he asked shyly, like a divorced father greeting his distant children. Nods and pleasant smiles came from around the room, and several students murmured encouragements, as if to put his worries to rest. Stone was not assuaged. "I have two lovely hours and a half," he said, "and I would welcome anyone who wants to talk about their work." For the remainder of the term, students continued to avoid his office hours.

Whatever the cause of Stone's distance from his students, the issue became a moot one at Hopkins this spring, when he announced he was leaving to take a permanent job at Yale in the fall. His reasons for moving had less to do with Hopkins, he said, than with a desire to remain near the small waterfront house where he and his wife have spent most of their time for more than two decades. "I would have happily continued teaching at Hopkins. It's not as if I was driven to despair teaching there," he said. Later he added, "It's a great program, and the undergraduates there are really, really good. They have a bit of an inferiority complex, and they compare themselves unfavorably to other institutions. You hear that all the time--that Hopkins was their second choice. Still, they were as good as the best students I've ever had."

The Yale program will allow Stone to teach nonfiction writing and undergraduate classes only--a plus, he believes. "Where everyone is an undergraduate, it doesn't become so vital that I represent the world, in terms of accepting or rejecting somebody's work," he said.

Writing Seminars chair John Irwin, who immediately began the search for another novelist to fill Stone's vacant post, was laconic about Stone's short stay. "Of course we're sorry to see him go," Irwin said. "Bob is a wonderful writer, but he wanted to be closer to his home."

There is a legend among American writers about John Updike, author of more than 20 books, who tried to teach writing to college students but soon gave up. The reason, Updike confided to a friend, was that his bright, eager pupils saw dozens of ways in which to write a story; he saw only one. Updike said that he "felt stupid" as a result.

"I can really relate to that," says Stone, a smile drifting into his austere features. "Sometimes I almost think that there exists a Platonic ideal, a perfect story that you have to get to--the statue within the block of granite."

T.H. Kern '92 writes from Connecticut.

From Dog Soldiers

The Cambodians were still gawking skyward when bits of steel began to cut them up. Converse saw the wire-service man dive for the grass and did the same.

After the first detonations there was the sparest moment of silent astonishment. The screams were ground down by the second strike. Men rolled in the road calling on Buddha or wandered about weeping, holding themselves together as though embarrassed at their own destructibility--until the things or the concussions knocked them down.

A man was nailed Christlike to a tree beside the road, a shrine.

Converse lay clinging to earth and life, his mouth full of sweet grass. Around him the screams, the bombs, the whistling splinters swelled their sickening volume until they blotted out sanity and light. It was then that he cried, although he had not realized it at the time.

In the course of being fragmentation-bombed by the South Vietnamese Air Force, Converse experienced several insights; he did not welcome them although they came as no surprise.

One insight was that the ordinary physical world through which one shuffled heedless and half-assed toward nonentity was capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death. Existence was a trap; the testy patience of things as they are might be exhausted at any moment.

Another was that in the single moment when the breathing world had hurled itself screeching and murderous at his throat, he had recognized the absolute correctness of its move. In those seconds, it seemed absurd that he had ever been allowed to go his foolish way, pursuing notions and small joys. He was ashamed of the casual arrogance with which he had presumed to scurry about creation. From the bottom of his heart, he concurred in the moral necessity of his annihilation.

-Dog Soldiers was the winner of a 1975 National Book Award.

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