Reviewed by Ben
When you think of major American novelists of the second half of the 20th century, Robert Stone’s name might not come to mind, but it should. Stone, who died in 2015 at the age of 77, wrote 8 novels and a handful of short story collections, memoirs, and movie scripts. Stone was born in Brooklyn and had a Dickensian upbringing; his father left early and his mother, suffering from mental illness, was institutionalized, leaving Robert in the care of a Catholic orphanage for a number of years. When his mother was released from the hospital, they kicked around New York and Chicago and were in and out of homelessness. He was in a knife-wielding street gang called the Saxons. He was expelled from Catholic school for showing up to class drunk and fashioning himself a sort of rebellious Luther. He joined the Navy at 17 and sailed to Antarctica and Egypt where he saw the French air force strafe a sea full of Egyptian fishermen. Without any kind of degree and on the strength of early short stories, he was awarded a Stegner fellowship at Stanford where he orbited the scene that grew around Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.
In the early 1970s Stone was sent to Vietnam as a reporter by a small British newspaper. Out of this experience came his 1975 National Book Award winning novel, Dog Soldiers. I recently picked it off our shelves here on the recommendation of a friend and I’m glad I did. It starts out in Vietnam following the trail of John Converse, an art-damaged journalist afloat in a warzone. It feels like you’re in the territory of Graham Greene or maybe something like The Year of Living Dangerously – expat abroad in a war zone. But soon the action shifts back to the US where John Converse has sent a package of heroin smuggled by an old friend. His friend, Hicks, meets up with Converse’s wife, Marge and it quickly becomes clear that none of the characters have any business pulling off a large international drug deal. As things go sideways, Stone paints a brutal picture of America in the 1970s, where the last dregs of the peace and love era grind against the hard greed of a violent land. The writing is clear-eyed and beautifully straightforward. A little Hemingway, a little Elmore Leonard, but all Robert Stone. A writer to revisit and get to know.