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Stone, Warm, Sober 

From laughing gas to nonalcoholic beer: Robert Stone in the ’60s and today

Wednesday, Jan 17 2007

Robert Stone’s friends are throwing him a farewell party. They’re in Los Angeles in the summer of ’69. Balloons are everywhere, but these are for inhaling nitrous oxide — that’s laughing gas in plain English — a substance later generations will refer to as “hippie crack.” The actual locale is lost to the mists of time, but given the circumstances and the time frame, let’s guess they’re in a posh Laurel Canyon bungalow, or maybe an apartment in the Hollywood flats, a seedy place with a frisson of glamour.

A little-known, 30-something fiction writer, Stone is in L.A. thanks to the good graces of progressive, socially conscious actor/director Paul Newman, who is adapting the author’s first book (A Hall of Mirrors) into a movie (WUSA) so mediocre, Stone will lament its “general badness.” That same summer Charles Manson’s disciples will visit two Southern California homes, murdering six and writing on the walls with human blood.

But, still, what a celebration they were having! To understand what it was like to live through 1969 we need only refer to Stone’s meticulous witness, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, in which he writes about the attendees’ children who got to play along:

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And the kids so liked the balloons, and of course they liked the gas too, taking the gas from the balloons. How this happened, what happened next, nobody is sure because everybody was ripped and fighting greedily over the gas, and the children were fighting greedily over the gas too. So to square it, even-steven it, we declared, we the adult authority, come on, kids, just one balloon’s worth to a kid.

When, would you believe, this one little tyke made this snarky face right at me and said ha ha or hee hee or some shit, “These aren’t balloons! They’re condoms!” And by the spirit of William James, they were condoms. We’d been getting loaded watching small innocent children sucking gas from condoms.

As one of Stone’s most treasured influences, Joseph Conrad, once wrote, The horror, the horror.

Today, Stone is a 69-year-old, much-lauded novelist. Though he always avoided vogues and never became an overexposed literary celebrity, a number of his novels have been best-sellers; his 1974 National Book Award winner, Dog Soldiers, is a staple of university surveys on post–World War II fiction; his work is regularly excerpted in The New Yorker; and, privately, he speaks of invitations to dinner parties alongside Salman Rushdie and Paul Auster. But, reminiscences like the one above make it clear that his path to the upper echelon of literary success was hardly straightforward.

Thanks in no small part to the pronouncements of critics, peers and close friends, Stone is viewed as one of the darker figures in the literary pantheon. As a younger man, he was a frequent visitor and presence at the La Honda, California, compound of Ken Kesey, author of the perennial best-seller One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was an extreme scene, one that gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson — no stranger to extremity — referred to as “the world capital of madness.” (Thompson was spending time there meeting and documenting the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, another group which frequented Kesey’s virtual commune.) Yet of all the drug-enhanced personalities in La Honda, Stone is the one Kesey labeled “a professional paranoid, someone who sees sinister forces behind every Oreo cookie.”

Take these descriptions with a grain of salt — Thompson’s métier was overstatement; Kesey loved to turn his friends into caricatures — but such accounts are the bedrock of Stone’s reputation. He is depicted as a living, breathing example of the loners and outcasts in his fiction; a 1997 Salon interview, for example, appeared under the headline “The Apostle of the Strung-Out.”

Before meeting Stone, one is steeled for a visit to the heart of darkness or at least to the lair of a hippie-era burnout. But then he opens the door to his apartment in the Yorkville section of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a quiet neighborhood rife with plumbing-repair stores, hobby shops and clothing retailers that happily disregard fashion.

Stone greets me with a smile — possibly warm, definitely courteous. There is a glint of recognition. I first met him in the late ’90s, as a student in one of his writing seminars; I last visited him about four years ago. His handshake feels stronger than it once did. His face seems brighter, and his features more animated. 2002 marked the final chapter in a nomadic, 30-year teaching career that included short stints at some of America’s best schools (Princeton, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, UC Irvine and UC San Diego) and, finally, an 11-year run at Yale. Retirement seems to suit him.

It’s easy to be impressed by Stone’s gravitas. He is rough-skinned and white-haired, and wears a longish beard that cascades off his face like a blizzard before it comes to a well-groomed point. He’s an imposing figure, yet one soft to the touch.

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