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Prime Green

Remembering the Sixties, by Robert Stone (Ecco, 2007)

Although I wouldn't say that I'm a fan of novelist Robert Stone, I've read a few of his books with great interest, and tried to follow him into deserts of moral ambiguity that I didn't always understand. His novels seem to say something stark and grim about intelligent American men who can't find a place in the routinery of our established workplaces. The heroes of his books are tragic because a fundamentally bourgeois culture can't accommodate them. Which is another way of saying that they would be horribly whiny bores if Mr Stone weren't a topnotch writer.

Now 70 (or almost), Mr Stone has given us a memoir of his youth, Prime Green: Remembering the Sxities, but, as John Leonard complains in The New York Review of Books*P, "The youngster we meet in its pages doesn't in the least resemble the know-it-alls and nowhere men who show up in the novels." Despite what appears to be a voracious appetite for drugs, Mr Stone sailed through the troubled decade with only one dark moment. It occurred early on, when he and his wife, newly married, were living in New Orleans (it was more attainable than Paris). Janice was pregnant, and Bob was attacked by a very ugly devil. Acting with the inconsequence that healthy people can't sustain after thirty, he applied for a post with an itinerant theatre company and was accepted. It would have meant up and leaving his wife, who, all unawares, presently queried,

"What was the phantom job?" she asked. I was sitting a couple of feet away from her, looking down toward the river. I was thinking of towns like Lake Chickasaw, of the whole continent disappearing into times past. There was no chance that an experience like performing in The Cup would ever come my way again. I was too young to be tied down in this way. A world of adventures awaited, across continents and across oceans. A world of beautiful and available women of which the Christus's daughter, who indeed seemed to like me, was only the first.

I looked over at Janice. And I thought, She's done it to herself, committed to all this too young; she was just a kid. Committed to a louse like me, she'll find out what a selfish creep I am. She can pass the baby to her parents; they could help her, and she could have a life. And in turn I could have a life and cross those continents and oceans to where life was richer. To embrace fate, to live out the cruel rituals of life at the core of the flame, to do and to see everything. Oh, wow! To have the courage to be brutal and to reject convention and compromise. Chief Temple Guard was only the beginning.

I snuck another look at her, and indeed she looked beautiful. And being so young, she looked innocent and trusting. She looked as though she loved me.

So. At that moment I knew that I was not going anywhere.

Mr Stone paints himself in the self-deprecating colors of a wimp, but we know that he believed then as he believes now that he was doing the right thing, and also the right thing for his life. He would not be the best of husbands, at least in terms of round-the-clock presence and support. But he would always come back to his family - he would have two children - and he seems to be with them still. Surely the most heartwarming thing about Prime Green is the solid everyday goodness that seems to be Robert Stone's second nature, even when he hears the siren call of Hemingway's Peter Pan blasting at top volume.

There, I think, lies the answer to John Leonard's question. Where did Robert Stone learn about his damaged heroes? By his own wayside, it would appear; they were all them the men that he chose not to let himself become, simply by sticking to his own normality, which, for the most part, amounted to a huge commitment to writing. He could obviously imagine what would happen if he became the itinerant Temple Guard; even better, he could imagine the guilt and shame and regret that the runaway actor would feel until they forced him to drop down to some lower level of moral turpitude. It was in novels such as A Flag for Sunrise and Outerbridge Reach that he deserted his family and abandoned his values. This is only my surmise; Mr Stone admits to nothing of the kind. But I gather from Prime Green that he had enough genuine scrapes to prize the virtual reality of fiction.

The most entertaining scrape involved the writer's sojourn in Mexico. Sent on assignment by Esquire to see how Ken Kesey was dealing with self-imposed exile (he faced serious drug charges in California, for which he would eventually go to prison), Mr Stone wandered down to Manzanillo.

The Keseys' home was a few miles beyond the bay in a complex of three concrete buildings with crumbling roofs, partly enclosed by a broken concrete wall. We called one of the buildings the Casa Purina. Despite its chaste evocations, the name derived from the place's having once housed some operation of the Purina company, worldwide producers of animal feed and aids to husbandry. In the sheltered rooms, we stashed our gear and slung our hammocks. We occupied our time seeking oracular guidance in the I Ching and pursuing now vanished folk arts like clearing the seeds from our marijuana. (Older heads will remember how the seeds were removed from the bud clusters by shaking them loose onto the inverted top of a shoebox. Since the introduction of seedless dope, this homely craft has gone the way of great-grandma's butter churn.)

In other words, little time was spent on the Esquire piece, which was just as well, since it was never published. The merry pranksters managed to get out of Mexico just in time, having taken a while to register the ominous visits of a federal policeman. Kesey went to jail, and the author returned to New York, where he took on an odd job as "associate curator" at an old-fashioned Leftist art gallery. Here he would stay until his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, was published at last. Then he and his family decamped to Hampstead for a few months' visit that lasted four years.

A Hall of Mirrors was made into a movie by Paul Newman, WUSA (1970). This brought Mr Stone to Hollywood, where he was put up at the Beverly Hills.

This was all very blissful until I was shown my room, which was distressingly small. I have to say it was nicely decorated and had a window on Sunset, but still, here it was my night of nights, my sort of Star Is Born moment, so I thought, and I was presented by this sinister movie-German porter with a closet. I was cool; I behaved as though, like all the in-crowd, I knew perfectly well the secret of the Beverly Hills, which was that all the rooms were six by eight and that was what the midget in the lobby signified. I hastened to overtip Gerhard Eisler for carrying my bag and for not spitting directly in my face.

Waking up the next morning I tried to make it come out okay, that, as Alice said, there was plenty of room. Still, there wasn't. I couldn't for the longest time imagine what honor required. To call up and complain about the size of my room somehow seemed trifling, effete, absurdly self-important. At other times, not to do it seemed timid, overborne, supine. I decided, with no great confidence in my decision, to complain. When it seemed that no response was forthcoming from management, I called Coleytown Productions, Paul Newman's company at the Paramount lot. I felt humiliated in two dimensions. Anyway, speaking with John Foreman, Coleytown's producer, I let it be known that I was addressing him from a tangerine-tinted little-ease. With great courtesy he drove over, and I was extremely relieved to see that he was shocked.

"I didn't know they had rooms like these," John said.

However, they had them for me. I changed rooms..."

Robert Stone was too young to be a beatnik, and he never became a hippie. He did sprout a bushy, at times unruly beard, though, and on a cross-country bus trip in 1964 he was sucked into a nasty fight by a bunch of truckers, following sustained taunting on the bus. He was a fag; he was "with the niggers in Chester": he was a threat to the established order of provincial America. Prime Green marks the Sixties trail that led from innocent Bohemia to deadly confrontation, but it does so with a light hand. Mr Stone may have been disappointed by America, but if he was angry or bitter about its rejection of the possibilities that had seemed to lie within reach at the beginning of the decade, there is no evidence of that in his memoir. Eventually, the reader realizes that there will be no folksy outrage, no Maoist slogans, no immoderate table-pounding about "the revolution." Notwithstanding the company he kept, Robert Stone, even in the Sixties, was a writer, not a revolutionary. He was an attentive observer of details who could not quite overlook the implications of a tiny room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was in the hotel's giftshop, by the way, that he overheard the wife of a police deputy tell a co-worker the details of the Manson Family murders.

As the summer of 1969 lengthened, there was a whole lot of shaving going on in Los Angeles. Good-humored tolerance of the neo-bohemian scene was suspended, and whatever it was was not funny. Fear inhibited.

The reader may be inspired to have another look at Joan Didion's "The White Album."

Prime Green is a sweet book, one full of good stories. As memoirs go, it is not terribly personal; when Mr Stone writes about himself, it's usually to make an unflattering point that's not really so very unflattering. He talks very little about his wife and children, and one hesitates to draw conclusions from his silence - it has too many possible explanations. I like to think that Robert Stone, who grew up in rooming houses with his single mom, simply doesn't savor domestic arrangement. Prime Green is certainly no portrait of the artist: among the snapshots gathered at the center of the book, there is a picture of Ken Kesey at the typewriter, but none of the author, who never talks about the writing of A Hall of Mirrors. Prime Green ends up being pretty much as advertised: a recollection of the Sixties. It's all the more valuable, then, for its calm good humor and its patient sympathy. Some young men may have done things that seemed wild and self-destructive at the time, but it is certainly not the case that all hell broke lose. (February 2007)

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