My father used to tell the story of the summer he spent touring Europe with his Uncle John. For five memorable weeks, he was allowed (or forced, depending on his mood) to ride shotgun in a decrepit VW bus, barnstorming the battlefields of World War II, listening to John – an uncle by marriage, practically a stranger – spin tales as tall as the day was long… never once stopping to pee. Last week, as I raced through Robert Stone’s new memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, I found myself recalling the tone with which my dad described that Continental adventure, a kind of affectionate exasperation, or exasperated affection. Revisiting mid-century America in Robert Stone’s company, it turns out, is a lot like traveling with a garrulous uncle. One is not always certain one’s getting the straight dope, nor is the telling without its longeurs. But one would hate not to have made the trip.
Stone himself returns repeatedly to questions of veracity, and declares himself to be after bigger fish than “just the facts”:
So much can be said about the intersections of life and language, the degree to which language can be made to serve the truth. By the truth I mean unresisted insight, which is what gets us by, which makes one person’s life and sufferings comprehensible to another. We take an experience, or a character, an event, and so to speak we write a poem about it.
The deepest insights in Prime Green harmonize the sensory impressions of how the world felt then to young Bob Stone, with the hard-won skepticism of a writer many years his senior. In chapters on Ken Kesey and Vietnam and helter-skelter Los Angeles, Stone probes the self-delusions and selfishness that underwrote the Sixties counterculture, while doing honor to its outsized personalities and nobler aspirations.
The story starts not in the Sixties proper, but in 1958, aboard a naval transport ship traversing the globe. We see Robert Stone, fresh out of high school, exploring the shore and dreaming away the days at sea. The beauty of the ocean and its creatures would seem to bespeak the essential benevolence of nature, but racism in South Africa and a bombing campaign in Egypt trumpet the human capacity for ugliness. (Both the Rousseauvian and the Hobbesian notes will crescendo in the decade to come.) Back home in New York, Stone gets married and tries to write. After a stint in New Orleans, he moves to California as a Stegner fellow at Stanford, falls in with a band of proto-hippies led by Ken Kesey, and thus launches headlong into the turbulent waters of the Sixties.
Writing about Kesey, Stone is at his best. The half of Prime Green that deals with Kesey could have been expanded and published on its own, under a separate title – Remembering the Chief. As it is, Stone’s account provides a compassionate complement to Tom Wolfe’s depiction of the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Stone’s love for Kesey is evident, yet a kind of fraternal competitiveness allows him to see the man behind the persona more fully than did Wolfe. We feel the powerful allure of Kesey’s charisma, without which the Sixties of pop-cultural memory might not have come into being – the “psychedelic movement,” the Grateful Dead, the road to Woodstock. But we also see glimmers of fascism and paranoia around the edges of Kesey’s ubermensch antinomianism… the beginning of the road to Altamont. More importantly, we come to understand the long silence that followed Kesey’s early burst of literary brilliance.
Stone himself suffered no such silence – after winning the National Book Award for his first novel, AHall of Mirrors, he published six others, as well as a book of short stories. (Larry McMurtry was also part of the prodigious group of Stegner fellows from the early 60s). In his seventh decade, Stone can still hammer out sentences of marvelous felicity and a kind of raffish charm. Moreover, focusing on his late friend and colleague Kesey frees Stone from the burden of writing about himself, which tends to nudge the aforementioned felicity toward glibness. The deceits and adulterous episodes that have marked his remarkable forty-five year marriage, for example, are mentioned almost in passing, tossed off as jokes. And the dark side of the author’s hard drug use, like that of free love, is everywhere alluded to but nowhere dramatized. “We had gone to a party in La Honda in 1963 that followed us out the door and into the street and filled the world with funny colors. But the prank was on us.” End chapter. (More please! one thinks.)
Apart from the long middle section that lingers on Kesey, Stone is most affecting when exploring his own failures of nerve and/or judgment. In early passages on South Africa and Jim-Crow New Orleans, he laments his own inability to take a public stand against apartheid, and thus illuminates the degree to which institutional racism depends on the silence and complicity of forward-thinking people. A queasy interlude in L.A. finds parents and their small children sharing balloons of nitrous oxide.
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!’ […] We’d been getting loaded watching small innocent children sucking gas from condoms.
An uproarious chapter recounts Stone’s stint writing for a tabloid called “the National Thunder. It was an imitation of the National Enquirer, lacking the delicacy and taste of the original.” And a late section on Vietnam, in which Stone excoriates himself for being a tourist in other people’s combat zone, hammers home the horrific senselessness of that war. (I regret to say that I’ve never read anything else by Robert Stone, but I plan to start with Dog Soldiers this summer.)
While providing a showcase for these bravura episodes, Prime Green remains somewhat ramshackle as a memoir. This may befit the anarchic, unfocused nature of the Sixties themselves, but it also speaks to an unsettling trend in the burgeoning confessional market: the memoir-as-article-collection. As with Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone, substantial chunks of Prime Green were first serialized in magazine form; to make them cohere into a sustained narrative requires a degree of readerly imagination, a filling in of holes.
Read Prime Green as a kind of compilation album, however – a sampler of Robert Stone’s range – and a quite different and more satisfying book emerges. In the course of 230 quick pages, we meet Ram Dass and Alger Hiss, undertake adventures in sex, drugs, war, and parenting, and encounter “unresisted insight” and wry humor in almost every paragraph. It’s like riding shotgun with Uncle John, except the trip moves faster, and touches down on five continents, and we can climb off this bus whenever we like. Buses, come to think of it, play a special role here. In Robert Stone’s nimble hands, Kesey’s “Furthur” becomes a metaphor for the Sixties themselves. Whether one was on the bus or off the bus back then, whether or not one had yet been born, one now lives, for better or for worse, in the landscape the counterculture transformed. It was, as Stone puts it, “…a journey of such holiness that being there – mere vulgar location – was instantly beside the point. From the moment the first demented teenager waved a naked farewell as Neal Cassady threw the clutch, everything entered the numinous.”