“I like big novels,” Robert Stone said in his 1985 Art of Fiction interview. “I really admire the grand slam.” Stone died last weekend in Florida, at seventy-seven. He leaves behind more than a few grand slams—broad, despairing, powerful books full of searchers, outsiders, and misfits. His work exudes what Jessica Hagedorn calls “exquisite paranoia and apocalyptic dread.”
Of course, descriptions like that can make his novels sound too potent—and one of the surprising things about Stone, it must be said, is how little he’s read these days. I hope that will change. As M. H. Miller wrote of him in 2013,
He’s a best-selling author whose work has been heaped with critical praise, but because of the long interims between books, he is more heard of than read by a certain generation of readers. Updike had Rabbit, Roth had Zuckerman, Norman Mailer had Gary Gilmore, even Joan Didion, whose novels are the least interesting thing about her, had Maria Wyeth. Among Mr. Stone’s books there is no clear standout, no obvious introduction. His work is best taken in tandem, like one long narrative where you age with the characters.
He’s right: among readers my age, Stone’s work has had that enviable air of mystery to it. He was always that major writer lurking in the distance. His books didn’t seem approachable, not because they were long or “difficult” but because, as the New York Times put it, they “resonate with philosophical concerns, the thin divides between life and death, good and evil, God and godlessness.” These were tomes about war and God and postwar tumult, and, uh, we definitely wanted to get to them, yes, but—maybe later?
And yet anyone who wanted to ignore him soon learned that you could not. Dog Soldiers, in particular, loomed large. The people who mentioned Stone were people who knew their shit—older, wiser folks—and they usually invoked him solemnly, with wide eyes and dilating pupils. You got the sense that maybe these weren’t books for the young: Stone was not about to be cosseted by a new and fawning generation.
But it’s wrong to make him sound so forbidding. What the obits haven’t pointed out—at least not the ones I’ve read—is Stone’s grim sense of humor, his gift for a certain kind of comic writing that does everything except make you laugh. (Though in parts of Prime Green he’s positively lighthearted, and often makes you laugh.) Thousands of dust-jacket flaps have depleted the phrase “darkly comic,” applying it to anyone who’s ever spent money at Hot Topic, but the writers who earn it are those like Stone, whose sensibilities were minted in the sixties and seventies, when perilously humorless men were running the world and irony was the most vital weapon in the counterculture’s arsenal. “Irony is my friend and brother,” Stone told The Paris Review. “There’s always some humor in all the awfulness I write about.”
He sells himself short, I think—there’s more than some. In that same issue of the Review was an excerpt from Children of Light, Stone’s latest novel at the time, in which Gordon Walker, a failed playwright, seeks out his schizophrenic ex, Lu Anne, in Mexico. Look at the glorious, surreal terror in this portion, where scatology meets eschatology. It hints at Stone’s complicated, rueful, very Catholic search for faith—of the same tint as Flannery O’Connor or Denis Johnson.
Lu Anne was lying in the stack of seed husks.
“Well,” he said, “that looks comfortable.”
“Oh, yes,” she said, “very comfortable.”
He lay down beside her in the warm sun and buried his arms in the seeds.
“Primal is right,” Lu Anne said. She laughed at him and shook her head. “You don’t know what this pile is do you? Do you? Because you’re a city boy.”
She sat in the pile, sweeping aside the seed husks with a rowing motion until the manure it covered was exposed and she sat naked in a mix of mud and droppings, swarming with tiny pale creatures that fled the light.
“There it is,” she told Walker. “The pigshit at the end of the rainbow. Didn’t you always know it was there?”
“You’ll get an infection,” Walker said. He was astonished at what Lu Anne had revealed to him. “You’re cut.”
“Out here waiting to be claimed, Gordon. Ain’t it mystical? How about a drink, man?”
When he bent to offer her the bottle she pulled him down into the pile beside her.
“I had a feeling you’d do that,” he said. “I thought … ”
“Stop explaining,” Lu Anne told him. Just shut up and groove on your pigshit. You earned it.”
“I guess it must work something like an orgone box,” Walker suggested.
“Walker,” Lu Anne said, “when will it cease, the incessant din of your goddam speculation? Will only death suffice to shut your cottonpicking mouth?”
“Sorry,” Walker said.
“Merciful heaven! Show the man a pile of shit and he’ll tell you how it works.” She made a wad of mud and pig manure and threw it in his face. “There, baby. There’s your orgone. Have an orgone-ism.”
She watched Walker attempt to brush the manure from his eyes.
“Wasn’t that therapeutic?” she asked. “Now you get the blessing.” She reached out and rubbed the stuff on his forehead in the form of a cross. “In the name of pigshit and pigshit and pigshit. Amen. Let us reflected in this holy season on the transience of being and all the stuff we done wrong. Let’s have Brother Walker here give us only a tiny sampling of the countless words at his command to tell us how we’re doing.”
“Yeah, we are,” Lu Anne told him. “We’re going with the flow. This is where the flow goes.”
“I wondered,” Walker said.
Stone excelled at many things. One of them, certainly, was showing us the pigshit at the end of the rainbow. I hope there are more writers who know the way there.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.