Robert Anthony Stone (born 1937) was an American novelist whose preoccupations were politics, the media, and the random, senseless violence and cruelty that pervade contemporary life both in the United States and in parts of the world where United States' influence has extended, such as Latin America and Vietnam. His vision of the world is dark but powerful.
Robert Anthony Stone was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 21, 1937, to C. Homer and Gladys Catherine (Grant) Stone. His mother had been a teacher, but her career was cut short by schizophrenia. Her husband having deserted his family, she supported herself and her son by working as a chambermaid. The two lived in a succession of rooming houses and welfare hotels. Stone attended a parochial school, Archbishop Malloy High School, until he was asked to leave because of truancy and atheistic beliefs.
For a year he lived in New Orleans, which was later to provide the setting for his first novel. It was here that he joined the Navy in 1955. He was discharged in 1958, and the following year he married Janice C. Burr, a social worker. The couple had two children, Ian and Deirdre. He studied for one year at New York University and then attended Stanford.
His first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), won him the William Faulkner Foundation Award. In 1982 he was awarded the John Dos Passos Prize for literature, and he also won an award for literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He taught at various colleges and universities, including Harvard. He lived in the early 1990s in Amherst.
The mirrors to which A Hall of Mirrors alluded are a recurring theme in the novel. The various characters bear either physical or psychological scars, and Stone seems to be saying that mirrors reflect the scars that life has bestowed on us but that they do not show how or why we have obtained those scars. Rheinhardt, the protagonist of the novel, is a musician who finds employment in New Orleans with a high-powered, right-wing evangelist and radio station owner who uses the air waves to mercilessly exploit his listeners and employees in the furtherance of his ideas.
In the 1960s Stone came to know many of the figures of the Beat Generation—Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and others. He joined in the famous cross-country bus ride of the Merry Pranksters, a ride described hilariously by Tom Wolfe in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. A fellow passenger on the bus was Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with whom he formed a long-lasting friendship. Not surprisingly, Stone experimented with drugs and later attributed the discovery of a spiritual aspect of his life to this experimentation.
Not even his earlier experiments with drugs, however, were able to prepare him for what he found in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, where he traveled in 1971 and from where he sent a series of reports to the Manchester Guardian. Out of his first-hand observations of the drug trade came his classic novel Dog Soldiers (1974), which helped to establish his reputation as a writer. This novel was later made into the movie Who'll Stop the Rain (1978) staring Nick Nolte, Tuesday Weld, and Michael Moriarty.
Stone wrote out of his own experience. For him, fiction was another way to get at the truth without being fettered by facts. He said that fiction purifies reality, renders it into the insubstantiality of the dream, and there is certainly a dreamlike quality in all of his writing. As early as A Hall of Mirrors this aspect is evident. His handling of the episode involving Rheinhardt's adventures in Lake Ponchartrain takes on a quality so primordial as to suggest that the shock of recognition which the reader experiences may well be owing to the collective unconscious, which by definition is common to all humanity.
A Flag for Sunrise (1982) grew out of three visits which Stone made to Nicaragua, the first of which was undertaken merely as a scuba diving vacation. He was repelled by the casual and pervasive use of violence that characterized the Somoza regime. In the novel, however, Stone created his own country. In one especially graphic episode Father Egan, an American missionary who is one of the chief characters of the novel, is asked by an army officer to dispose of the body of a young American girl. The officer, who has murdered her, has stuffed her body into his refrigerator. The novel abounds in atrocities.
Children of Light (1986) deals with the film industry and is set in Hollywood, or at least part of it is. It is as bleak as his other works. Other American authors have also written novels about Hollywood—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Norman Mailer—and though there may have been a comic moment here or there, theirs have been as grim as his.
Stone believed that humor can mitigate the cruelty of human existence. He was serious about the craft of writing and considered that there is an indissoluble connection between fiction and morality, and that for that reason, the writer must do his best and never pander to political or commercial considerations. In other words, fiction must not corrupt itself, for in its pure state, it links humanity together and helps overcome isolation. In times of various kinds of disorder and upheaval, as for instance revolution and war, he saw the individual as being subsumed in the group; nevertheless, the individual comes to see himself at such a time for what he is. Stone seems to have applied this credo to his own work. Though his work often deals with violence, he never sensationalizes it. It is there to show the darker side of human existence, but one is sure that Stone hopes to see humankind rise above individual violence and war.
Other works by Stone included Outerbridge Reach (1992) and Bear and His Daughter (1997), both published by Houghton-Mifflin. Bear and His Daughter represented a departure from Stone's novel writing and was a collection of six previously published short stories plus a new novella for which the volume is named.
Further Reading on Robert Anthony Stone
Additional information on Robert Stone can be found in Eric James Schroeder, "Two Interviews: Talks with Tim O'Brien and Robert Stone," in Modern Fiction Studies (Spring 1984), and in Robert Stone, "The Reason for Stories: Toward a Moral Fiction," Harper's (June 1988), which is about his ideas on fiction. Paul Gray provides a lengthy review of Bear and His Daughter in Time magazine (April 7, 1997).