Robert Stone Confronts the ‘Random Promiscuity of Events’ in New Book

Lee Polevoi


The Eye You See With: Selected Nonfiction

By Robert Stone

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

366 pages


In an absorbing new biography, Madison Smartt Bell describes the late Robert Stone as “one of the most powerful and enduring writers of the late-20th century.” He’s right. Stone wrote at least three career-defining novels—Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, and Outerbridge Reach—a nearly unparalleled achievement in modern literature.


In addition to the biography, Child of Light, Bell has skillfully edited The Eye You See With, a broad selection of the novelist’s articles, essays, and other nonfiction pieces. The subjects Stone wrote about, as in his novels, range from accounts of the ravages of war in Vietnam to richly textured travel pieces set in Havana, Jerusalem, and other hot spots in-between.


The Vietnam War defined Stone’s voice and vision. After a brief sojourn in and around Saigon as a freelance reporter, he wrote the epochal Dog Soldiers, which brilliantly transplanted the agony and immorality of that far-off conflict onto home ground. Three kilos of pure heroin, smuggled from Vietnam back into the U.S. by the novel’s protagonist, John Converse, sends a small group of tormented people fleeing for their lives—and, within the framework of an exquisitely crafted thriller, captured what we all felt in the tawdry aftermath of that failed jungle war.


Drugs and alcohol played an active part throughout Stone’s work. This reflected his own experiences with intoxicants of one sort or another. It also found expression in the idea that mind-bending drugs and distorted perception might lead to a higher truth or to abject tragedy.



“It’s a mess when everybody’s high,” he writes in “A Higher Horror of the Whiteness.” “I liked it better when the weirdest thing around was me.”


In reports on political events, like the Republican Convention in New Orleans in 1988, Stone’s jaundiced but impeccably astute eye caught the repulsive nonsense of American politics. In The Eye You See With, there are also sensitively wrought essays on his struggles with Catholicism, and on how and why faith plays such a critical role in his fiction.


Some pieces, inevitably perhaps, suffer from the passage of years. Even for those of us who lived through it, the turmoil of the 1960s has become shrouded in memory. Stone got it right about the war, of course, and the disastrous effects on a generation of Americans. In both his fiction and nonfiction, he spoke in a uniquely mordant voice, in language that rang true in both high and low registers. Stone looked the heart of darkness in the eye and never flinched.


In the end, what seems to have propelled him through conflict with public and personal demons was the need to create fiction that stood for something. In “The Reason for Stories,” he explains:



“Storytelling is not a luxury to humanity; it’s almost as necessary as bread … As dreams are to waking life, so fiction is to reality. The brain can’t function without clearing its circuits during sleep, nor can we contemplate and analyze our situation without living some of the time in the world of the imagination, sorting and redefining the random promiscuity of events.”


The Eye You See With should drive admirers back to the work that first galvanized Robert Stone’s readers in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The novels mentioned above have lost none of their power and resonance. Open Dog Soldiers or A Flag for Sunrise and start reading. Chances are, you won’t be able to stop.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter, and recently completed a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Google Images

--Fotoshop Tofs (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Stuart Hampton (Pixabay, Creative Commons)              

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