Remembering Robert Stone

Lee Polevoi

 

Everyone who loves to read can name a book that changed their lives. For me, it was Dog Soldiers, a novel written by Robert Stone, who died recently in Key West. The novel, Stone’s second, grafted a compulsively readable narrative onto a precise evocation of the war in Vietnam and what was happening back home. No writer described the era’s pathos, self-absorption and reckless abandon as well as he did. The 60’s died in Dog Soldiers and by the novel’s end, we understood why.

I had the good fortune to study with Bob many years ago at Amherst College, and have enjoyed and learned a great deal from his work ever since. His gifts for creating plot, characters, milieu, dialogue, suspense and simply beautiful language are unmatched in our time. Whether it’s John Converse in Dog Soldiers smuggling kilos of heroin into the U.S., or Pablo, the exceptionally dangerous speed freak in A Flag for Sunrise, or Owen Browne in Outerbridge Reach, who dies in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat—in Stone’s parade of characters generally too smart for their own good, sentimentality is ruthlessly expunged and readers are invited to stare into the abyss.

In “Under the Pitons,” the author’s themes and love of exotic settings were distilled in one nearly perfect short story. Liam Blessington has been engaged by a mentally unstable Frenchmen to sail the Sans Regret to Martinique and sell the cocaine they’ve stored in the ship’s hull. Two women join them for the trip, one named Gillian, a Texas girl who likes to “come on deck stark naked.” Everyone on board is drunk and stoned and Blessington fears that “an eruption of hard-core, coke-and-speed-headed paranoia could destroy them all.”

 

 

With the boat anchored in sight of the Pitons, the Frenchman rebuffs the approach of “boat boys” intent perhaps on robbing or killing them. Sometime later, all four passengers partake of an innocent swim in Caribbean waters. Too late, Blessington realizes that the boat boys have undone the boat’s mooring lines. He and the others watch the San Regret drifting away and with it, what’s left of their lives:

“Blessington turned over to float on his back and tried to calm himself. Overhead the sky was utterly cloudless. Moving his eyes only a little, he could see the great green tower of Gros Piton, shining like Jacob’s ladder itself, thrusting toward the empty blue. Incredibly far above, a plane drew out its jet trail, a barely visible needle stitching the tiniest flaw in the vast perfect seamless curtain of day. Miles and miles above, beyond imagining.”

As in nearly all of his work, “Under the Pitons” offers a clear-eyed acceptance by everyone involved that hell is just around the corner, so why not take insane and often fatal risks in the meantime? This perspective coalesced for me upon first reading Dog Soldiers, and later I came to see it has forever influenced the way I write fiction—and, for better or worse, how I see the world. For the privilege of working with Bob Stone, it’s well worth it.

 

Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, author of A Moon in Deep Winter, is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic.

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