Remembering Robert Stone

In the Words of His Friends

I still remember where I was when I read Robert Stone for the first time: sitting on a bench in San Francisco’s Washington Square, after a long day teaching English to boys in a Catholic high school, trying to excite them about literature and beginning to need some of that excitement myself. I had picked up a copy of Dog Soldiers on my brother’s recommendation, and I remember where I started reading it because it begins with his man Converse reading on a park bench in Saigon, and the strange mirroring sensation I felt was deepened by the fact that I had also been in that park on Tu Do Street, maybe on the very bench where Converse sat.

And then he begins talking to the missionary woman on the bench beside him, a woman some years older than he, and ends by trying to pick her up, an invitation she declines, saying as she leaves, “Satan is very powerful here.” “Yes,” Converse replies, “he would be.”

I was caught, and I stayed caught from that day to this. Robert Stone left us a shelf of books that will stand with the best. Classic novels—Dog Soldiers, Hall of Mirrors, A Flag for Sunrise, Outerbridge Reach, to name just four; an indelible memoir of living on the edge in the sixties, Prime Green; and a number of indispensable short stories, one of which, “Helping,” has achieved a presence in the story canon akin to that of such monuments as “The Dead” and “Cathedral” and “Revelation.” His novels and stories are deadly serious, his characters sorely tried by events and their own weaknesses, hanging on for dear life to their sense of hope and purpose, their faith in themselves and others, their very sanity, yet the work is never leaden or dour, and indeed it is often very funny, as he was.

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