Robert Stone was born in August 1937, nine months after Don DeLillo and three – we’re told – after Thomas Pynchon. Dog Soldiers, his second novel, made his name in the mid-1970s, and since then he has stubbornly held his ground on the upper slopes of American literary life. Fellowships, prizes, grants and commissions have rarely been in short supply, and his later books – from A Flag for Sunrise to Damascus Gate – have been much admired. Unlike his more famous contemporaries, however, Stone has never achieved the high renown conferred by the combination of academic enshrinement and great visibility (or, in Pynchon’s case, invisibility). Nor is his work so well known outside the US. Despite some tremendous blurb-work from his reviewers (‘Mr Stone kicks the brain around; we live in heresy; Satan prevails’ – New York Times), he has remained a cultish figure: a bearded professor trailed by whispers of drugs, booze, Vietnam.
And Stone has impressive countercultural credentials. He was friends with Ken Kesey and served as a Merry Prankster, earning a walk-on part in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (‘Stone, still hypersensitive, seeing the FBI and Federales behind every cocoa palm – or else scorpions’). He also did some reporting in Vietnam. But although he has conceded that his interest in religion was reawakened by his experiences with LSD, it would be a mistake to write him off as an ageing ‘head’. His writing is corrosively sardonic about the myths of the 1960s, and his style – if not his material – is almost ostentatiously square: he is impatient with ‘the feyness . . . associated with Writer’s Liberation, the we’re-all-too-smart-for-storybooks number that has become so tiresome’. Dry third-person realism is Stone’s preferred technique, and the clarity of his narratives stands in pointed contrast to the bewilderment of their woozy leading men.
His best-known novels examine political and spiritual corruptions emanating from far-flung outposts of the American ‘imperium’. In Dog Soldiers the Vietnam War comes home in the form of a three-kilo consignment of Vietnamese heroin, which brings sorrow and death to the ex-peacenik types transporting it: ‘So much for the lover, the samurai, the Zen walker’, and so much for the commune, long reduced to a drug-addled cult. A Flag for Sunrise and Damascus Gate propel various Americans – tepid liberals, religious idealists, strung-out psychopaths – into violent collision during, respectively, revolution in a US-sponsored Central American dictatorship and the intifada of the early 1990s. Stone’s efforts in these two novels ‘to carry water on both shoulders’ politically can result in some rather mechanical point-counterpoint business. But there’s constant attention to nuance and ambiguity, designed to ambush the reader into ‘moral surprise’, and an impressively relentless pessimism.
It would be easy to accuse Stone’s novels of excessive butchness, not helped by their frequently thriller-like plots. The chargesheet could be extended to include queasy existentialism, hard-to-define politics, and a tendency for characters to run amok with AK47s. But he’s not Oliver Stone: he has it in for Oliver Stone. Nor – despite his beard, his tan, his Key West holiday home – is he Hemingway Reloaded. He has written literary novels about things that many literary writers have long since auctioned off to journalism. And he has done so without recourse to easy solutions. In Robert Stone’s 1970s imperial outposts, the characters aren’t allowed to act as he described Oliver Stone’s: rarely do ‘the hippies get to tell off flaky "establishment” journalists and too-handsome US military-industrial zombies,’ to everyone’s satisfaction.
Because hacks and spooks and alcoholic or heterodox priests appear in some of his books, Stone has frequently been compared to Graham Greene – a writer he thinks entirely ‘phony’. (The most sinister character in A Flag for Sunrise is a loud Englishman.) Like Greene, though, he is much concerned with faith, or the lack of it, and his novels are populated by distinct religious types. There’s often a seeker after mystical experience who cooks up eclectic, all-religions-are-one cosmologies. Most of these characters have immoderate appetites for drink or drugs, and their attempts to find transcendence mostly fail. Still, they are given enough time to explain their ideas in exhaustive detail. They also have acolytes, generally lapsed, though still filled with unearthly zeal; these tend to get killed. And there’s often an agnostic, middle-aged observer figure, intelligent, hard-drinking and post-Catholic. The comforts of religion are unavailable to these characters, who are ultimately thrown back on nothing but – a favourite quote – ‘the thing itself. Unaccommodated man’: ‘Despair was a foolish indulgence, less lethal than vain faith but demeaning. One could not oppose the armies of delusion with petulance. It was necessary to believe in oneself. Very, very difficult. One was a series of spasms, flashes. Without consistency, protean, infantile – but one would have to do.’ Life is about struggle; the struggle might be meaningless, but without it life would be meaningless as well. Or so the characters come to suspect.
Michael Ahearn, the leading man of Stone’s new novel, Bay of Souls, starts out as one of these worldly protagonists. Quietly dissatisfied, fond of the bottle but sustained by the unexamined vestiges of Catholic faith, he teaches American literature in a sterile Midwestern university town, Fort Salines. He is married to Kristin, an attractive but icy medievalist, and his main academic interest is something he calls ‘literary vitalism’: ‘Frank Norris, Dreiser, Kate Chopin, James Branch Cabell’. As he sees it, these writers traffic in ‘the purifying effect of struggle’, all ‘Eros and Thanatos’ and ‘solitary acts of personal liberation’. Teaching Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, he finds his students unwilling to recognise ‘the vitalism on which Red Badge turned, the priesthood of the life force, the riddle of blood and sacrifice’. So he obliquely prescribes William James’s essay ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’, in which his students – if they were to look it up – would find a description of war as ‘the strong life . . . life in extremis’. ‘Human life with no use for hardihood,’ James says, ‘would be contemptible.’
In his own life, Michael has little time for the priesthood of the life force. He doesn’t believe in it; implicitly, he has ‘been preaching against literary vitalism all his career’. His only concession to life in extremis is an annual hunting trip, and in the opening chapter he disappoints his son, Paul, by refusing to take him along on this desultory pilgrimage. With two university colleagues, Norman and Alvin, he paddles into the wilderness and promptly drops his torch in the river. He has a disconcerting encounter with a raging, swearing hunter, who drags a deer through the woods in a collapsible wheelbarrow – a ‘one-man danse macabre’ – and when the three men finally get a buck in their sights, Michael can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. On the way back, they see Michael’s torch, which continues to shine at the bottom of the stream. Then news arrives: his son is in hospital after an accident in the snow. ‘Paul’s vital signs are low,’ but, eventually, he pulls through.
Michael loses his faith. His son’s life was saved, but ‘the great thing had come out of nothing, of absolutely nothing, out of a kaleidoscope, out of a Cracker Jack box.’ He was ‘free at last and it didn’t mean a thing and it would all be over, some things sooner than later. His marriage, for one.’ Sure enough, Kristin grows increasingly distant and starts reading books by Protestant divines – an ominous signal. Michael hits the booze a little harder and begins to regret his contempt for the ‘self-conscious libertines’ of his vitalist canon: ‘If what he thought and said mattered, he would have to re-examine everything now.’
Enter Lara Purcell, a glamorous, cosmopolitan political scientist. Lara is from the Windward Islands, exotic and provocative, with a storied past and a casual, thrilling scorn for campus pieties. She is also, as Michael’s friend Norman puts it, ‘about the hottest babe in the history of the state’: she has a ‘small perfect ass’ and ‘strong firm breasts’. She and Michael hit it off over a game of racquetball and, pretty soon, they’re having hot kinky sex, enlivened by cocaine – which she provides – and erotic throttlings. After one session, in the course of which she menaces him, playfully, with a gun, Lara quotes some lines from Rilke and invites him to look them up (‘these little jeux d’esprit of the scholarly life are so wholesomely refreshing’): ‘And we, we glow as one. A new creature, invigorated by death.’ Michael knows, or thinks he knows, exactly what she means.
The novel now limbers up for a major change of pace. For the first time the narrative leaves Michael behind and shows us things from Lara’s point of view. She turns out to have had a spectacularly colourful career. Once a Soviet ‘agent of influence’, in which capacity she ‘met Castro and Graham Greene’, she has long since changed sides and is ‘assigned to a catch-all outfit’ run by right-wing fanatics. This outfit’s precise nature and aspirations remain mysterious: ‘senatorial aides’ and ‘huge right-wing connections’ are involved, ‘and it’s linked to the death of Allende and it’s linked to coke.’ Lara’s control, ‘an Argentine former military officer . . . who liked to call himself Triptelemos’, gives a taste of its unconventional character:
Triptelemos was a name he had acquired on acid many years before, although he looked not at all the type. He claimed he’d been given the LSD by Arthur Koestler, who had known Timothy Leary. She thought he might have got it in Buenos Aires from a CIA collaborator with the dirty war. His play name had something to do with spreading grain, fighting Communism. An acid vision. He believed in some variety of neo-Fascist revolution . . . Triptelemos, they said, had read French poetry to the people he was taking out to drop, alive, into the South Atlantic.
Lara, not surprisingly, wants out. But there are complications. She owns a hotel on the Caribbean island of St Trinity, where she grew up. Her brother, who has recently died and with whom she shared the ownership of the hotel, was involved in arranging contraband flights for Colombian militias affiliated to the Triptelemos brigade. The hotel is about to be sold and the smuggling operation wound up, but there are still some extra-legal duties for her to discharge.
More pressingly, from her point of view, there is also the question of her soul – her ti bon ange. Jean-Paul, it turns out, was an adept of les mystères. He ‘had the powers of a houngan’ and, it’s believed on St Trinity, once gave Lara’s soul to a baleful spirit, ‘a figure of rage and violence’ called Marinette. Lara wants her ti bon ange back. In order to get it, she must go to Jean-Paul’s funeral and participate in the ceremony of retirer les morts d’en bas de l’eau. After reclaiming his soul from under the sea, she can ask it to arrange the return of her own. Possession by indigenous spirits will be necessary during the ritual.
So Lara takes Michael to St Trinity, neglecting to mention her obligations to spookdom and voodoo. He, in turn, tells his wife that he’s going on a scuba-diving trip, and departs expecting a few days of illicit romance. This doesn’t work out. St Trinity is undergoing regime change. The new man, Junot, has American backing, and the island is infested with journalists and CIA men. Michael holes up in Lara’s decrepit hotel, drinking, alarmed by the ritual drums outside. Then the plane carrying the final contraband shipment crashes into the reef; like Michael’s dropped torch, its instrument panel continues to shine at the bottom of the sea. The Colombian milicianos threaten reprisals. Michael does a solo night-dive to reclaim the loot, but drops one of the cases; the Colombians’ response is discouraging. Just as they’re deciding whether or not to kill everybody, however, the propitious moment for the retirer ceremony arrives, and Michael comes face to face with Baron Samedi, voodoo spirit of sex and death, who, like the raging hunter in the Midwestern woods, appears pushing a dead creature around in a wheelbarrow. ‘When a man has his life between living and dying,’ he tells Michael, ‘he got to know me.’
It would be unfair to reveal too much more of what happens to Michael Ahearn. (Things don’t go well for him.) But it should be clear that Bay of Souls is a pretty crazy book – part campus novel, part spiritual quest and part Live and Let Die. In fairness to Stone’s considerable powers of persuasion, it seems more plausible on the page than it does in summary: the narrative rarely collapses into bathos, and there are few jarring shifts, few manglings of the gears, as the action swings from seminar room to seabed. In terms of form, though, the novel sends out mixed messages. In some ways, Bay of Souls is a fairly typical Stone book: a morally fraught adventure story told in an ironic, pared-down realist style. But it’s also a hallucinatory parable, with an intricate system (only partly sketched here) of foreshadowings and correspondences. There’s a lot more metafictional business, too, and – unusually for Stone – the novel increasingly jettisons plausibility in order to scale new heights of dreamlike symbolism.
Considered as a realist novel, in other words, Bay of Souls has lost the plot by about halfway through – although the foxy voodoo profs and right-wing acid freaks are enormously enjoyable. The catastrophe is unusually compressed, and the traditional political rumblings seem cursory. Then there are the sex scenes. ‘When he made her come he could hear the language of everything created beyond his understanding’: there’s a lot of this easily ridiculed erotic-sublime stuff. The retirer ritual, with its glowing snakes and capering spirits, is also hard to take seriously, and the conjunction of voodoo and crime cartels invokes the safari-suited spirit of Roger Moore. As the book proceeds, however, it becomes increasingly clear that the action is bodying forth a fable: the story of a man who, having talked the talk, tries to walk the walk, and fails. The talk is Michael’s pedagogic emphasis on human strenuousness – on self-transcendence through confrontation with ‘Eros and Thanatos’. But confronted by Eros and Thanatos personified, the exponent of ‘literary vitalism’ runs away. Does his failure invalidate his talk about ‘the purifying effect of struggle’? Is he a victim of bad practice or bad ideas?
Bay of Souls isn’t the first of Stone’s books to dramatise the competing claims of self-reliance and self-transcendence. Here, though, self-reference is involved as well. Michael’s teacherly doctrines have clear affinities with the ‘burden’ of Stone’s work, and there are numerous echoes of his earlier novels: the suspenseful dive recalls an episode in A Flag for Sunrise, the encounters with exotic insurgents recall Damascus Gate, and Lara’s visions at one point recall the alarming hallucinations in Children of Light – which, like Bay of Souls, makes frequent allusions to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. As a result of these correspondences, the novel’s main departures from Stone’s usual scenarios have a revisionary air. The shots at transcendence in Dog Soldiers and Damascus Gate all end in tears, with the participants either dead or swamped by lunacy. But Lara’s attempt to reclaim her soul is successful: the invisible powers can, it seems, be approached without harm, so long as the supplicant does so without fears and doubts.
Stone’s interest in religious experience has often served him well. As he has said, the use of an occasional otherworldly perspective gives writers ‘a level of elementary moral concern that can seem naive to readers far removed from it, including many contemporary Americans’. ‘Religion,’ Stone once told an interviewer, ‘is really only a metaphor about the relationship between the individual and the universe.’ In Bay of Souls, however, he literalises that metaphor to a perplexing degree. Lara describes les mystères as ‘stories . . . for children’, but she seems to do pretty well by them. So, we’re left wondering, is Baron Samedi really for real? Has Michael screwed up in a perilous transaction with the ineffable? Or has he become a figure out of Chesterton – a believer in nothing who ends up believing in everything? And aren’t these questions themselves, as Michael puts it at one point, ‘things that educated people had not troubled themselves with practically for centuries’? Well, Mr Stone kicks the brain around. We live in heresy. Satan prevails.