Bob Stone was my favorite contemporary novelist. When I learned that he passed away on the same day as Anita Ekberg, I immediately thought of him as a young man watching Fellini's La Dolce Vita at the old Thalia theater on Broadway, which is where he would have seen it when it came out in 1960. Stone loved movies, and he no doubt reveled in the famous scene where Ekberg wades into the Trevi Fountains in all of her babe-alicious glamour and anoints Marcello Mastroianni. How I would have loved to ask him about his impressions of that scene and its impact on him. Had you told him, "Bob, you're going to die on the same day as Anita Ekberg," I suspect he would have had something very wry to say about it...
I was twenty one and already working in publishing when I read Dog Soldiers, his second novel which won the National Book Award. I was stunned by its scope and emotional power, and by Stone's tremendous sense of economy and control. It was like Joseph Conrad had taken acid, gone to Vietnam, and written a tale about heroin smuggling that personified the entire dark side of the American misadventure there and exposed its strange juxtaposition to the counterculture--but ultimately, like all great novels, it was about the human heart and soul and the eternal struggle between darkness and light. These were his great themes. Wallace Stegner wrote that he "writes like a bird, like an angel, like a con man, like someone so high on pot that he is scraping his shoes on the stars."
Stone was my kind of writer and I sought him out, interviewing him after A Flag For Sunrise, his novel about Central America, came out; and then after the publication of Children of Light, his novel of Hollywood and cocaine. He was a fascinating person to interview, and always very kind and encouraging about my own work, but it wasn't until I interviewed him for my book Can't Find My Way Home that I felt I truly got to know him. He was summering on Block Island and invited me out and over the course of a memorable day shared with me in great detail his experience of coming to California in the early 60s, meeting Ken Kesey in the Stanford Writing Program, and participating in the birth of whole psychedelic counterculture--the part of his life he would later chronicle in his great memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties.
"Innocence is a funny thing," he told me. "It made me feel like I had found a special and worthy place."
His childhood had been challenging, to say the least. Abandoned by his father, his mother was a schizophrenic ex-school teacher, always in and out of institutions before he was sent to a Marist orphanage--all of which begins to explain the loneliness and isolation that frames his work.
"One minute it seemed I was on the streets of New York, the next minute in the baths at the place that later became Esalen, naked with these people, smoking marijuana and watching the fog roll in off the ocean, and these hard feelings and attitudes just started melting away. At that moment, the early 60s, these august institutions seemed to be losing confidence--the universities, the corporations, the very fabric of the state--everything seemed like it would fall over if you pushed it, like it was up for grabs. And there was Kesey, who was really a born shaman, a great adventurer…"
Stone held me, spellbound, as he told his story. We were several miles off Block Island on a sail boat when he wrapped it up...
"From the beginning, deep down, I never felt that drugs were a good thing, but they were something wild and open and free," he concluded. "But nothing is free, and the biggest mistake we made was thinking that these experiences could be."
The sun was setting, suffusing the horizon in color, making me think of those rainbow-orange sherbet sunsets some of us had known back in those days.
"I would always wonder how it was that this party I had gone to in 1963 had somehow followed us out the door and down the street and was filling the world with Day-Glo colors and all manner of motion. I would wonder how we could get back to that party, back to that garden."
There was a profound wistfulness about him as he gazed off.
"Even now I do."
Don't we all, Bob? Farewell to a fine man and a great novelist...