By Robert Stone. Ecco, $25.95.
Pretty much the only emulator of Ernest Hemingway we’ve ever had any use for, Robert Stone was our favorite living novelist for a long time—the interval, specifically, in which he produced A Flag for Sunrise (1981), Children of Light (1986) and Outerbridge Reach (1992). Since then his fiction has declined in coherence and intensity to the extent that we’ve pondered giving his new titles a pass, fearing too many mediocrities would eventually erode our appreciation of his larger oeuvre.
But we’re glad we opted not to bypass Prime Green. While nowhere near as gripping as the best of his muscular and darkly ironic novels and short stories, Stone’s new memoir is well worth reading, whether as a freestanding work of social history or an informative annotation to his fiction. Moreso, even, than other autobiographies, ’60s memoirs tend to be exercises in moral preening, but Stone is disinclined to indulge his past selves and routinely—after the manner of his flawed and introspective protagonists—holds them to account for failures of insight and moral courage. Never a politico per se, and far less so than his politically charged novels would lead you to expect, Stone still definitely qualifies as an expert witness on the era. Discharged from the Navy in 1958, he married young and set out to establish himself as a writer, but also took up experimental drug use—of peyote, LSD, marijuana and nitrous oxide, among other substances—at an early stage of the game and hung out extensively with countercultural weathermakers like Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and all that mob. Steering well clear of Age of Aquarius vaporing and giving due attention to the darker aspects of the countercultural surge, Stone still delivers a particularly vivid sense of the contemporary utopian mood. And despite the many times he reproaches himself for personal failures, he ends by defending the failed revolution as a whole: “We were the chief victims of our own mistakes. Measuring ourselves against the masters of the present, we regret nothing except our failure to prevail.”—Cliff Doerksen