Robert Stone's life tells in his fiction


March 22, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

New York -- There's not much Robert Stone remembers about his first trip to Baltimore. After all, he was but 17, a raw recruit in the Navy. The young radioman had only a short time in the city before shipping out.

So, like thousands of servicemen before and since, he and some buddies chose the most obvious cultural attraction. They went to the Block.

"All I remember is that a bunch of us went down to East Baltimore Street," the novelist says, as he sits in a friend's East Side apartment, smiling as he recalls the incident. "I can't remember the names of the places, but we did make a few strip joints."

When Robert Stone returns to Baltimore, it will be for a longer period and in more socially acceptable circumstances -- and his credentials will be slightly more impressive. Beginning next spring, he will be a visiting professor of fiction in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, a position well befitting his status as one of the leading American writers -- a reputation bolstered even more by the recent publication of "Outerbridge Reach," his fifth novel, a rich and splendidly written work that has gotten mostly ecstatic reviews ("powerfully Conradian," a reviewer for the New York Times wrote).

The Writing Seminars, in fact, likes Mr. Stone so much that it is recruiting him for a tenured, permanent position; a decision will be made by the university this spring. He would fill the vacancy left by the retirement last year of novelist John Barth, a longtime member of the department, who continues to teach part-time.

"He's always been a very serious writer and takes on very serious themes," says Stephen Dixon, a professor of fiction in the Writing Seminars who has known Mr. Stone since the mid-1960s, when both were in the creative writing program at Stanford University. "He reminds me somewhat of Dostoevski, not only in appearance [Dostoevski was bearded, as is Mr. Stone] but in his work -- the darkness, the people questioning their attitudes."

For his part, Mr. Stone says that when he considered returning to teaching in the past few years -- he's taught at Harvard, Princeton and Amherst, among other places -- Hopkins "was on the short list of places I would consider."

"I liked the people there, and it has an excellent reputation," Mr. Stone, 54, says. "And I was ready to teach again. When they approached me, I was more than willing to listen."

That Mr. Stone would be comfortable teaching at universities might come as a surprise to some fans. For not only has he written some of the most vivid prose about the underside of America, he has also lived that life outside the pages.

For some, he's the embodiment of that romantic and elusive (and possibly erroneous) image of the writer's life: free-wheeling, at the center of the storm, down there with the hustlers and life's losers and those who have committed no other sin than to have been left behind.

There's a lot of truth to that perception. Robert Stone never went to college, and has held any number of odd jobs, ranging from radioman in the Navy to New Orleans census taker to radio

actor. His cavorting with writer Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters was memorably chronicled in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." There were the months spent in Vietnam in 1971 as a journalist that became the source material for "Dog Soldiers," his harrowing novel of drug smuggling and a country torn asunder, politically and morally, by the war.

To that thinking, he follows in the tradition of Jack London and John Steinbeck and the grandest chest-puffer of them all, Ernest Hemingway. He's not just dreaming up pretty stories out of the air: He's lived the life.

"I'm not saying that every writer needs to lead the life I did to write," Mr. Stone acknowledges. "But there's no question that it helped me. I like writing about people who are living on the edge."

But there's the quiet, reflective side to Mr. Stone as well, and it comes across especially in conversation. Then, he appears an ++ unlikely candidate to be the swashbuckling auteur: He's thoughtful, gentle and soft-spoken. On this particular late-winter day, he's got the texts from several books lying about in the study, including a copy of James Joyce's "Dubliners."

Mr. Stone sounds very much like the writing teacher as he discusses "Dubliners." "An absolutely essential work for a student of writing," Mr. Stone says, almost reverently. "I've used several of these stories in my teaching. The characters, the depth of them. . . . " He shakes his head as his voice trails off.

He acknowledges that some readers of his early works might be disappointed by the characters and themes in "Outerbridge Reach." There's nary a drug smuggler in this novel, or a Central American revolutionary or a Bible-thumper or con man. The central character, Owen Browne, is a guy involved in a serious mid-life crisis, and he's proving his mettle by -- here we go -- sailing a yacht.

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