An existentialist look at the self-deceptions of the 60s, but what's the writer's point?

Review Memoir

January 14, 2007|By David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin,Los Angeles Times

Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties

Robert Stone

Ecco / 230 pages / $25.95

More than any other American writer, Robert Stone is a product of the 1960s - or maybe it's just that he was everywhere. Although he began the decade in New Orleans, his counterculture roots go back to Beat-era Times Square, where his wife, Janice, worked at the Seven Arts coffee shop, a meeting place for Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Herbert Huncke. Later, Stone moved to Northern California as a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University and became part of Ken Kesey's circle at his La Honda compound in the hills near Palo Alto; he also spent time in Mexico, Hollywood and London, becoming (to borrow a phrase from his 1975 novel Dog Soldiers) a "journalist of sorts" in Vietnam during the waning days of the war.

For Stone, however, the 1960s were not a Technicolor dreamscape but an abyss of moral ambiguity, indistinct and dangerous, a defining legacy of which has been the tendency to fool ourselves. As he suggests in his memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties: "Those of us who cared most deeply about the changes, those who gave their lives to them, were, I think, the most deceived. ... Curved, finned, corporate Tomorrowland, as presented at the 1964 World's Fair, was over before it began, and we were borne along with it into a future that no one would have recognized, a world that no one could have wanted. Sex, drugs and death were demystified. The LSD we took as a tonic of psychic liberation turned out to have been developed by CIA researchers as a weapon of the Cold War. We had gone to a party in La Honda in 1963 that followed us out the door and into the street and filled the world with funny colors. But the prank was on us."

Prime Green is Stone's first work of nonfiction, an opportunity, as it were, to get a glimpse behind the curtain of his novels. Opening in the late 1950s, the book continues, in fits and starts, through his 1971 reporting stint in Vietnam. If this makes for a broad definition of the decade, it's only appropriate, for history rarely fits the neat categorizations of human time. Rather, events have precedents, consequences; they grow out of one set of circumstances and into another, a loose chain of experience understood in retrospect, if at all. For Stone, that's one of the points here - the notion that memory is not orderly but kaleidoscopic, and meaning is what we bestow. "It's so long now that I have only fragments of recollection," he writes, "river mists, magnolia, gardens enclosed in old stone."

Indeed, he reminds us, there is no way to encompass reality even in a memoir, only the chance to circumscribe a shadow territory between fact and myth. "I decided," Stone explains, " ... that between `realism' and formalistic experiment there was no substantial difference. Originality was always welcome; experiments worked or they didn't. Language was language and life was life, one tracking, undermining, enlightening the other." That's a telling statement, offering insight into his sense of what exactly literature can do. The truth is elusive, and the best we can hope for is to frame a story that makes sense to us. All else is folly, false impression, the illusion of a self-deceiving mind. Or, as Kesey puts it, in one of the book's most trenchant comments: "If you've got it all together ... what's that all around it?"

Kesey's prankster persona drifts through much of Prime Green like an animating spirit - although, to his credit, Stone sees it for what it is. His account of the Merry Prankster era and its aftermath (in which Kesey faked his suicide and fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution on drug charges) is compelling not because Stone has anything new to tell us but because he recognizes the peculiar mix of hope and desperation that made the time what it was.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book lacks this focus; it's meandering, even dull. Part of the problem is that, despite Stone's presence at scenes ranging from the legendary Acid Tests to military briefing rooms, from Paul Newman's production office to the Beatles' Savile Row headquarters, he was never much of a joiner but someone who held himself apart. This, of course, is the key to his fiction, which revolves around loners and outcasts, cut loose in a cosmos they can't define. In that sense, it's hardly surprising that the best bits here are the interior observations, such as the description of sunrise over Mexico's Manzanillo Bay from which the memoir draws its name: "In the moments after dawn, before the sun had reached the peaks of the sierra, the slopes and valleys of the rain forest would explode in green light, erupting inside a silence that seemed barely to contain it. ... We called that light Prime Green; it was primal, primary, primo."

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