by Bob Schwartz
Author Robert Stone (1937-2015) died a couple of weeks ago. You may not know of him, but do celebrate his career by reading a little of his extraordinary work.
If you write, and if you read (which you should do, often and well, if you write), you may find yourself reading certain authors and saying: wow, I wish I could sound like that. Stone was one of those who had a voice so good that even when one of his many novels didn’t hit the mark, you still wanted to listen.
His most celebrated novel was his second, Dog Soldiers (1974), which Time magazine named to its list of the Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It may be the best novel written about the Vietnam War in America. It is a short, sharp, and compulsively readable take on the craziness and morality of it all. Compare to Francis Ford’s Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, also great, but big and spectacular, taking millions of dollars to do what Stone did in a few thousand words. (Speaking of movies, the film version of Dog Soldiers, called Who’ll Stop the Rain, is worth seeing only as evidence of the how great novels can and do go wrong on screen.)
Stone was interested in politics and government, particularly in the last quarter of the twentieth century, when those seemed to become unhinged and unmoored. People were becoming unhinged and unmoored too, but Stone never used his characters as mere stand-ins for ideas. He drew full-blooded, complex people.
He seemed to genuinely love people, even as they, and he, were at loose ends. If you like cultural history, read the memoir of his life and times in the early 1960s, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties. It is a sketch of his role as a writer and traveler in the early counterculture, and while it is a very small picture, his honesty and self-awareness are refreshing and appealing.
Back to novels, if you do read Dog Soldiers and want more, try A Flag for Sunrise (1981). While the general topic of this political thriller is turbulent military and foreign policy in Latin America at that time, the subtext is timeless and global—as in, none of the issues has gone away, or will.