Robert Stone, prize-winning novelist, who has been compared to authors Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, was touring Los Angeles on the occasion of the publication of his fourth book, “Children of Light.” A recipient of a prestigious award for each of his first three novels, he was being roundly interviewed here while earnest critics reviewed “Children of Light” (Alfred A. Knopf: $17.95) in the national and local press.
This time the location of Stone’s story is Hollywood. To be precise, Hollywood on location, filming in Mexico. In “Children of Light,” Stone--typecast by one reviewer as “the apostle of strung out"--once again examined the convergence of myth and reality. Hollywood, the kingpin of contemporary myth making, isn’t on film this time, but on litmus paper.
Novels and Awards
Stone, 48, has some experience with Hollywood. His first novel, “A Hall of Mirrors” (1968) for which he won the Faulkner Award, became the movie “WUSA.” He received the National Book Award in 1975 for “Dog Soldiers,” which was adapted to the film “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” Both movies were disappointingly short of the novels’ dark, ironic complexities.
“Adapting a book (to film) is kind of hopeless,” Stone said. “Writing for movies is not a lot of fun for writers. You feel that you’re infinitely replaceable. You don’t control the timing; you don’t control the unfolding of the plot or what the person with the camera does. Consequently you’re just not the storyteller.”
What did Stone learn from his Hollywood experiences? “An attitude of second-rate machismo and brutality. And cruelty. Gratuitous cruelty. It just rang in my ears.” In “Children of Light” tough scenes of the industry in action pitch forward, like film sprung loose from a can.
Cruelty drops a piercing plumb line in Stone’s novels. Cruelty toward others, and cruelty reversed against one’s self. It is this substantive rage that has fueled Stone’s characters. In “A Hall of Mirrors,” which won the 1982 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, three 1960s drop-outs find themselves in a nest of right-wing fanatics in New Orleans, mixing America’s apocalyptic racial and political conflicts. In “Dog Soldiers,” the war in Vietnam comes home in three kilos of smuggled heroin, a perverted protest of the war. “A Flag for Sunrise,” an increasingly prescient telling of U.S. intervention in Central America, sets yet another stage where Stone intercepts and sets forth his view of today where “an Old World order and an old moral order are breaking up.”
The shattered worlds in each of his novels are endured by people who are thrown upon their own resources. For better and for worse, their resources include seemingly bottomless reservoirs of alcohol and drugs. “I have tried to make this as elemental and true about everything that I have seen with men and women; I work in extreme situations,” Stone said.
“I think that all my protagonists have a kind of pride in their loneliness, a kind of spiteful pride. The one thing they believe in--all of them--they believe in their fundamental honesty. Their perception is their dynamic. They say, ‘I may drink, I may take drugs, I may betray my talent but I never lie to myself.’ ” About which, he observes, “They’re not always correct.”
Stone’s character in “Children of Light,” Gordon Walker, screenwriter and sometime Shakespearean actor, is a man who has lost control of inventing the story of his life. Using the available logic at hand, Walker takes Quaaludes to ease himself off alcohol and cocaine. “He is nothing more than death on horseback on a quest,” said Stone, himself a sometime-working Shakespearean actor. Walker is headed south to the film location in Mexico where his script, an adaptation of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel “The Awakening,” is being shot. Walker had written the screenplay 10 years earlier for the focus of his obsession, former lover and the movie’s star, Lu Anne Bourgeois, his “dark angel.”
“He thinks he’s romance itself, but actually he’s destruction because he’s so deluded,” Stone said. “She’s a performer. One of the people she’ll perform for is him. So when they get together it’s fatal. The whole business going on between Walker and Lu Anne is folly and misapprehension, but on the other hand they are absolutely on the same wavelength.”
In the novel, Walker doesn’t have a chance in shaping the filming of his screenplay; no one on the set respects him. And the director wants to steal his writing credit.
“Children of Light” sets up painfully differing realities that implicitly ask the question: What’s real?
On the set in the Baja desert, a make-believe Louisiana avenue has been created complete with live oaks from Northern California. They drip with Spanish moss. Lu Anne, a Louisianan, a Catholic, and a schizophrenic, calms herself by looking into her dressing-room mirror to see if she can see the reassuring face of a character from a past and favorite role: Rosalind, the sane and indomitable figure in Shakespeare’s comedy, “As You Like It.” Threatened by her inner demons, Lu Anne seesaws between Rosalind and the character she plays in “The Awakening” who escapes the tyranny of her life, through the ultimate solution of suicide.
Lu Anne has two enemies: her illness and a job in which the picture’s director takes the risk of her flipping out, perhaps wants her to go insane.
What does Stone think of suicide, which occurs by women in two out of his four novels? “I believe, as I believe Walker believes, that people get themselves killed or kill themselves, not because they want death, but because they want a more abundant life. Because they want a richer, deeper, vaster, brighter kind of life. And that is inextricably connected to the impulse toward destruction.
“This is not recognized as such. But it’s my idea about why people kill themselves.”
But preceding death is a litany of trust perverted that, in conversation, brings Stone to an idea he wants to emphasize. “I want to write about how difficult it is for people to behave decently, let alone to behave well. It is really much more difficult for people to behave in a decent fashion than most people realize.”
Stone, whose generation was strongly marked by drugs and the Vietnam War, grew up in New York City, raised by a schizophrenic mother. In the ‘60s he spent some years in the California counterculture as one of Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters.” He said he only drinks socially and doesn’t take drugs now, that if he were dependent on drugs and alcohol, he would be wasting his creative energy.
In all of Stone’s novels, his protagonists have not faced up to or used their gift. “That very quality of excellence or talent just becomes a kind of bile that goes dead and turns to poison.”
Why aren’t these gifts used? “Because life isn’t perfect and nothing is going to be good enough.”
In Stone’s work, his characters struggle to do the best they can in treacherous situations, turning on themselves instead of the external enemy. Because of this bleak and persuasive vision of our national landscape, does Stone think that there has been a historical change in the way people handle betrayal?
“I don’t know if it happens more now than in the past. I do know that the old order is breaking up and people are going to be thrown more upon their own in the future. We live in a much greater state of chaos and our acts are much less thought out and controlled than we admit.”