Robert Stone’s best work was inspired by the Vietnam War.

A review of Robert Stone “Dog Soldiers”; “A Flag for Sunrise”; “Outerbridge Reach”; 1,223pp. Library of America. $45.

In interviews two decades apart (1985 and 2006) Robert Stone recalled what happened after finishing a difficult section at the end of his second novel, Dog Soldiers (1974), while working in the basement of a university library. He staggered out of his carrel, crying and talking to himself, and “ran right into the security guard. He almost went for his gun because it’s the middle of the night, and I looked completely demented. You can get very, very affected”. Stone (1937–2015) equated his passionate immersion in the lives of his characters with that of Charles Dickens.

The section that triggered Stone’s emotional upheaval is a magnificent passage describing the last hours of Ray Hicks, a Nietzsche-reading ex-Marine who acts out a samurai fantasy in the California desert just south of Death Valley. Three years earlier during the Tet Offensive – the novel is set in 1971 – Hicks lost six of his comrades in Hue City and now, back in the States, he sees himself as a species of enlightened desperado. Bleeding steadily, and burdened with an M60 machine gun and a backpack of pure Vietnamese heroin, Hicks sings Marine cadence calls as he marches, observes hawks gliding in the wind, mentally chants lines from the Buddhist Heart of Wisdom Sutra (“Form is not different from nothingness. They are the same”), and remembers his mother washing pots in a Chicago Salvation Army shelter. At the base of his skull he erects a psychic triangle of dark blue, encases within it a circle of bright red, and then impounds his pain inside the two perimeters. When the pain throbs too much, he titivates the triangle, hones the edges. This extended, wrenching depiction of Hicks’s ebbing consciousness is rendered with hallucinatory power.

Hicks’s spiritual guru, an-ex Jesuit named Dieter, describes him as “a natural man of Zen … there was absolutely no difference between thought and action for him”.

In the end there were not many things worth wanting – for the serious man, the samurai. But there were some. In the end, if the serious man is still bound to illusion, he selects the worthiest illusion and takes a stand. The illusion might be of waiting for one woman to come under his hands. Of being with her and shivering in the same moment. If I walk away from this, he thought, I’ll be an old man – all ghosts, and hangovers and mellow recollections. Fuck it, he thought, follow the blood. This is the one. This is the one to follow till it crashes.

The Dog Soldiers of the title refers to the Cheyenne warrior bands who were the point of the spear in the battle against white encroachment before and after the Civil War. Dog Soldiers were expected to fight as if already dead: in compensation they were deemed holy warriors. Although the central action of the novel follows the violent struggle over the smuggled heroin, it is the intense inner life of its major figures, including the horrid crew of miscreants who pursue Hicks, that is of paramount interest. In addition to Hicks, the novel’s roster includes Dieter, the drunken rōshi; John Converse, Hicks’s feckless Marine buddy; Converse’s plucky wife, Marge, who flees with Hicks and the drugs; and a rogue federal drug official and his two sadistic sidekicks, who torture Converse to extract information on the whereabouts of Hicks and Marge. All are complicit in placing themselves in situations not unlike those of the Dog Soldiers; all are on a pilgrim’s journey. Stone put it best in his description of the characters in his next novel, A Flag for Sunrise(1981): “They’re always getting little glints of what may or may not be God. All of them are pursuing something beyond themselves … everybody’s after a new morning”.

Outerbridge Reach (1992), the story of a solo, round-the-world sailing race, is the third novel in the Library of America volume edited by Stone’s biographer, Madison Smartt Bell. Like the other two, it calls to mind the novels of Graham Greene set in Africa, Mexico, Cuba and Vietnam. Stone dismissed claims of influence, however, and was negative about Greene in several interviews, claiming that their concerns were quite different, but his comments probably should be chalked up to what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”. In their presentation of memorable characters receptive to the numinous, susceptible to godly glints, their novels are damnably congruent. Both authors explore the same kind of existential sinkholes in deftly plotted, character-driven action narratives set in a mixture of cosmopolitan and remote settings. Both suffered the same kind of bullying as adolescents, and both were sympathetic to the tenets of Catholic eschatology on the importance of the moments before death. Stone claimed that one of the key characters in A Flag for Sunrise, the drunken Father Egan, did not derive from the unnamed whisky priest in Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), but readers might remain unconvinced.

What distinguishes Stone’s work from Greene’s is his belief that American politics, at its best, has been a means of carrying out the moral ideals of the Enlightenment enshrined in the Constitution. This idealism, of course, was severely damaged by the nation’s Vietnam involvement, which Stone called “a mistake ten thousand miles long”, referring to the military supply chain that also returned 50,000 American corpses, some of them sharing a coffin with smuggled drugs. But the fact the peace party ultimately triumphed and the soldiers came home partially justified Stone in his belief. Greene’s indictment of America’s blind arrogance in Vietnam, as displayed in incipient form in his novel The Quiet American (1955), was more unforgiving. He didn’t see anything exceptional about American politics or morality – far from it. Stone, who spent a couple of months in Vietnam in 1971 as the Americans were handing over the fighting to the South Vietnamese, had a more complex view. On the one hand, he decided that the North Koreans and Viet Cong were not as virtuous as he had previously supposed, but on the other he concluded that “America is a state of mind that you can’t export”.

The central character in Outerbridge Reach is Owen Browne, a fortyish salesman of fancy sailboats. After valorous service in Vietnam, he feels spiritually empty. When his tycoon boss disappears in a financial scandal, Browne embraces the chance to replace him in a globe-girdling race, sailing south from New York via Outerbridge Reach to the South Atlantic on an untried 45-foot sloop built by his company. Another Vietnam veteran, Ron Strickland, a filmmaker, is documenting Browne’s single-handed effort (he gives Browne a camera). Stone admitted that his novel was based in part on Donald Crowhurst’s fraudulent, fatal, one-man circumnavigation attempt in 1968–9. Browne, however, is a more complex figure, who recalls both Lord Jim and Billy Budd in his psychic dimensions. T. S. Eliot’s line about risk-taking sums up Browne’s psychological stance on the eve of his departure: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”.

The long novel moves sluggishly (enlivened mainly by the seduction of Browne’s wife by Strickland), until its final 100 pages, when Browne gets underway on the Nona and the novel begins to amass force in its adroit intercutting between the filmmaker’s venality and the disintegration of Browne’s mind as he moves through forty-foot waves in the Roaring Forties. After he destroys the transponder signalling his location and cuts off contact with his handlers in the US, his only link to humanity is Mad Max, a blind ham radio operator who sends him riddles in Morse code. Intermittently, his dilemma begins to cohere: continuing the race will lead to insanity, but discontinuing it and returning ignominiously to New York will lead to ruination. And so, like Crowhurst, he begins to create a detailed false log of his positions, with appropriate wind and weather notations, as if he is sailing east towards the Cape of Good Hope, rather than moving in circles beneath the Southern Cross off the coast of Argentina.

All three novels unfold in the long shadow of the Vietnam war. Most of the major characters spent time there, and were alternately beguiled and scarred by their experiences. And the sociopolitical effects course through the narratives. The drug epidemic and a loss of faith in government lead the list; also high is the apparently undiminished American appetite for intervention in underdeveloped countries. Frank Holliwell, a leading character in A Flag for Sunrise, gets enmeshed in a failed revolution after a former CIA colleague in Vietnam inveigles him into investigating a medical mission in Central America. The mission is run by the sodden Father Egan and a nun-nurse, Justin Feeney, both of whom are sympathetic to leftist revolutionaries. Holliwell’s blundering implicates Feeney and leads to her capture by the reactionary government supported by the US. Stone has been praised for his portraits of women, and the portrayal of Feeney may be his finest. None of the Americans’ efforts succeeds, and the government, with the a few nudges from the CIA, brutally quells the revolt. Towards the end, the novel’s half-cynical, half-hopeful observer, Holliwell, reflects on heroism:

Apparently it was his fate to witness popular wars; Vietnam had been a popular war among his radical friends. As a witness to that popular war he had seen people on both sides act bravely and have their moments. Popular wars, as thrilling as they might be to radicals, were quite as shitty as everything else but like certain thrilling, unperfected operas – like everything else in fact – they had their moments. People’s moments did not last that long.

In a career spanning half a century, Stone wrote eight novels and two collections of short stories, a memoir and a collection of non-fiction essays, as well as several screenplays, including the one for the film version of Dog Soldiers starring Nick Nolte as Ray Hicks, Who’ll Stop the Rain (1977). The novels collected here are advertised as his “three greatest”, and it’s a fair claim. The editor has wisely skipped over Stone’s first, immature effort, the hallucinatory Hall of Mirrors (1966), which deals with the counter culture in New Orleans, and also his least successful novel, Children of Light (1986), a Hollywood story of drugs and schizophrenia. Stone taught creative writing for decades at Yale University and several other schools, and he drew on his experience in two novels with academic settings, Bay of Souls (2003), which was not well-received, and Death of the Black-Haired Girl (2013). The latter, published a year before his death, concerns an adulterous, deadly love affair between an unsteady, brilliant professor at a small college and his extraordinary and beautiful student. Like all Stone’s best efforts, it is propelled by paranoia and fear. More than one critic has pointed out that Black-Haired Girl explores the same web of lust, religion and guilt to be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850).

The only novel excluded from this collection that does ranks with the “three greatest” is Stone’s longest and most ambitious, Damascus Gate (1998), a reflection of his long-standing interest in the existentialist tradition of an absconded God. This passion led him to make a serious study not only of the Old and New Testaments, but also of the Qu’ran, the Kabbalah and the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Gospels. All come into play in this book that links Stone’s absorption in the religious traditions and texts of the three Abrahamic religions with his abiding interest in international intrigue and violent revolutionary schemes.

The range of Stone’s accomplishments notwithstanding, it is likely that his reputation will endure as one of the finest American writers of the Vietnam War. In his punctilious depictions of the conflict and its aftermath (Stone once referred to himself as “a slothful perfectionist”), he stands in the company of Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried, 1990), Larry Heinemann (Paco’s Story, 1987), Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War, 1977) and Michael Herr (Dispatches, 1977). What Herr wrote of himself, applies equally well to Stone: “I went to cover the war, and the war covered me”.

Originally published in The Times Literary Supplement.