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Life in a `bloody paradise'

Novelist Robert Stone turns to nonfiction to recall the `golden state' of California in the 1960s.

January 06, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York — ON a warm afternoon in the summer of 1969, the novelist Robert Stone and two friends were hiking in the Big Sur wilderness, beginning a three-day trek to a Zen monastery 27 miles away. It was a transcendentally beautiful moment, with the ocean crashing below. Then a park ranger's radio crackled to life: Two armed fugitives, one wearing a German army uniform, were loose in the area and considered highly dangerous.

Later that same night, U.S. astronauts began their historic moonwalk. As they gathered in the woods, some observers smoked marijuana and heckled the heavens; others got into fistfights. Stone pushed his face deep into his sleeping bag, convinced he could hear the astronauts clattering over the lunar surface, defiling its mystery once and for all. The threat from the two fugitives, meanwhile, had subsided.

"That day sums up the 1960s in California for me," Stone said recently, recalling a vivid moment in his just-published memoir, "Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties." The Golden State, he decided, "was a bloody paradise, and at first it seemed that there were no snakes. But of course there were snakes out there. They were everywhere."

During the last 40 years, Stone has established himself as one of America's most respected and provocative novelists. In books such as "A Hall of Mirrors," "Dog Soldiers," "A Flag for Sunrise" and "Damascus Gate," he has crafted tales that were either in tune with or one step ahead of the political zeitgeist. Laced with eerily prescient political turmoil and dark, cutting humor, his novels have explored the rise of right-wing talk radio, drugs and the Vietnam War, U.S. involvement in Central America and the explosive collision of cultures and religions in the Middle East.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 09, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Robert Stone: An article in Saturday's Calendar section included a photograph of Robert Stone and Ken Kesey in 1979 that was incorrectly labeled. Stone was the man on the right, Kesey on the left.

Stone, who won the National Book Award for "Dog Soldiers," was described by Time magazine as "the canary in our cultural coal mine, discovering hot spots and danger zones early." So why did he decide to look backward and write about the 1960s -- a decade that, to many, has become a psychological compost heap for aging boomers?

"There were stories I wanted to tell that I've been relating to others for many years," he said, settling into an old, worn sofa in his Manhattan apartment. "And I had always wanted to write about my life as a writer. But I also wanted to avoid a lot of confessional stuff. The main thing for me was to entertain the reader."

According to his editor, Daniel Halpern, Ecco's publisher, Stone made a fairly easy transition from fiction to memoir. "Bob had written so much about the '60s as a novelist, he'd done Vietnam, drugs, Hollywood, Ken Kesey. He had all the gifts of a great fiction writer, but he was relating his own experiences."

"Prime Green" is packed with stories charting Stone's journey from the streets of New York to the decks of naval transport ships; he was discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1958. The book chronicles his early stint at the New York Daily News, and his later blossoming as a writing fellow at Stanford University. He rode with Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on their legendary 1964 bus tour across America, and celebrated with them the early years of LSD experimentation in Northern California.

Later in the decade, as his first novel "A Hall of Mirrors" was turned into the movie "WUSA," which Paul Newman starred in and co-produced, Stone experienced the standard humiliations of a screenwriter in Hollywood. He also witnessed the paranoia gripping Los Angeles after the Charles Manson murders. The book ends with his stint as a contract journalist in Saigon, where he reported U.S. hypocrisy over the Vietnam War and the growing cultural rot that became the heart of "Dog Soldiers."

Stone's memoir also details his changing views of that era. To produce his first nonfiction book, the 69-year-old writer said he had to find a literary voice with which to tell real-life stories. And the narrator who finally emerged, Stone noted with a grin, "is a bit of a wise guy. The spirit of the voice preserves a little of the defiance I had when I was much younger. You might say it's a provocative voice."

It's also dripping with irony. Stone still believes in the fundamental idealism of the decade; he has neither abandoned nor watered down his opposition to the Vietnam War, the push for civil rights and other revolutionary changes that dominated the 1960s.

But he also sees through the era's pretensions -- the self-righteous crusades, the messianic beliefs in hallucinogenic drugs, the chest-beating certainties of militant youth. With his thinning hair and graying beard, he completes the image of a wiser man, a writer cursed with insight when others wallow in nostalgia.

"We were the chief victims of our own mistakes," he writes in his memoir's final lines. "Measuring ourselves against the masters of the present, we regret nothing except our failure to prevail."

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