Robert Anthony Stone is one of the most important novelists of his generation. The son of C. Homer Stone and his wife, Gladys Catherine Grant, Stone was reared almost entirely by his mother in rather economically difficult circumstances. Because of his mother’s emotional problems, Stone spent a number of years in a Catholic orphanage and attended Catholic schools. He left high school before his graduation and joined the U.S. Navy, serving from 1955 to 1958. He attended New York University from 1958 to 1959 while also working as an editorial assistant for the New York Daily News. In 1959, he married Janice G. Burr, with whom he had two children. In 1962, he was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he met Ken Kesey and became involved with Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the drug-oriented counterculture, which Tom Wolfe describes in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). Stone taught writing courses at a number of colleges and universities, including Princeton, Amherst, Stanford, Harvard, and New York Universities.
His first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, won for Stone the Faulkner Award for best first novel. His second novel, Dog Soldiers, won for Stone the National Book Award in 1975. A Flag for Sunrise, his third novel, won the John Dos Passos Prize for literature as well as the American Academy of Arts and Literature Award in 1982. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1971 and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in 1983. He became a member of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN). In addition to novels, Stone writes reviews, essays, and occasional stories for such periodicals as Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, and The Atlantic Monthly.
Stone’s fiction is deeply engaged with the complex issues and forces of the age. His fiction has virtually Tolstoyan ambitions: to show ideas and morality in action in darkly extreme circumstances and to probe the spiritual depths of the American experience. If Stone receives criticism for the unrelieved harshness of his portrayal of the human condition, he nevertheless earns praise for his uncompromising honesty and artistic integrity. “As a young man,” Stone has noted, “I made it a point to be where things were happening.” This concern is reflected in his fiction, to which he gives a strong sense of place. In his essay “The Reason for Stories: Toward a Moral Fiction,” Stone writes, “I think the key is to establish the connection between political forces and individual lives.” Accordingly, in his works, Stone casts rather beleaguered selves into situations of social and political crisis–New Orleans in a time of racial strife and right-wing plots for A Hall of Mirrors, California at the end of the Vietnam War for Dog Soldiers, Central America in the late 1970’s for A Flag for Sunrise, Hollywood and a Mexican filmmaking location for Children of Light, Jerusalem in the early 1990’s for Damascus Gate.
Stone’s novels are chronicles of survivors, although often rather unfit and undeserving ones. His protagonists are failed and lost pilgrims in a world dominated by corruption and betrayal. For Stone, modern American history is the history of moral failure and moral enfeeblement. At the heart of the moral failure is betrayal–of self, of others, of ideals, and of beliefs. Stone lets his wounded characters work out their destinies in starkly extreme circumstances, portrayals offering only slim grounds for hope. The cynical Rheinhart, the protagonist of A Hall of Mirrors, betraying his artistic and humane sensibilities, comes to New Orleans and works as an announcer for a right-wing radio station spewing forth racism and jingoism. He barely survives an elaborate right-wing plot to foment racial conflict. John and Marge Converse are the feckless and reckless survivors of Dog Soldiers, who try to cash in on the moral corruption of the Vietnam War by trying to smuggle three kilograms of heroin out of Vietnam for a quick score in the States. Another moral burnout, encapsulated by his cynicism, is anthropologist and former Central Intelligence Agency operative Frank Holliwell of A Flag for Sunrise, who betrays any sense of goodness to survive the murky political corruption of Central America in the late 1970’s. In Children of Light, the actor and screenwriter Gordon Walker fails miserably to recover a lost dream on a film set in Mexico. Recovering from his excesses, Walker ultimately decides to stop going with the flow, a decision which offers some hope for moral renewal. Owen Browne, the hero of Outerbridge Reach, attempts to redeem what he considers a shallow middle-class life by entering a yacht race. Browne discovers that neither he nor the boats he has spent his life selling can withstand the crucible of the sea. Unlike Stone’s other protagonists, Browne does not survive. In Damascus Gate, Christopher Lucas, an American journalist, seeks religious truth in Jerusalem only to be drawn into a plot by Christian fundamentalists and Jewish radicals to bomb the mosques on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. He finds love with Sonia Barnes, an African American Jew, but they part ways in the knowledge that their relationship would never work. Bay of Souls features Michael Ahearn, an English professor from the Midwest who leaves his wife and son for Lara Purcell, a political science professor from the Caribbean island of St. Trinity. He follows her there and becomes embroiled in political violence and voodoo.
Along with the survival of the morally unfit in Stone’s fiction is often defeat and death for the morally decent. The actions of those characters who bear the burden of decency and caring are rendered futile and ineffectual by the corrupt social and political forces swirling about them. Thus, in A Hall of Mirrors, Morgan Rainy and Geraldine, Rheinhart’s lover, are defeated, with Geraldine dying in jail. Ray Hicks, the Nietzsche-reading samurai figure of Dog Soldiers, suffers death at the hands of corrupt American drug officials. The idealism of Sister Justin Feeney is exploited in A Flag for Sunrise, and she faces rape, torture, and death in the aftermath of a failed coup. In Children of Light, the lovely but schizophrenic actress Lu Anne Bourgeois commits suicide like the character Edna Pontellier from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), whose role she is portraying. In each case, the moral weaknesses and failures of the protagonists directly or indirectly contribute to the defeat and death of the decent and morally sensitive. Stone’s work shows great depth and insight in its treatment of the American experience.
Following in the tradition of such writers as Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos, Stone is a realist who yet takes full advantage of modernist techniques in such things as point of view and narrative variety. He locates his stories in recognizable social and political contexts to probe a condition beyond politics–the moral and spiritual tenor of the twentieth century. The high critical success of his work is a tribute to the honesty and seriousness of his artistic commitments.