Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Robert Stone: Prime Green-- Remembering the Sixties: Review

For once, refreshingly, reviews all over the place from one to five stars for this memoir. I added my thoughts here and Amazon today. Yes, another reviewer already cited the cliche "if you can remember the sixties, you weren't there." I was, but pretty young, being born nearer their start. So, my memories lag behind Stone's

The title comes from the "green flash" which Stone, stoned, glimpsed from a Mexican beach. Much of the insight here resembles the recollectons one might expect from a friend of Ken Kesey, an acquaintance of Tim Leary, and one who hung out with the scions of the counterculture in New York City, New Orleans, California north and south, London, Mexico, and Vietnam. That is, pages at a time become illuminated with wisdom-- before sinking again into a miasma of mundane names, places, and events filtered muddily or waveringly through uninspired, if competent, prose. I have only read two novels by Stone, "A Flag for Sunrise," and the disappointing "Damascus Gate." Like the latter book, "Prime Green" stumbles when it could have soared on a promising premise.

The opening chapter rambles on about his stint in the Navy; polar-driven wind and the feel of being at the bridge gain evocative detail, but then the narrative wanders off into recollections of an Australian swimmer he fancied, a bit of action he glimpsed during the Suez crisis, and exchanging Playboys with a Soviet crew. All three anecdotes fizzle. They almost follow randomly, such is the nature of this compilation of memories. Perhaps this casual style conceals careful craft. But, from a writer of Stone's level, that is, of critical acclaim more than another hack bestselling scribe, the offhanded attitude towards such potentially valuable incidents became disappoining. They are treated so offhandedly you wonder why he troubled to bring them up. Much of this book follows suit. It reminds me of a few all-nighters, if you could tape them, with a great storyteller; the difference is, you tend to edit mentally what you were bored or confused by, and highlight the stories which enraptured you, to replay again in your memory. I'd return to this book in the same manner.

For instance, the Bowery and its sudden replacement of white old bums with tough young blacks released from prison circa 1960 sets up a treatise on this sociological phenomenon. But, suddenly, Stone in the next paragraph sidles off into how he wrote copy for a furniture firm. Admittedly, he excels at his harrowing yet hilarious description of writing for the right-wing populist NY Daily News, which like certain media today manages to arouse the contempt of the working class for the system that supposedly favors those less qualified, yet deflects any blame from capitalism or the rich themselves for this inequality and this cynical game of having the victims turn on one another.

His send-up of another bottom-feeding journalistic stint at what he calls the National Thunder, a sort of Weekly World News, is priceless. Anyone who could survive a paper that created headlines like "Armless Veteran Beaten for Not Saluting Flag" or a close runner-up, "Skydiver Devoured By Starving Birds," merits some acclaim for such anecdotes. His accounts of being under the knife for a burst vessel in his brain, of interviewing bitter draftees in Vietnam, of watching the moon on the night of the first landing in 1969 from the California hills, all ring true; his narrative leaps to fitful if brief elegance in these sections. On drugs, Stone glimpses time's wheel and struggles to convey his psychedelic revelation. I wonder if any bard from this time can do so?

The remainder of the book, once Stone leaves in search of the elusive authenticity that takes him, seemingly with little money and the kindness of many strangers become friends, to Stanford on a fellowship, to London, to Vietnam, and to Mexico in a tumultuous but-- for a while-- rather childlike time despite his wife and two children (who are barely mentioned) to support does create in this reader a sense of how much could be seen and heard and experienced by carefree Americans with not much cash, plenty of drugs, and a sense of adventure that in our day has narrowed and priced out all but the affluent or the heavily guarded! Comparing his coming of age with the later century, the combination of a strong dollar, cheap costs of living, and goodwill manage, nearly, to create a glimpse of utopia. On the other hand, his escape from menacing sailors on a Greyhound bus ride from hell that winds up with him barely getting away from the ironically if improbably named hamlet of Highspire, Pennsylvania marks a gothic tale where Poe meets Genet.

If you want a sense of the Sixties, disjointed and disconnected, with wisdom scattered along with a lot of langour, this does re-create a tone appropriate to these times. No history, or even tightly written account, nonetheless for all its faults, I learned from it. The conclusions are the expected sadness at the decade's waste of its promise, and the government infiltration and corporate co-opting of its ideals and its innocence. Not as many knockout punches as I expected, for the book needed editing and substantial tightening. It keeps reeling about, when it should have cut the flab and trimmed up under a drill sargeant of an editor, such as he used to work for in Manhattan in the early 60s.

The book bumps into the famous, nods, chats, and shuffles off again, In its slackness, casual air of street cred meets the dinner party, and Hollywood mingling with the Bowery, perhaps Stone, who managed to be in all of the proper places, dreadful or erotic, exotic or hilarious, remains the jester-cynic who sneers at the powers that be but knows if he had his chance on the throne (he gets a quick perch during his Hollywood visit), he'd settle down there comfortably enough. Stone, in a sloppy but occasionally memorable account, emerges rather blowsily, yet endearingly avuncular. He's slightly askew, a fitting if exasperatingly rambling witness and slyly calculating chronicler for a messy decade.

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