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Stone's memoir on the '60s is far from dreary and irrelevant

Thomas Pynchon got there first. His arrival on earth preceded Robert Stone's by a scant three and a half months.

His Arrival -- Big A -- in American literature preceded Stone's by quite a bit longer. Pynchon's first novel "V" -- which some of us still think one of the authentic wonders of the literary world -- appeared in 1963. Stone's superb but far less magisterial first novel "A Hall of Mirrors" wasn't published until August of 1967 (the so-called "Summer of Love," appropriately.)

But that's all right. While Pynchon was lionized and contending uneasily with the game of literary fame and expectation that previously drove J. D. Salinger into lifelong seclusion (as it soon did Pynchon), Stone was a yet-to-be living the '60s counter-cultural life par excellence.

Think of them as their literary era's Prince and Pauper, a little Twain fable of our national letters in one of the last century's key decades. Pynchon was born into relative Long Island prosperity and stability; Stone was the son of a single schizophrenic mother whose straits with her son were dire indeed throughout his childhood.

Pynchon graduated from high school at 16. And there is where the early years of The Prince and the Pauper of '60s American Literature intersect and get interesting. Both joined and were in the Navy at approximately the same time -- high school prodigy and high school dropout. Both describe similar geographic arcs of the era -- Greenwich Village, California.

And that's where The Pauper's Life turns wild indeed -- and representative in a way that the Prodigious Prince could never be. While Pynchon's first novel gave us ex-sailor Benny Profane and his "whole sick crew," Stone had unofficially entered a whole sick crew of another and fabled kind -- Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters.

And that's where we are in our current literary season: Pynchon, as always, got there first with the BIG novel "Against the Day." But now just a few weeks later, also comes Stone's memoir, a truly great book about the frantic, psychedelic, virtually anonymous dawdling Stone was doing while Pynchon was already a Reputation to Contend With, wherever and whenever literary folk talked.

If the title, and its opening pages, put you off into thinking that here indeed is something dreary -- emotion recollected in entirely too much tranquility, an ancient bedlam now festooned with cobwebs -- forget it. One decade's celebrant and wanderer may become a later one's crashing bore but not here.

Once our struggling, yet-to-be writer has left the Navy and gone with his newly acquired wife to Wallace Stegner's writing program at Stanford, the kernels of this book begin to pop at a giddy, accelerating rate. (It was Stegner, by the way, whose blurb for Stone's "A Hall of Mirrors" was one of the few immortally poetic contributions to a decidedly ignoble literary art. "Stone writes like a bird" said Stegner on the book flap. "like an angel, like a circus barker, like a con man, like someone so high on pot that he is scraping his shoes on the stars.")

The open secret of writers' workshops, of course, is that there one can often learn even more about creative ways to misbehave than one can about one's artistic craft. And it was Stone's fortune to be in the exact right place at the exact right time to learn virtuosic ways to misbehave and become an era's ideal eulogist.

Silicon valleys were about to happen. The nascent energies were there. So was Kesey. The bus and the Merry Pranksters -- including Jack Kerouac's old road-buddy Neal Cassady -- were soon to come.

Drugs were already happening.

Ram Dass himself (Timothy Leary's old pal Richard Alpert in an earlier life) turned Stone on to acid. Stone did so much peyote ("12 capsules of peyote squash") before seeing John Coltrane in San Francisco's Jazz Gallery that he was too far gone to enjoy it. "I had wasted my first Coltrane concert with foolishness" he writes now. Never mind that he never even got to Part Two of that evening's planned investigation of Boho nightlife by the bay, Lenny Bruce at the Hungry I.

Stone was slogging the uphill literary life. He had to be put up in the upstairs of Paris' Shakespeare and Co. through the kind offices of the gentle book collector friend who would later become Winona Ryder's father.

But then "A Hall of Mirrors" appeared and a fan letter from Joyce Carol Oates, among others, put him over the moon. Hollywood, in the form of Paul Newman, came calling.

The bearded, baby-faced ex-sailor had spent years protecting his then-unfinished novel from the commonplace depredations of literary poverty and the not-at-all commonplace depredations of hippie-bashing sailors at a Greyhound bus stop in Pennsylvania. Now, on a career crest, he ingested all manner of substances but had no second novel to write -- until, that is, he went as a journalist to Vietnam.

His previous flirtations with journalism -- at the New York Daily News and at a supermarket tabloid -- are rendered here in gut-bustingly funny prose that belies completely the staleness suggested by the title. Out of Vietnam came Stone's "Dog Soldiers", probably the best of Vietnam-era novels.

These, then, are not THE '60s, they're blessedly Robert Stone's '60s -- an emblematic tale, to be sure, but a deeply idiosyncratic one from which all dimwit nostalgic blather has been banished. When men land on the moon in 1969, he and a couple of hiking friends are on a mountaintop full of people envisioning the American industrial takeover of heavenly bodies who begin, in effect, "heckling the moon."

The "Prime Green" of the title refers to the "first light on the shores of Manzanilla Bay" from Kesey's digs in Mexico. "Those mornings, day after day, made nonsense of examined life, but that made everyone smile. All of us, stoned or otherwise, caught in the vortex of dawn, would freeze in our tracks and stand to, squinting in the pain of the light, sweating, grinning. We called that light Prime Green: it was primal, primary, primo."

And now, four decades later, under examination, he is tough on his generation.

"The drugs which we believed so important a part of our liberation, the key to the music, the doors of perception for an elite, became a mass youth phenomenon. They caused much suffering and parental anguish, and they gorged a weapon for the use of the darkest forces in American society, the witch-hunting, primitive-minded hypocrites who promptly gave us the War on Drugs as they had given us Prohibition."

For all that the world profited from his generation, he says, "we were the chief victims of our own mistakes. Measuring ourselves against the masters of the present, we regret nothing except our failure to prevail."

Except, of course, between book covers.

Jeff Simon is the News' Arts and Books Editor.


Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties

By Robert Stone

Ecco, 230 pages, $25.95

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