Remembering Robert Stone: Bill Barich
A life-saving novel
Few writers have meant as much to me as Robert Stone, both on the page and as a friend. I read Hall of Mirrors as a confused and struggling college student and wasn’t above telling strangers in bars that the novel had saved my life. Stone offered a clear-eyed vision of the world as I knew and understood it, truthful and bitterly funny, with “an almost unprecedented quality of reality,” as Wallace Stegner put it on the jacket flap. That insistence on portraying things as they are never deserted Bob. It marked him as one of the greatest novelists of his generation, and certainly one of the most intellectually rigorous.
We met in the summer of 1980. My wife at the time was a pal of Bob’s from the Prankster era, and she arranged a visit with the Stones on Block Island, where they’d just bought a house. I’d recently published my first book to modest acclaim; A Flag for Sunrise was on Knopf’s fall list. From our rental in East Hampton, we drove to Westerly, Rhode Island, to wait for the morning ferry. Bob had suggested a motel, although he advised us to avoid the bar after 10:00 p.m. or so. That’s when the deckhands off the fishing boats looked for fights, he warned.
On such fine points of etiquette, Bob was an expert. He liked to drink and he liked to talk, often late into the night. Conversing with him was a form of jazz, filled with riffs and odd tangents, and always stories. Over dinner at a fish house, where he consumed two whole lobsters—there were never any half measures for Stone—he pointed to the four-piece combo playing standards. “See those guys? They turned me on to pot,” he claimed, recalling a trip to the island as a teenager with his mother. She used to send his fledgling stories to The New Yorker on the sly; when the magazine accepted one, long after she was gone, he called me to express his pleasure.
What mattered most to Bob was the writing. It’s probably fair to say it saved his life—that and his marriage to Janice. He was devoted to the slow turning over of sentences and felt he was always behind schedule, not doing enough. He had ambition in his favor, a willingness to address the big themes and to swing for the fences at every opportunity, and that earned him the admiration of other writers. To travel in his company was to witness the esteem and affection they had for him. He was the genuine article, large-hearted and humble in the face of his craft.
I never had a bad time with Bob. Over forty-odd years, we visited in San Francisco, Marin County, Connecticut, Key West, Manhattan, Montana, Dublin, and elsewhere; we hiked, camped, fished, and gambled at the races and the roulette table. He tackled life the way he tackled fiction, full bore and head-on. The laughs were ceaseless and frequently at his own expense. When Janice gave him a video camera as a birthday gift, he brought it along on a trip to the Owens River and stopped at every overlook to shoot some footage. “I seem to have become one of the people I’ve always made fun of,” he remarked.
I chatted about Bob once with Nick Nolte, who played the Ray Hicks character in Who’ll Stop the Rain, the movie based on Dog Soldiers, while I was working on the HBO series Luck. Nolte still remembered Bob fondly and had kept up with his books. “It’s hard to imagine a world without Robert Stone,” he mused, to which I can only add, “Amen.”
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