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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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It would have been hard to stage a better setting for the telling of unguarded stories—a campfire, an ample supply of cheap red wine, possibly even some cannabis in the mix, and the background music of the Salmon River, somewhere in a canyon in Idaho. It would have been hard to find a storyteller with more unguarded stories to tell. Robert Stone had been on the psychedelic bus with Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady; he had seen more of the weird and wild side of America, and several other countries, than any of the rest of us, though this was not an inexperienced crew of river rafters. He’d seen a lot more than he could ever work into his fiction, but Stone’s classified stories were ideal for a campfire audience old enough to remember most of the players.
In my imperfect memory, there was tale about a Merry Prankster who injected a soon-to-be-slaughtered pig with hallucinogenic acid, and a whole Mexican village that feasted and freaked out along with their famous American guests. From those stories of Bob’s, I stole one of my favorite phrases—“wolf ticket,” meaning a threatening, belligerent presentation, as in “Cassady kept giving wolf tickets to the federales.” I claimed it and recycled it fifty times. Was it a Stone original? I have no idea. The adventures of Kesey and Cassady have taken on a mythical element, sort of like Paul Bunyan and John Henry if they’d been on drugs. Stone was already famous, at least among his friends, for this material, which he later mined for the memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties. But it was on our retreat from the canyons that my wife and I first experienced a Robert Stone who was not exactly on the same bus with the legendary wild men of the sixties, or even with most of his literary peers. We hadn’t known him long enough, or thoroughly enough, to expect Bob’s bloody amazing, damn near supernatural erudition. Even through the psychedelic sixties, a blur of distorted consciousness that he survived and described as well as anyone, his own role models, all along, must have been the great polymaths—double-barreled intellectuals like Bertrand Russell and Isaiah Berlin.
We’d rented a car, and Bob needed a ride from the river to the airport in Boise, so it was just the three of us for four hours on the road. In some context I can nowhere near remember, I mentioned Thomas Aquinas. From the backseat, from the sunburned, river-weary novelist still nursing the arm he’d broken in Canada, came a burst of enthusiasm and the first of at least a dozen learned disquisitions on the Scholastics and the medieval church. I knew that Stone had been “with the nuns” as a child, even briefly in a Catholic orphanage, and I knew that whatever religion he sustained as an adult was far from orthodox. I had no idea that his learning, mostly self-acquired, included enough Catholic theology and church history to qualify him for the College of Cardinals. Delighted and intrigued, I egged him on. A fallen Unitarian is a poor spiritual match for a lapsed Catholic, but a couple of courses in comparative religion and a semester of theology had prepared me, just barely, to ask leading questions and drop relevant names. “Pope Innocent the Third?” I ventured.
“What a prick,” said Monsignor Stone, who went on to dramatize, in great detail, that Unholy Father’s successful efforts to sabotage every monarch in Europe and put every heretic to the torch or the sword. The Fourth Crusade, the sacking of Constantinople, the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of southern France—Bob had all this on instant recall, the way some of us remember every World Series or Final Four. The thirteenth century lived again, in a rented Subaru on a two-lane state road in Idaho. Stone was in his element, or one of them—he’d had to wait a while, perhaps, to find someone who really wanted to hear what he had to say about the Albigensians.
I’d recently given a lecture on H. L. Mencken, who graduated from high school at fifteen and, a dozen years later without benefit of any further classrooms, wrote a book on Friedrich Nietzsche that most philosophers applauded. Stone had also avoided college and claimed that most of his early education came from books he read in the Navy. That sunburned sage slouched in the backseat was Mencken’s rightful heir, I realized—a prodigious autodidact who had never stopped reading until he was sure he knew more, and knew better, than all the college graduates and all their professors as well. Unlike Mencken, Bob didn’t go out to pin people to the wall with his erudition—but neither would he pass up an opportunity to let it shine a little.
About a mile from the Boise Airport, Stone’s spontaneous narrative reached the bitter end of the Albigensian Crusade, the infamous massacre of Beziers in 1209, where Pope Innocent’s army of heretic-hunters butchered more than seven thousand men, women, and children in cold blood. As the massacre raged out of control, the papal legate in command, the abbot Arnaud Amalric, was asked what to do about the city’s many loyal Catholics. History, Bob reminded us, credits the good abbot with a command that has been often repeated: “Kill them all, and let God sort them out.” In his creative curiosity Bob Stone cast a very wide net, one of the widest I ever encountered. But as all of us who knew him know, he never turned away from the dark parts.