Remembering Robert Stone: Robert D. Richardson
Living as Though Everything Was a Metaphor
Bob Stone had a contagious and highly developed sense of humor. Writing about Ken Kesey and friends during their time in Mexico, Stone noted how the locals soon began to understand “there was more hemp than Heidegger at the root of our cerebrations and that many of us had trouble distinguishing Being from Nothingness by three in the afternoon.”
Stone’s story “Aquarius Obscured,” which appeared in the volume called Bear and His Daughter, is a comic masterpiece. He read it once to a Key West audience, at the now defunct Voltaire Bookstore. People fell off their chairs laughing uncontrollably as Stone read about a woman who takes a young child to the aquarium. The woman, Alison, has been taking something, is no doubt tripping a bit, but we are still surprised when the dolphin in the tank begins to speak to her. After some time spent praising himself and his culture, the dolphin’s lecture turns ugly. He says to Alison, “Your civilization has afforded us many moments of amusement. Unfortunately it must now be irrevocably destroyed.”
“Fascist!” Alison whispered in a strangled voice. “Nazi!”
“Peace,” the dolphin intoned and the music behind him turned tranquil and low. “Here is the knowledge. You must say it daily. . . . Surrender to the Notion of the Motion of the Ocean.”
This snaps Alison out of it. “Horseshit,” she cried. “What kind of cheapo routine is that?”
The audience laughed until it cried.
A mesmerizing talker as well as writer, Stone could drop obiter dicta that made one run for pen and paper. “There is more information available than there is stuff to know about,” says one of the characters in Damascus Gate. And toward the end of The Death of the Black-Haired Girl the smartest of the story’s characters says, “History is poisoned by claims on underlying truth.”
Stone’s prose reach was prodigious. He could do hopeful, as when Sonia in Damascus Gate says, “Lots of places have temples. Utah has a temple. Amritsar. Kyoto. The temple has to be in the heart. When everybody builds it there, maybe then they can think about Beautiful Gates and the Holy of Holies.”
He could do appalled. Lucas in Damascus Gate: “ ‘Oh Lord,’ he heard himself say. The utterance filled him with loathing, that he was calling on God, on the Great Fucking Thing, the Lord of sacrifices, the seller of riddles. Out of the eater comes forth meat. The poser of parables and shibboleths. The foreskin collector, connoisseur of humiliations, slayer by proxy of his thousands, his tens of thousands. Not peace but a sword. The Lunatic Spirit of the Near East, the crucified and crucifier, the enemy of all His own creation. Their God-Damned God.”
And here is Stone doing apocalyptic, in a story called “The Archer” in Fun with Problems, smoldering with rage, strangled with claustrophobia, gloriously ill-tempered, snarling, off-leash, superbly articulate, spraying language like DDT on everything in sight. “As the aircraft, jammed to within a single breathing expanse of claustrophobia, swooped low over alligator-infested pastel swamps, Duffy was already thinking with loathing of the subject of his Pahoochee lecture, contemporary American painting, more or less, and how it got that way. What flashed through his mind unbidden was the late works, the fulsome tropical mannerism of Joseph Stella, the poison-colored palmettos, the mercury-colored syphilitic sunsets. The interior of the plane on landing seemed so impacted with flesh that it would have required only one neurasthenic psychic break to be transformed into a thrashing tube of terror, a panic-stricken south-bound rat-king of tourists headed for the offshore ooze.”
Stone said to me once that someone had told him, “There are no metaphors,” and that he had replied, “I have to live as though everything was a metaphor.”
He loved to go fishing. We went fishing for big Spanish mackerel with his grandson out in the Gulf Stream off Key West; we went fishing for yellowtail another time off Cottrell Key. And on a trip to the Bahamas in February 1997, we went fishing out of Moxey’s Bonefishing Lodge on the Middle Bight of Andros with a local boatbuilder and fishing guide named Ralph Moxey. Moxey grabbed a queen conch in shallow water, and with three or four strokes of a hatchet cut off the crown of the conch and drew out the top like a stopper with the meat attached. This he cut up for bait. It turned out to the most successful of our fishing trips. Stone caught two bonefish, two or three barracudas, a yellowtail snapper, and a mutton snapper. We took nothing back with us except a photo of Ralph Moxey holding one of the little bonefish in his outstretched hands, with indescribable gentleness and satisfaction written all over his face.
And then there was a river-rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho in the early 1990s. The trip was put together by Cort Conley, a river guide, writer, and godfather to anything literary in or about Idaho. The river was high, the rapids frequent and full. Some of us had inflatable kayaks. But seated close together on the center thwart of the big raft in the middle of the river was Robert Stone, with Marilynne Robinson on one side of him and Annie Dillard on the other. The three friends, all wearing life jackets, talked theology as the sun blazed down and the raft bucked and leaped, taking on water, spinning wildly in the currents, rocking from side to side, roaring down rapids, Stone and friends and the river all in full spate cascading merrily between stony banks and silent trees. The frantically busy boatman, Conley, who fully understood that he had modern American literature in his keeping that day, pushed and shoved on long polelike oars, as the three writers rose to the task of settling the hash of the universe, and fishing for answers.
That is how I remember Bob Stone, sitting on a raft in the tumultuous Salmon River, talking a gaudy streak with the choicest spirits imaginable, riding the real life stream of consciousness, and alive to the tips of his fingers.
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