Remembering Robert Stone: Tobias Wolff
In Search of a High Tea...
I still remember where I was when I read Robert Stone for the first time: sitting on a bench in San Francisco’s Washington Square, after a long day teaching English to boys in a Catholic high school, trying to excite them about literature and beginning to need some of that excitement myself. I had picked up a copy of Dog Soldiers on my brother’s recommendation, and I remember where I started reading it because it begins with his man Converse reading on a park bench in Saigon, and the strange mirroring sensation I felt was deepened by the fact that I had also been in that park on Tu Do Street, maybe on the very bench where Converse sat.
And then he begins talking to the missionary woman on the bench beside him, a woman some years older than he, and ends by trying to pick her up, an invitation she declines, saying as she leaves, “Satan is very powerful here.” “Yes,” Converse replies, “he would be.”
I was caught, and I stayed caught from that day to this. Robert Stone left us a shelf of books that will stand with the best. Classic novels—Dog Soldiers, Hall of Mirrors, A Flag for Sunrise, Outerbridge Reach, to name just four; an indelible memoir of living on the edge in the sixties, Prime Green; and a number of indispensable short stories, one of which, “Helping,” has achieved a presence in the story canon akin to that of such monuments as “The Dead” and “Cathedral” and “Revelation.” His novels and stories are deadly serious, his characters sorely tried by events and their own weaknesses, hanging on for dear life to their sense of hope and purpose, their faith in themselves and others, their very sanity, yet the work is never leaden or dour, and indeed it is often very funny, as he was.
I was lucky enough to have not only Robert Stone’s work but eventually his friendship, and what I remember best of our time together is his laughter. One day in particular comes to mind. In the summer of 1984 we were both teaching at a writers’ conference in Port Townsend, Washington, and on one of our days off we decided to take the ferry to Victoria, in Canada. He was alone. I brought my family: my wife, Catherine, and our two young boys. The seas were rough, the weather gray and cold, with fits of lashing rain that kept us belowdecks, queasy in the constant surge and fall. My older boy, Michael, then five, grew querulous—this wasn’t fun, why couldn’t we go home? I tried to talk him down by promising to treat him to high tea in the Empress Hotel, where I had once been taken when young. This crude ploy actually worked. He didn’t know what high tea meant, but he latched on to the words as to a promise of pleasures beyond description.
When we arrived we trudged through the rain to the Empress and entered the great lobby, to find every chair and settee occupied by a bald old man or a white-haired lady, the spaces between them filled with walkers and canes, and nobody talking. The silence was creepy. It was like a scene from a horror movie: Inn of the Living Dead. I saw a sign for a fish and chips place downstairs, but as we headed away from the lobby Michael cried out, “Hey! What about high tea?” His voice filled the room. And then he said it again: “What about high tea?”
I never saw Bob afterward without his finding some occasion to resurrect that moment, and that line—as if it summed up the fate of all the hopes and paradisal visions that somehow keep us going. I still think of those words, and when I do I see Bob’s face, see Bob laughing.
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