Remembering Robert Stone: Tom Grimes
On Hiring the High School Drop-Out
On January 11, I received news that Robert Stone had died the previous day. To honor his memory, I began to reread his work. At one point, my computer’s calendar caught my attention. I thought, January 11, January 11. The date seemed familiar, one I should, for some reason, remember. And then I did. I had gotten married on January 11—thirty-nine years ago. After the wedding party I couldn’t sleep, so at 3:00 a.m. I turned on the hotel room’s light. I’m not sure what this says regarding my feelings about my upcoming honeymoon, but one of the books I’d brought to read was Dog Soldiers. I didn’t know much about it, but as I read I thought, “Oh, my god, this is good.” I read past dawn. Then I had to catch the plane on which I finished reading one of the most important books in my life. Instantly, Robert Stone became one of my idols. Today, my first edition of A Flag for Sunrise is disintegrating, its yellowing pages are flaking to dust, but I will never let it go.
A decade later I was still a relatively young writer and a student when he visited Iowa to give a reading. Knowing how I felt about him, his dinner host, Frank Conroy, another of my idols (and my teacher), invited my wife and me to have dinner at his house before the reading. As we were standing in the living room having drinks, my first words to Mr. Stone were, “What do you think about the Rodney King verdict?” Mr. King, of course, had been beaten mercilessly by Los Angeles police officers, and despite the incident being captured on video tape, the white police officers had been acquitted. He said, “There will be a few protests. Then blacks will go back to being invisible in the United States, which is what they’ve always been.” I said, “But LA’s being burned to the ground. Riots started a few hours ago.” He looked at me, puzzled. Since he’d been traveling, this was the first he’d heard of them. Suddenly alert, he glanced around the room, looking for a television. Then we heard, “Dinner!” Before we sat down, Bob mentioned the situation to Frank, which Frank waved off. “We’ll watch it later.” Bob said, “We really should be watching this.” As Bob sat between two dinner guests, he appeared restless, and not terribly interested in his food. “Frank,” he said, “we really should be watching this.” By then, Frank was high and holding court. Meanwhile, I sat across from America’s greatest political novelist, and I knew that we—and especially he—should be watching the riots. But I was too timid to say to Frank, “Bob’s right,” and Bob, being the gentleman he was, was too polite to leave the table. After dinner, we rushed to the reading, then to a party, and wound up in the local writers’ bar, The Fox Head. We were wasted. Bob and Frank somehow found themselves involved in a conversation about metaphysics. Being a lapsed Catholic like Bob, I wanted to hear what he had to say. I remember only one sentence: “Faith will save mankind.” Or, at least, faith will save some of us.
Two decades later, I found myself directing a creative writing program that had a position for an endowed chair. The first person I “hired,” yet another idol of mine, Tim O’Brien, suggested that we invite Bob to give a reading. One evening, while he was here, Bob, Tim, and I sat in Tim’s backyard, talking. Tim looked at me and said, “You know, we should have Bob teach here for a year,” during which Tim would teach half-time. I said, “Great,” looking at Bob. Bob nodded. Done. He would hold our endowed chair in creative writing. Of course, I had to submit paperwork that would eventually reach the university’s president for her approval But first, I had to request recommendation letters—for Robert Stone. What follows is the condensed version of the conversation my department chair, college dean, provost, and I had: So what’s his graduate degree? He doesn’t have one. No MFA? Afraid not. His BA? Never went to college. So we’re going to hire a high school graduate? Well, he got kicked out of high school, then joined the merchant marines. But we had to prove to our university system’s accrediting agency that Robert Stone was capable of teaching a creative writing workshop. Since Bob lacked all necessary bureaucratic credentials, I invoked the Great American Writers of the Twentieth Century clause and said we needed to hire Mr. Stone ASAP. We did.
He used my office. Regularly, I’d stop by to say hi. Often, I’d find him working on two computers, which seemed to date back to the 1980s. He had set one on my desk, and one on a “grading table” five feet away from it. The computers were connected by USB cables. Bob would type something on one, and then turn, take a step, and type something on the other. I realize now that he was writing his final novel, The Death of the Black-Haired Girl, which I finished rereading at 5:00 a.m. this morning.
One afternoon, as I left his office, I said, “Okay, see you, Bob.” Twenty feet down the hallway, I stopped. Stunned and humbled, I thought: I just said, “See you, Bob” to Robert Stone.
At some point during the semester, a student enrolled in Bob’s workshop said to me, “I got my story back from Bob. He didn’t write any comments.” I said, “In workshop, did he tell you what he thought about your story?” “Yes.” “Then he probably said all he needed to say.” My remark didn’t seem to be completely understood, so I added, “He’s Robert Stone.” A visiting writer later said, “I hope your students understand they’re sitting in class with a legend.”
Which is how I will always remember him.
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