Post traumatic noir – a note on the passing of Robert Stone

cover600spanThe death of US writer Robert Stone on the weekend has drawn me out of the break I planned on posting on this site over January.

Stone was the author of two tremendous works of neo-noir fiction, both of which I read when I was first getting into the genre.

The first, Stone’s debut novel, A Hall of Mirrors, was published in 1967 and partly set in New Orleans, where Stone lived briefly. It dealt with a dissolute, opportunistic right wing radio broadcaster and the desperate, doomed characters he associates with. It was turned into an excellent film called WUSA by Stuart Rosenberg in 1970 and starring Paul Newman, then in the throws of his battling his own alcoholism (I reviewed it on this site a couple of years ago here.

The second, the better known and probably more influential of Stone’s books, Dog Soldiers, was published in 1974. The 1978 film  adaption, Who’ll Stop The Rain (reviewed on this site here), is also very good.

Dog Soldiers concerns a liberal war correspondent in Vietnam, Converse, who disillusioned with what he has seen, decides to traffic heroin back to the US. He enlists Hicks, his friend in the merchant marines, to take the drugs back to Converse’s wife, Marge, in Los Angeles. Believing he is being followed, Hicks flees with the drugs and Marge. A shadowy government agent called Antheil is indeed pursuing him. Thus begins a cat and mouse chase through the sleazy underbelly of America’s post Summer of Love counter culture. The book masterfully evokes the drug soaked paranoia of the era, as well as being a devastating portrayal of the domestic blow back of America’s imperial war in Indochina.

Stone briefly worked as a correspondent in Vietnam. He spoke about the experience, a key influence in Dog Soldiers, as part of this detailed interview with The Paris Review:

It [Vietnam] was the kind of place where anything could have happened. There’s nothing that couldn’t have happened there. If you encountered choirs of seraphim up the river or if somebody said he’d just seen a vision of St. George on Hill 51, you’d just say, “There it is . . .” I was in Saigon a lot of the time. I did get deeper into I Corps, and I was in Cam Rahn Bay. But in Saigon I picked up with a guy who was involved in the dope trade there and in a very short time I had found out more than I really wanted to know. It was very frightening. I should also say that this period—1971—was a time when, in the line, there was not a lot of combat involving American troops. There was rocketing up around Phu Bai, there were some bombs going off in Saigon, but nobody was quite sure who was responsible for them. American troops were not heavily engaged. It was the time of Vietnamization. The talks were going on in Paris, and American troops were being kept out of the line to keep the casualty rates down.

In addition to the influence of Stone’s work on its own, he was the last man standing of a small group US crime writers working in the early seventies who had a major impact on modern crime fiction.

This group, which included James Crumley and Newton Thornburg, were not particularly prolific when compared to the book a year output successful contemporary crime writers are expected to maintain. And they had largely sunk from public view in the lead-up to the deaths, Thornburg so much so that it took months for the first obituary of him to appear in the mainstream media.

But as Woody Haut puts it in his 1999 work, Neon Noir, all three began publishing novels dealing with the effect of the war in Vietnam, something conspicuously absent in crime fiction until the late sixties, and the political disillusionment generated by that folly and domestic scandals such as Watergate.

“Addled by the war, drugs, drink and oppositional politics, the protagonists in of these novels, do their best to survive in a world that has altered beyond recognition,” wrote Haut. “With the line separating perpetrator and investigation having become blurred, they are inevitably drawn into a noir existence. With a live-and-let live attitude and scant regard for the law, these anti-heroes retreat into a primeval existentialism in which survival and quelling one’s demons are what matter.”

This description is certainly apt for Converse in Dog Soldiers, Alex Cutter in Thornburg’s Cutter and Bone and nearly ever single character Crumley ever wrote, but particularly C W Sughrue in The Last Good Kiss.

I should in fairness add that Haut includes The Friends of Eddie Coyle author George V Higgins in this cohort of important US noir writers of the late sixties/early seventies. Arguably, Don Carpenter, whose first book in 1966, Hard Rain Falling, deals with a drifter called Jack Levitt, an orphaned teenager living off his wits in the fleabag hotels and seedy pool halls of Portland, Oregon, is another. But I have to confess to not having read as much Higgins as I would have liked and none of Carpenters’ work at all (sometime I am going to try and rectify in the coming months), so I don’t feel equipped to talk about their influence.

Without going into too much detail, I do feel confident in agreeing with Haut that Stone, Thornburg and Crumley all wrote books that felt real and urgent, that broke previously held notions of what crime fiction could be and breathed new life into a genre that had stagnated after the anti-communist witch hunts of the first half of the fifties and cultural torpor of the latter half of that decade and the first half of the sixties.

Stone told The Paris Review: “What I’m always trying to do is define that process in American life that puts people in a state of anomie, of frustration,” Stone told the Paris Review. “The national promise is so great that a tremendous bitterness is evoked by its elusiveness.”

To put it another way, all three wrote about how America and much of the rest of the world was changing in the early seventies, where governments and big corporations were increasingly responsible for much of society’s wrongs and justice was, at best, a pyrrhic pursuit.

They wrote about a world like the one we are living in now.


5 Responses

  1. Excellent piece, Andrew. I like how you pay tribute to Stone while very nicely tying him in with other relevant writers and titles. Your post gives me a hankering to re-read Hall of Mirrors and Dog Soldiers, not to mention Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. Ace work.

  2. Thanks, Brian, appreciate the feedback.

  3. Andrew, a very good job in establishing the historical context in which Stone wrote. His importance along with James Crumley and Newton Thornburg as early noir writers set the style and mood for the many noir writers who came later. We owe a large literary debt to all three. Thanks for reminding all of us.

  4. Christopher,
    Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. I agree noir writers owe these authors a big debt.

  5. ‘The national promise is so great…’

    The extraordinary thing about the US is that they are yet to acknowledge that it’s impossible for any nation to live up to the ideal it forces itself to chase. The source of Stone’s anomie is this unrealistic expectation.

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