Robert Stone’s fictional universe was vast. The minds of Vietnam vets. Sailors on the open sea. Hidden romances at a prestigious university. But last weekend, one of our better explorers of the darker corners of American life was lost when Stone died at the age of 77 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
A writer of several novels and a few story collections, Stone is probably most known among writers for his much-anthologized story, “Helping,” which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1987. The story chronicles a Vietnam vet counselor’s unwinding over the course of a day after he receives a disturbing visit from a man falsely claiming to have served in that war.
Stone also contributed some truisms on the craft of writing that many of us have probably heard before, even if we didn’t know he was the one to say them. For example, speaking to the uncertainty of knowing where a story is going as you write it, Stone said, “It’s like driving a car at night. You can only see as far ahead as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way.” Speaking to the goal of writing stories, Stone said, “What you’re trying to do when you write is to crowd the reader out of his own space and occupy it with yours, in a good cause. You’re trying to take over his sensibility and deliver an experience that moves from mere information.”
One story that demonstrates the adventurous and troubled spirit of much of Stone’s work is “Under the Pitons,” which you can read over at Narrative Magazine if you have an account or are willing to sign up for one. “Under the Pitons” tells the fateful story of Blessington, an Irish chef-turned-sailor of the Sans Regret, a boat running drugs in the Caribbean. It’s an unlikely setting for a love story, and still, amidst the shadows of the Pitons’s peaks and a tweaking, unpredictable French drug lord, Stone manages to infuse a bit of romance into this harrowing tale.
Anyone who’s ever been on a sailboat can attest that even when you’re not running illegal contraband, there’s little room for error. And while the story opens on Blessington, stoned and drunk at the helm, it’s easy to see that if anyone on the Sans Regret can see the troupe through their journey, he’s our guy. His counterpoint comes in the form of Freycinet, who dips below deck a few more times than he should to sample their stock. Gillian is a tough Texan and Blessington’s “designated girlfriend on the trip” whom he becomes more deeply intrigued with as the story progresses and their situation spirals out of control.
Stone mirrors the developing closeness between Blessington and Gillian in their gradually shifting view of the Pitons:
Blessington turned over to float on his back and tried to calm himself. Overhead the sky was utterly cloudless. Moving his eyes only a little, he could see the great green tower of Gros Piton, shining like Jacob’s ladder itself, thrusting toward the empty blue. Incredibly far above, a plane drew out its jet trail, a barely visible needle stitching the tiniest flaw in the vast perfect seamless curtain of day. Miles and miles above, beyond imagining.
“How we gonna get aboard?” Gillian asked. He did not care for the way she was acting in the water now, struggling to stay afloat, moving her arms too much, wasting her breath.
“Under the Pitons” from Stone’s 1997 collection Bear and His Daughter is a painful story, where each breath is hard fought. It asks tough questions, perhaps the most noteworthy of which is where do we go if we have to abandon a ship without regrets? Gillian and Blessington each have to answer this in their own way; and perhaps too, Stone was grappling with this question himself as this story was published near the end of his life.
Stone is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, two children, and a manuscript that may or may not turn into another novel one of these days.
Note should be made of a few exciting new story collections that have dropped these first few weeks of 2015. The first is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s second collection Almost Famous Women. As we might guess from the title, each story in the collection features a woman from history whose story has not quite been famous, at least not before Mayhew Bergman applied her fictional filter to them. While the premise could come off as gimicky, Claire Vaye Watkins wrote a nice blurb for Mayhew Bergman, and some of the characters in this book sound downright fascinating. Check it out:
In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” cross-dressing Standard Oil heiress Joe Carstairs seduces Marlene Dietrich. In “A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch,” aviator and writer Beryl Markham lives alone in Nairobi and engages in a battle of wills with a stallion. In “Hell-Diving Women,” the first integrated, all-girl swing band sparks a violent reaction in North Carolina.
Meanwhile, the New Yorker is singing high praises for Thomas Pierce’s debut Hall of Small Mammals. Again, the title forecasts the fruit of many of the stories—in this case, mammals, including a back-from-extinction dwarf wooly mammoth, a fossil collector, and a hot-air balloon operator.