The pigshit at the end of the rainbow.


Of late, I have been trying to exercise three times a week. The result is that today, I feel so depleted and unable to even summon the will to type that I am considering giving up drinking, or at least taking up cocaine. Something.

At any rate, Robert Stone died a few days ago, and I’m blaming exercise for my delay in posting about it. A while back, the estimable Duffer and I had a thoroughly enjoyable exchange about faith as depicted in a section she sent me from Stone’s Children of Light. I can’t find the exchange, but I seem to remember it coming down to earthly life being either endless pigshit or divine torment. And hey, looky here.

Thanks, Robert Stone. Here’s a bit from a remembrance at The New Yorker.

The trajectory of his childhood and youth might have been invented (and exploited) by Horatio Alger; Stone himself had little to say about it. There’s no self-made triumphalism in his work. Is it odd or appropriate that someone who began so far out on society’s fringes should have made such central addresses to American aspiration and its various disappointments? Time served in that Catholic orphanage and the Marist high school from which he was expelled would certainly have imprinted something upon him; Marist theology remains a pole of his moral universe, explicitly in the short story “Miserere,” and more subtly elsewhere. A Catholic notion of redemption retained some potency for him, and he was not above an occasional naturalistic deployment of conventional religious imagery (as in the glorious finish of “A Flag for Sunrise”). But nothing in his work is taken for granted or handed to anyone by a higher power; any redemption must be existentially earned. Stone and his characters struggle with all received ideas at a very high level of intellectual honesty.

Stone’s life could be read as fulfillment of the American dream of which his work is so critical. Here’s an orphan from Brooklyn who used our institutions (he gave most credit to the Navy) to bootstrap himself to leonine status, writing for the best publications and teaching in the most élite institutions. His fifty-five-year marriage to the wise and forbearing Janice Stone has got to be one of the most successful in all literary history. Still, Stone never took anything for granted, in life or in art. The dark side of American dreaming always focussed his attention; a Stone character has to take a long walk through the valley of the shadow in order to earn a return to the light…

In the dark watches of the night when I’m looking for some way to justify having spent my whole life trying to make up stories and write them down, it’s usually one of Stone’s books I’ll pull off the shelf, meaning to comfort myself with just a few favorite passages. A day or so later, when I find I haven’t been able to resist reading the whole thing, backward and forward and all the way through, I will finally close it and put it away, thinking, Right, that’s it; that was it all along—the thing that’s still worth trying for.



  1. Quin Finnegan says

    Wow … as it happens, I am now halfway through (the excellent) Damascus Gate. Started before his passing away, actually. Thanks, Matthew, and yes, thank you, Mr. Stone.

  2. Darnit, I just deleted my yahoo account, or I’d find that exchange.

  3. Oh, but look! Here we are: “The people who mentioned Stone were people who knew their shit—older, wiser folks—and they usually invoked him solemnly, with wide eyes and dilating pupils. You got the sense that maybe these weren’t books for the young: “

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