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We were stardust

Robert Stone's kaleidoscopic tour of the song, celebration, and chaos leading into the age of Woodstock

From left: Lenny Bruce, a Black Panther, and Ken Kesey exemplify the tumultuous era captured by Stone's memoir. (JIMMY TURRELL)

Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties
By Robert Stone
HarperCollins, 240 pp., $25.95

Every generation has a few writers who manage to be where history is shifting under their feet: war zones or cultural crucibles or cracks in society's wall. Brilliant chronicler of the geopolitics of irony and doom, Robert Stone has wandered the planet in his fiction -- Latin America, Jerusalem, Vietnam, the high seas of a sailing race around the world. Born in New York in 1937, raised by a single mother who suffered from schizophrenia, he got a piecemeal Jesuit education and soon struck out on his own. He joined the Navy at 17 and even managed, in those first few years of service, to get a personal rejection slip from The New Yorker ("Try us again "). But the Stone we know from the biographical profiles and the novels -- seven of them over the past four decades -- also shows up occasionally in the cultural histories, nowhere more succinctly than in Tom Wolfe's

portrait of Ken Kesey and his LSD-swilling Merry Pranksters in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Stone, as Wolfe portrays him, was the literary and slightly paranoid hipster who could be counted on to take things even further : the fellow "crying lissen this is dangerous as he swandives off every handy cliff."

That equivocal stance would hover over all his fiction; indeed, it probably also protected him -- enough to get him to the right places, then keep him the standoffish introvert who could write about it later. So the very idea of a memoir from that period is a welcome one, whether you want to know about the drug trips or the actual ones, the seedy side of old New Orleans or the bar girls and heroin deals of Saigon. The title of "Prime Green" gives away its hand; the phrase comes not from the druggy implication of first-rate marijuana, but from the exquisite colors Stone witnessed at dawn over Mexico's Manzanillo Bay.

What this cultural and personal memoir does not do, doesn't purport to do, is reveal much about Stone the writer -- the sensibility of searing insights and failed Catholicism that has produced such singularly dark and intelligent fiction.

Instead its narrative assumes a chatty, informal tone, preferring the less demanding form of "and-then-we . . ." to any rigorous or exacting thematic structure. As an admirer of Stone's fiction, I was unsettled by this casual voice -- where is the searching, almost scary tenor of Stone the novelist? But the narrator of "Prime Green" is more interested in describing the flashbacks of an exotic life than in putting a literary spin to those memories. It's Stone's missive from his piece of psychedelic history -- his postcards from the edge.

And first was that seemingly incongruous service in the Navy, which took Stone out of his beloved Manhattan and to the wilds of Antarctica (romantic entanglement: Olympic fencer from Australia) and then South Africa. When he came home in 1958, he bummed around New York University and a brief job at the New York Daily News, met a young woman in a writing class who would become his wife. Janice was a waitress in the coffee house scene in a New York that was hip even before there was a word for it. The two of them, married and no less cool, took off in 1960 for New Orleans , where Stone made ends meet as an encyclopedia salesman and census taker and got the shadowy, delirious story that would become his first novel, "A Hall of Mirrors." Janice was pregnant with their first child, and one day Stone was offered a gig as part of a traveling road show -- a job that seemed to offer the Kerouac promises of a life on the run. This moment is one of reckoning for Stone, and the most personal in the memoir, when he looks at his young wife and makes a choice: "So. At that moment I knew that I was not going anywhere, I loved her and that was fate. . . . There was no hope, except in this woman."

A Stegner Fellowship at Stanford followed soon enough, along with the requisite lunacy and beauty of the times: Coltrane and peyote colors and the magical mystery tour that was northern California. Kesey and the gang in the Santa Cruz Mountains; the ineffable feeling that every day you were part of the choreography of a changed and changing world. "A Hall of Mirrors," under Stone's hand at Stanford, was transformed from a realistic novel to the hallucinatory one it became. And the drugs kept getting better until they got worse -- or, as Stone puts it, "Our garden was too beautiful to ever have been free of serpents."

When did it change, when did the skies darken? The first Kennedy assassination or the second one, the Mansons or Attica? It depends, of course , on when you got there -- "there" being a mutable concept -- and Stone got there really, really early. He got hassled on the road with his beard and too-weird demeanor; back in New York, he and Janice met Kesey's legendary magic bus when it arrived bearing Pranksters on its cross-country trek. And despite the peripatetic, sometimes anxious wandering -- to London, Mexico, Los Angeles -- New York would remain home. A series of wonderfully bad jobs carried Stone through the '60s, including one as a headline writer for the tabloids. Like a lot of writers, Stone wasn't cut out for much beyond being a visionary genius. But the most prescient and hilarious condemnation came when he was fired as a waiter -- his boss told Stone he "imparted some kind of strange atmosphere to people's dinner, a fateful tension or pessimism about dinner and life."

Their loss, literature's gain. In 1971, living in London, Stone grabbed press credentials from a publication called INK and boarded a flight to Saigon via Kuala Lumpur. He was there only a few months, but it was enough to make his second novel, "Dog Soldiers," one of the finest books about the war. His writing here about Vietnam -- its war "a mistake ten thousand miles long" -- is both concise and dramatic. Perpetual witness to outrage and sorrow, he maintains a stance about the war and the US orchestration that is wonderfully even handed. On the flight out of Vietnam, on the way back to London, a self-righteous seatmate turned to Stone and said, "I hope you had nothing to do with the war."

" 'Very little,' I told her. And to my own surprise, I cut her dead for the rest of the trip." That's a moment of dialogue that could be the stuff of fiction: irony and ignorance and more than a little human decency.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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