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Drugs, Sex, and Rock ’n’ Roll

New biographical works show how Philip Roth’s and Robert Stone’s hedonism fueled their art-making

David Mikics
June 11, 2020
Illustration: Kurt Hoffman; Photos: Getty Images
Robert Stone and Phillip RothIllustration: Kurt Hoffman; Photos: Getty Images
Illustration: Kurt Hoffman; Photos: Getty Images
Robert Stone and Phillip RothIllustration: Kurt Hoffman; Photos: Getty Images

Saul Bellow once observed that writers have such messy personal lives because they never know what to do with the afternoon. After a long morning at the desk temptations beckon, chief among them sex and alcohol.

Sex was Philip Roth’s mainstay. Robert Stone leaned toward drink and drugs. Both men used their recreational afternoons to reach literary summits. Sexual escapades supply the building blocks for Roth’s novels, while Stone’s rest on mesmerizing, druggy visions. Stone’s intoxicated characters, like Roth’s eros-addled alter egos, fall in love with ecstasy, however ersatz it may appear the morning after.

Roth and Stone were old-school, male novelists, penning odes to masculine craziness: a tribe that, except for its sole survivor, Cormac McCarthy, now seems as dead as the Aztecs. Both were men of large appetites. At his peak Stone would take Ritalin in the morning for writing and then, later in the day, morphine or Quaaludes, plus booze and grass at night. Roth habitually conducted love affairs on several fronts at once. Yet both Stone and Roth were fanatically disciplined writers.

Two recent books, Madison Smartt Bell’s Child of Light, his biography of Stone, and Benjamin Taylor’s Here We Are, a memoir of the author’s friendship with Roth, dig into the paradox of the novelist who praises excess yet abides by a strict code of conduct, repressing what he must in order to thrive artistically. Bell is an expert reader of Stone’s novels, and he makes the case that Stone is one of our central American writers. The case has already been made for Roth by Ross Posnock, among other critics. What Taylor gives us is a straightforward, moving elegy for the author, rather than a polemic on behalf of his novels.

Unlike Roth, Stone had a rather hardscrabble early life. Stone’s mother, a probable schizophrenic, was 43 when she gave birth to him, her only child. The pair spent much time in SRO hotels, where Gladys, having lost her job as a teacher, stuffed envelopes for a living. She never told him who his father was, and Gladys, her son suspected, might not have been her real name. While not knowing your father’s name is fairly common, not knowing your mother’s is much rarer, Stone liked to joke.

A New York street kid, Stone went to Catholic school, where he learned to read Latin poetry and to write solid English prose. He aced the Regents Exam, having been fed, he remembered, “a whole lot of stuff that the Gentiles believe and various shibboleths and names that you ought to know because they’ll be on the test the Jews will give us.” But he never finished high school, ejected in his last year by the Marist Brothers for atheism and other bad behavior. Instead, he joined the Navy, where he read Ulysses, traveled to Antarctica, and got his GED. After his discharge he drifted into early marriage and fatherhood.

In the early 1960s Stone and his wife, Janice, hung with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Then he went to Vietnam, where he was, he said, “up to me ears in smack.” He recalled later that heroin was sometimes smuggled to the States in the corpses of fallen soldiers.

In the Navy Stone witnessed French jets attacking the Egyptians at Port Said during the 1956 Suez Crisis. “All around me was this red water and exploding reed boats and Port Said being absolutely blown apart.” The illumination rounds were the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, he thought. The next day it dawned on him that the harbor was full of corpses. “I suddenly knew what was meant when Luther said, ‘The world is in depravity.’”

The sense of beauty stayed with Stone along with the knowledge of human evil. Politically he was evenhanded, lamenting America’s war in Vietnam but adding that when the North Vietnamese overran the city of Hue, they “treated the city and its inhabitants the way the special Kommandos of Totenkopf SS treated the average Byelorussian shtetl.”

Dog Soldiers, Stone’s Vietnam novel, blasted him to fame in 1974, winning the National Book Award. The new Library of America edition of Stone’s novels contains his three best books, Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, and Outerbridge Reach. These novels can stand with Roth’s or anyone else’s as monuments of late-20th-century American prose.

My own favorite Stone is A Flag for Sunrise (1981), a metaphysical thriller about a foiled Central American revolution. Here we meet Pablo, a Benzedrine-addicted hoodlum, as well as a half-cracked, drunken priest, Father Egan, who fitfully sees the jewel in the lotus between shots of rum. There is a nun who sides with the rebels, the superbly drawn Sister Justin, and the hard-drinking Frank Holliwell, anthropologist and ex-CIA employee, the Robert Stone stand-in, a lonely man without allegiance. Stone’s people are all questers, and when they come in contact a delicate electricity surges between them.

Philip Roth and Robert Stone were old-school male novelists, penning odes to masculine craziness: a tribe that, except for its sole survivor, Cormac McCarthy, now seems as dead as the Aztecs.

When Holliwell stares at the ocean, he has a hard-boiled American thought that channels Melville and Conrad: “A few yards away under the slate-blue rollers, the universe was being most spontaneously itself. Its play dazzled. It beguiled temporal flesh with promises and it promised all things from petty cheer to cool annihilation. Things were a lonely and dangerous business and he was tired of them. He wanted clarity and it was not to be had.” Notice the noir twist in that next to last sentence, about the “lonely and dangerous business,” and notice, too, Holliwell’s dire wish for clarity, which is quiet and futile and taken straight from Conrad.

At such moments I prefer Stone to Conrad. Heresy, I know. But am I the only reader who finds Conrad’s bleak and hollow skepticism stagy? Relishing the irony that cruel fate inflicts, Conrad likes to disappoint human hope. In short, he loads the deck. Stone is not, perhaps, the greater writer, but he is the wider, and higher, spirit, for sure. He held tight to what he called “prime green,” the title of his memoir: those halcyon mornings in Mexico with Kesey’s motley crew, when the world seemed new created. Though wary, he remained a child of light.

In Outerbridge Reach, Stone’s hero, Owen Browne, a man of honor searching for clarity, decides to sail around the world, but ends up a failure like Conrad’s Lord Jim: He fakes his boat’s logs and leaps into the ocean. Yet even here Stone rejects a tired and disillusioned stance. In his last moments Owen is perplexed but sublimely illuminated too, unlike Conrad’s character.

Father Egan, in A Flag for Sunrise, is a wreck of a man, broken by drink and middle age, but he too becomes a vehicle for vision. He tells a group of flower children scattered around an archaic site for Mesoamerican human sacrifice, “You can look into the dead face of the world, try to catch it unawares—no good. … We’re down among our several intoxications and delusions and we find our minds, the little devils, the devious protean things. Anything more? ... Who knows down in that mess? But maybe there is something. A little shard of light … that little radiant thing. I’ve never seen it, you know, but it has to be there.” Braced by doubt, Egan offers a chink of shining possibility, drawn from Stone’s own reading of Kabbalah. Stone includes a kabbalist in his novel set in Israel, Damascus Gate, and he liked to think that his father might have been Jewish. His main Jewish source, though, is the God who speaks from the whirlwind at the end of the Book of Job, the same God that Melville served. “You who love tricks … who made Leviathan,” as Egan puts it.

Stone liked the taste of danger. Scuba diving at Sharm el Sheik in 1985, he sensed there was a shark below, an added frisson. When in May 1971, Stone got drunk and boarded a plane to Saigon, Janice wrote, “He says he’s going to Vietnam to get killed because he’s impotent.”

Such impulses usually lead to rocky marriages. Bell, who knew Stone well, draws a polite veil over Stone’s. He relies heavily on an unpublished memoir by Janice, who tolerated his occasional affairs and, encouraged by Stone, had a few of her own, too. Out of loyalty to them both, he pulls his punches, making us think the marriage ran smoother than, one guesses, it really did. Bell quotes but doesn’t follow up on a stray comment by Stone’s son Ian, that as a child he felt at times he was living through The Shining, with his father in Jack Nicholson’s role.

Benjamin Taylor’s Here We Are, like Bell’s Child of Light, is written out of loyalty. Taylor, 20 years younger than Roth, was Roth’s best friend during the last decade of his life, sharing hundreds of dinners. (Roth died in 2018.) In his affecting, artfully casual memoir, Taylor takes us through a friendship that was, he says, perfect, and “as plotless as friendship ought to be.”

Yet the aging Philip Roth was ensnared in a plot: He was heading for death. Here We Are’s sharpest twists are supplied by Roth’s serious heart condition. He came close to dying several times, and on one of those occasions Taylor was in the ambulance, with Roth’s pulse getting faint and “thready.” Like Claudia Roth Pierpont in Roth Unbound and Lisa Halliday in her roman à clef Asymmetry, Taylor adeptly conveys Roth’s funny, warm, performative side. “His mineral-hard stare” made you confide in him, too: People told Roth things they told no one else. “Just say what’s going on,” he would demand. (Ferreting out personal secrets is part of the novelist’s toolbox.) “Secrets and deceptions of every kind appealed to Philip,” Taylor remarks. “He was not above cuckolding inattentive husbands.”

It’s no surprise that one lover, Janet Hobhouse, compared the tightly laced Roth to Prufrock, not quite daring to eat a peach. He was nothing if not careful. Taylor describes Roth as a “sexual anarch,” but he seems to have been devoted instead to making sure that his love affairs didn’t get too hard to handle. He enjoyed prying himself loose from erotic commitments: Houdini with a hard-on.

Roth the control freak was the heir of Henry James, the most anal retentive of all American writers, the quizzical, firmly buttoned-up author patrolling his characters. What could be more Jamesian than Roth’s contract with Blake Bailey, his authorized biographer? After Bailey is finished with the biography, he will turn Roth’s private archive over to the executors of his estate, who will destroy it.

Roth’s life, unlike his fiction, refused to yield fully to his ironclad author’s will, though one stunning coincidence suggested that it might. In a turn of fate worthy of a Patricia Highsmith novel, Roth’s (allegedly) maenadlike, scheming wife, Maggie, died suddenly in a car crash soon after he imagined her death in When She Was Good. (“The book comes as close as a realistic novel can to driving a stake through its heroine’s heart,” writes Claudia Roth Pierpont.) His second wife, Claire Bloom, was much harder to get rid of. Taylor reports that even after his retirement from fiction writing Roth spent his days drafting an endless polemic against Bloom’s memoir of their life together. Indignant rage preoccupied him, as any reader of his books might guess.

Though he wrote a few more or less sex-free books, erotic questing lies at the center of Roth’s art as well as his life. A fervent anti-monogamist, Roth sometimes saw sex as a rapacious fuck-you in the face of death, as in that proudly smutty, forever unteachable book Sabbath’s Theater. But despite Roth’s taste for colorful perversions, sex in his books is really a cozy, wholesome way to escape, for a while at least, the pressures of reality and responsible adulthood. The fictional women Roth likes best are libertine but also comforting, even maternal: Drenka in Sabbath’s Theater, Faunia in The Human Stain. They make a grown man feel like a boy again.

Roth said he had enjoyed the happiest of childhoods, surrounded by the pickle barrels and candy stores of Jewish Newark, and dipping his toes into the waves at the Jersey Shore. Sex in his novels is meant to lead us back to childhood, when we could play freely and be just as freely comforted.

But it could be that the erotic life is not enough. As age steals us away, sex, no longer a Dionysian romp, turns into a fragile loose-leaf notebook. As Roth told Taylor, “You’re left to browse back through the enticements and satisfactions and agonies that were your former life—when you were strong in the sexual magic.”

The Human Stain—which Taylor claims is Roth’s masterpiece, a book that reaches for the heart of American literature—celebrates “the contaminant of sex, the redeeming corruption,” at times even citing the raucous candor of the Greek gods. (Roth loved Heine’s wicked saying: There is a God, and his name is Aristophanes.) But the novel is actually about puritan self-mastery, not erotic freedom. Coleman Silk, who passes for white, swears an oath to repression. “Rule everything else out, let nothing else in, and immerse yourself in the thing, the subject, the competition, the exam—whatever’s to be mastered, become that thing,” Coleman tells himself. That American idea, triumph through self-making, lets him survive the verdict of the mother he turns his back on, who will never know her white grandchildren. “You think like a slave,” she tells him.

Stone’s version of Coleman Silk is Owen Browne in Outerbridge Reach, dedicated, quiet, and solitary as he sails around the world. Browne the ascetic outlasts the mockery of his nemesis Strickland, the novel’s coke-snorting filmmaker who tarnishes Browne’s name and steals his wife. By putting these two characters together, Stone binds restraint and excess, the two poles that govern our being—according to Stone, and Roth, too.

Sex and drugs are the raw materials. But to truly rock ’n’ roll you need to make art, with cunning and perfect secrecy. That high, at least, will endure.

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.

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