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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, January 30, 2015

What it's like to read a Robert Stone novel

Reading a Robert Stone novel (Dog Soldiers, in this case) is a little like going on a really scary carnival ride - where the whole time you feel sick, scared, excited, thrilled, exhilarated  (maybe) and at the end you say: what did I do that for? And maybe you'll ride again anyway. His novels, from what I can see, are sui generis - though drawing perhaps from Elmore Leonard (the tough-guy low-life talk, well researched or observed, depending) and also from Pynchon - the antic, complex plots that often involve a journey of desperados - maybe he and Pynchon influenced each other come to think of it. What makes Stone special is that he uses the noirish tough mystery-novel gear in a high-literary fashion; nothing seems quite to fit: thuggish, murderous characters who read Nietzche, quote Hemingway and Blake (if I remember) and Danny Kaye (yes, I picked that one up - probably few did as I think Danny Kaye and Robert Stone are two worlds that rarely coincide). All to say that I am quite engaged w/ this novel, that I've nearly finished, but don't know that I'll feel anything but relief when I do finish: with partial exception of Dieter, the guru/sensei who at least has moral values even if he spouts a lot of nonsense (and I'm guessing he's the character that Stone knew best, so to speak), these are a very unlikable lot who deserve one another. One witty irony of this novel is that it begins in Vietnam, where we see no combat whatsoever, and ends in the American southwest on a Zen retreat where Stone presents a battle scene among drug dealers and various outlaws that's worthy of its place in any novel; I don't know where Stone gathers his experience - he obviously has a tinderbox of an imagination, characters he may have brushed against ignite or bloom, to change metaphors - but I don't think he saw combat - but his narrative about armed combat is great; there are a few others who wrote about combat without experiencing it - Crane for one, also Stewart O'Nan more recently - Stone, too. Toward the end, one of the main characters, Hicks, badly wounded, goes on a trek across an unpopulated landscape seeking rescue - a great extended scene, which remind me in some ways of Cormac McCarthy, a high compliment.

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