Arts: To hell and back among desperate men

Robert Stone is a man divided. But so would you be if you lived your novels to the hilt.
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Kick against a religious upbringing, it is said, and you're an exile for life. Robert Stone was raised a Catholic and bailed out of his Marist Brothers high school to join the navy. His books are characterised by a sense of displacement, of loss, of shop-soiled souls groping blindly through a Godless country.

In A Hall of Mirrors, an idealistic musician takes a job DJ-ing on a right-wing radio station. Dog Soldiers has a journalist in Saigon agreeing to smuggle 3kg of heroin back into the US (a clear case of Vietnam's chickens coming home to roost). And in Outerbridge Reach, a yachtsman finds himself cast adrift - physically and spiritually - on a solo race around the globe.

"I was very religious until I started to think things over," Stone reckons. "People are always nostalgic about lost belief - it's like being nostalgic for childhood. So now, I want everybody's life. I go past a lighted window and want to be a part of the life inside. And yet, at the same time, I don't. I want to be free, out on the street. So," he laughs, "I'm conflicted."

Conflicted is right. In person, Stone - aged 61 and one of America's most vital novelists - presents a blur of contradictions. The dark intensity of his prose is belied first by his solid, pioneerish appearance (think Edward Woodward playing Moses), then by his mild, easy manner.

Stone was brought up in New York, and now divides his time between Connecticut (where he's writer in residence at Yale University) and Key West. But today his accent sounds softly Californian, a remnant perhaps of his years dropping acid with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. He is a traveller, a hardy seafarer and a keen scuba-diver, yet his breath, as he leads me up the stairs to his hotel suite, is as laboured as an asthmatic's.

Perhaps the man's hard, lusty life has taken its toll. Or maybe the weariness is a natural result of the extensive homework that colours every page of his latest novel, the end-of-the-century Middle East thriller Damascus Gate. Teeming with characters, rampant with spiritual musings, the novel plays out in a Jerusalem buckling under the weight of its conflicting Zionist and Palestinian beliefs. Stone spent months ensconced in the city, motivated by a desire "to get things straight"; to anchor his fantasy in true-life events, and thus head off any fundamentalist outrage. No Salman Rushdie syndrome for him, in other words.

It's not the first time he's dodged the bullet: "When I did my bit for Salman, a bunch of us writers read The Satanic Verses on American television," he recalls. "And it fell to me to read the most provocative of all the verses. But it turned out that I was identified by the title under me as Larry McMurtry." Stone gives a sheepish laugh. "So I guess they went out looking for Larry."

While Damascus Gate's research may be a good insurance policy, it is also typical of Stone, a writer who gives the impression of living his stories before he tells them. A period spent reporting the war in Vietnam was farmed back into his brilliant Dog Soldiers. His seafaring escapades crop up all over Outerbridge Reach. This seems a tradition harking back to an earlier time. "There has always been a strain of American fiction that grows directly from Melville or Conrad," comments the novelist and critic Mona Simpson. "The foremost voice of this sensibility in our time is Robert Stone."

Stone himself refers to more recent influences. "My generation was really influenced by Hemingway. He was a colossus, and we all wanted to live Hemingway-esque lives." These days, he's more circumspect. "Hemingway, and others such as Conrad and Stephen Crane, established this cult of authenticity. But, in a way, it's a false cult, because you can write a perfectly powerful novel about working in a shoe store. You don't have to shoot lions in Africa. I mean, I think you have to take your work from your life, but people live intense lives in all sorts of unlikely places. Desperation is universal."

Certainly Stone's own upbringing sounds desperate enough. His father worked on the railways, and was absent for most of his childhood. His mother was a schizophrenic, and brought up her son in a series of shabby welfare hotels on the Upper West Side. On the occasions when his mum was institutionalised, Stone found himself locked up too. "She had been a schoolteacher, but she lost her job and made a living hand-addressing envelopes, which meant that her hands got completely deformed by arthritis. And I always used to tell my friends she was deaf, to cover up her inappropriate responses. Like when she was seeing the Queen of Spain but talking to one of my male friends."

I remark that it sounds hellish. Stone is having none of it: "On the whole, I enjoyed myself. Kids are resilient, and I was always looking for the up side."

All this might be convincing were it not for a chilling passage in Dog Soldiers. The lead character, Converse, visits his mother at a flop-house hotel, and finds her plagued by sexual and racist hallucinations. When Converse bends down to kiss her hello, "the flesh his lips touched was swollen and bruised nearly black from her constant picking at it. She smelled of death."

Stone's mother died in 1971, by which time her son was already a published novelist. His debut, A Hall of Mirrors, was written over a period of five years; slowly warping in tone thanks to Stone's involvement with the hippy counter-culture. Drugs, he feels, were crucial to his craft. "I started out writing a very Steinbeckish slice-of-life bit of realism, but all that Sixties stuff gave me a sense of the surreal. It showed me that reality had several modes: that language was language, and life was life, and there were various different ways of conjoining them."

The resulting tale (a fusion of intrigue, fanaticism and disillusion in New Orleans) may well be seen as the ultimate first novel. Not best, perhaps, because A Hall of Mirrors is too loose to be wholly successful, but ultimate because every page spills over with the sense of a writer discovering his skill.

Next up for Stone is a book set in the wilds of Alaska. He has already been up on several scouting trips, and indulged in a little canoeing. The trouble is, his current novel keeps getting in the way. Damascus Gate has just been nominated for the National Book Award (the American equivalent of the Booker Prize) and the publicity schedule is a killer. "I was planning to go back to Alaska this summer," he says. "Only I got tendonitis from signing books. I had this massive tennis elbow which made it impossible to paddle."

On the one hand, the comment rings with an echo of his mother's arthritis. On the other, it catches Stone's predicament in a nutshell: his awkward marriage of intellectualism and action, of artistry and adventure. The man's conflicted.

`Damascus Gate' is published this week by Picador, price pounds 16.99