Southern (Sort Of) Lit: Robert Stone’s Prime Green

Something about the Sixties has always both fascinated and bugged the hell out of me. While I’ve always been fascinated by the darker margins of the era — the climate that led to assassinations and Hunter S. Thompson — I’ve never had a whole lot of patience for the determined naivete of the hippie movement, which wrapped admirable goals and ambition in a gauzy, almost childlike haze from which modern liberalism has never really recovered.

Which is exactly what makes Robert Stone’s memoir, Prime Green, such a maddening book. Stone was one of the few people present during several of the Sixties’ highwater marks — Ken Kesey, San Francisco, Vietnam — with both the vision and ability to put his recollections into coherent form. Stone, the author of several outstanding novels including A Hall of Mirrors, had an astonishing opportunity here to put an authoritative stamp on a much-examined period of history…but rather than a home run, he ends up with, at best, a ground-rule double.

In the memoir, we follow Stone from his Korean-war era days in the Navy through an enviable progression across the world, from New Orleans to California to New York to Paris to Vietnam. We get some fascinating snippets, like the story of a cross-country bus trip that nearly turns tragic when some military men get a good look at the bearded, countercultural Stone, but ultimately this book comes up short in presenting anything of real depth. Stone’s an exceptional writer but an essentially pessimistic one, and he misses the chance both to give in-depth perspective on an era and to dig into self-examination — his own children get scant mention.

Bottom line: there are outstanding, timeless books about the Sixties — HST’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test first among them. It’s a shame Stone didn’t make the pantheon.

Jay

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