Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties by Robert Stone

Chauncey Mabe
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Lazy, hazy recollections of the '60s hold little insight.

Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties

Publisher: Ecco
Length: 229
Formats: Hardcover
Price: $25.95
Author: Robert Stone
US publication date: 2007-01

Near the end of Prime Green, surely the most disappointing book to come out in this young and troubled year, Robert Stone presents an off-hand observation about the merits and uses of nonfiction writing that serves as an unintentional indictment of the very book he himself has delivered into our hands: "The best nonfiction writers -- John McPhee, for example -- create multidimensional characters, and set scenes in dialogue that have their highest accuracy in the reader's recognition of life and speech."

Only an inattentive reader could fail to notice that Stone, almost universally regarded as one of America's most significant late 20th-century novelists, has done nothing of the kind in this book, which is intended, as the subtitle promises, as a recollection of the 1960s, when its author was present, either at the center or on the margins, of more than a few key historical, social and cultural events.

Instead of scenes, Prime Green offers hastily sketched, half-developed anecdotes that slide into one another like running watercolors, seldom to any point. Instead of multidimensional characters, Stone ponies up fuzzy, declamatory impressions of Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Paul Newman and other figures of lasting interest with whom he was acquainted.

Instead of giving the reader the means of recognizing high accuracy in life and speech, Stone tosses off a first-draft kind of autobiography that stakes its entire authority on that weakest of all structures, the eye-witness testimony of the author.

Indeed, Prime Green gives every indication of not having been written at all, but spoken, presumably into a tape recorder, and the result has all the charm and pleasure of listening to a uncle fumbling through half-remembered stories, somewhere south of the third cocktail, at a family gathering.

What a letdown, given Stone's stature as a novelist. He was noted for his talent and promise from his very first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), promise that was fulfilled in his best novel, the National Book Award-winning Dog Soldiers (1974). That's not to discredit his later output as a novelist, either. Though he sometimes could be guilty of overreaching in late novels like Outerbridge Reach (1992) or Damascus Gate (1998), he remained a serious and ambitious writer through the end of the century.

What's more, Stone is well-positioned to write about the '60s because he was there. A friend of the novelist and provocateur Ken Kesey, Stone was one of the Merry Pranksters aboard the bus Kesey and friends drove from California to New York to visit the World's Fair in 1964, a journey memorialized by journalist Tom Wolfe in his 1968 work of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Aside from listing the actual people on the bus -- like Woodstock, many who weren't there claim to be -- Stone sheds almost no insight on the event. Apart from telling us that Neal Cassady, a larger-than-life figure famous for his influence on Jack Kerouac, could drive and roll a joint at the same time, Stone's account of the bus trip is woefully brief and absent of anecdote.

For a novelist of Stone's proven storytelling skills, he provides shockingly few stories, and those he does give us are frequently ill-considered. He devotes pages to a Greyhound bus ride in which he is menaced by soldiers who don't like his looks, only to allow the whole incident to trail off into nothingness. Uncle loses his train of thought, apparently. Indeed, the best parts of the book are the ones with the least historic interest: His time in the Navy in the late '50s and his tenures with tabloid newspapers in New York before he became a big-shot novelist.

For the most part, Stone seems to be coasting on his reputation, a reputation that readers familiar only with this book will find baffling. Too much of the narrative reads like this passage, in which Stone and some pot-head friends gaze into Benedict Canyon at the compound where the Manson Family had recently murdered Sharon Tate and others:

"It was the kind of Los Angeles summer day that Nathanael West could describe with such exquisitely turned admiration and loathing." This is lazy writing of the high school variety, akin to saying, "Only a poet could describe..." Nathanael West could describe it, sure, but can Stone? You be the judge: "Sumptuous, sensual, euphorbia-scented. Hummingbirds sipped nectar." Can you picture that? Me neither.

If Stone fails as an autobiographer, he could at least step back and offer intellectual analysis of the things he lived through in what was an exceedingly eventful time, right? After all, his novels are the evident work of a very intelligent man. But alas, no. While Stone does clamber atop a soap box from time to time to blow hard about the hippies, or the Tate murders, or Vietnam, these have the air of barroom pontifications heard here not for the first time.





Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.