I've always had the feeling that Robert Stone, not unlike Graham Greene, was a bit too much of a storyteller for the literary crowd and a bit too literary for the storytelling crowd. Which is shorthand for saying that he's never had the giant bestseller he's long deserved. He doesn't quit fit into a marketing plan.
"In Saigon during the waning days of the Vietnam War, a small-time journalist named John Converse thinks he'll find action - and profit - by getting involved in a big-time drug deal. But back in the States, things go horribly wrong for him. "
Stone uses Converse as our guide through underground America in the early 70s. Through him we meet drug dealers, killers, hippies, flambouyant street bullshit artists, police informers, crooked agents and high-minded intellectuals who find themselves reduced to babbling helplessness in the face of all their political nightmares.
Bare bones this is a powerful crime story. The real thing. Real criminals. Real cops. Real streets. Nothing tarted up for effect.
But it is also, for me, the truest portrait of that time I've ever read. His portrayl of the narcissistic foolish left and the brute fascist right are without peer in the literature of the time. And we see all this through the eyes of a man who is at least as delusional as everybody else in the novel. What redeems him is his cynical humor (the book is very funny in places as when Converse recalls stories he once hacked out for a low-rung tabloid, "Hungry Skydiver Eats Woman") and his obsession with trying to find a philosophical justifcation for existence. Good luck.
From the NY Times 1974 review:
"The plot is melodramatic: A confused and traumatized hack journalist in Vietnam buys three kilos of pure heroin and has it smuggled to his wife in Berkeley. She has gone from a job in the university anthropology department to selling tickets at a San Francisco porn film theater. The drugs are brought from Vietnam by an ex-Marine Corps friend of the journalist, a self-styled samurai, a zen psychopath, a desperado. The money will be very good, they "don't respond to the moral objections," they're all very frightened and fascinated by death.
"They are immediately discovered by "regulatory agents," who are extremely violent and obviously dealing in drugs themselves. The ex-Marine and the journalist's wife flee south from Berkeley to L.A., where they try to unload the stuff on a small-time Hollywood actor with gangster connections: he doesn't buy it; in a very crazy and chilling displaced act of revenge, the ex-Marine kills a naïve writer with an overdose. He has by now hooked the wife and fallen in love, of sorts, with her. She is terrified and attracted by him and enjoys the righteous and serene pleasure of a heroin high. They flee east into the desert and take refuge with a German zen roshi who had been a Ken Kesey-like master of dope (I am not now--nor have I ever been--God"). The journalist returns from Vietnam and is immediately picked up by the agents, tortured and put on his wife's trail. The book concludes with a Vietnam-style fire-fight on a California mountainside and a trek across the salt flats.
"It is all very suspenseful and convincing and cruel. It is very frightening. It is elaborately grim. Only the ironic energy and wit of the author's imagination and the authority of his voice suggest a less nihilistic or satanic way of living, acting, feeling. Stone took the epigraph for the novel from Conrad's "Heart of Darkness": "I've seen the devil of violence and the devil of greed and the devil of hot desire. . .I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land, I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly." This is indeed the spirit that drives his desperate characters."
For thrills I rank it with the best of Greene's "entertainments." Non-stop thrills rendered in prose as stripped-down and evocative as early Hemingway. It has the power to truly shock.
A novel that deserves reading many times over.
Karl Riez's film adaptation of the novel is powerful for two acts but then becomes so melodramatic it begins to stumble. But it is filled with fine performaces by Nick Nolte, Tuesday Weld, Michael Moriarty, Ray Sharkey and many others. If you want to know what the Sixties were like get your hands on this movie.