Sunday

Robert Stone's Characters: The Stories

I wanted to begin my examination of characterization in Robert Stone’s fiction with a few of his short stories, because I’ve found them to be consistently engaging on an emotional level, as opposed to Flannery O’Connor, for example, whose short stories I find engaging merely on an intellectual level. Stone’s protagonists are extremely flawed, but they never fail to be sympathetic. A large part of this outcome may be because they are confronted by difficult antagonists.

I chose two stories from Stone’s great early collection, Bear and his Daughter: “Under the Pitons” and “Porque no Tiene, Porque le Falta.”  Both stories are set in exotic locations where a culture of drug use contributes to an atmosphere of paranoia among the characters. Both feature antagonists that seem quintessentially evil but are eventually revealed to possess human frailties. Both feature main characters laboring under dire misconceptions about themselves, and both contain protagonists who underestimate the trouble in which they find themselves.  In both stories, character and setting are skillfully presented within a narrative framework that impels the reader forward with great force from the opening to the conclusion.

In “Porque no Tiene, Porque le Falta” the protagonist faces two principal antagonists: Fencer and Willie Wings.  Their physical attributes are rendered near the beginning of the story in a few quick strokes. Fencer wears exotic jewelry and “white duck pants;” he has “yellow hair like General Custer.”   Willie Wings is bald, red-faced, frenetic, and sweating.   Those few strokes are all we need: the reader savors a strong visual impression of these two strung out ex-hippies, leaving Stone free to sketch their underlying characters. 

Fencer pulls some joints out of his belt like a gunfighter; in a deft flight of pirate imagery Willie Wings engages in an ongoing conversation with his parrot during which he hurls oblique insults at the story’s protagonist, Fletch.   We learn that the local people fear and loathe the pair: someone shouts “Diablos!” as they drive through town.  The main outward plot line of the story is Fletch’s growing certainty that these pirates/cowboys/druggies want to do him in, leading to his eventual “escape” from their murderous attentions.

In “Under the Pitons,” Freycinet is described variously as having close-cut hair, a flattened skull, pink-edged teeth, and a pointed nose like a puppet’s; the man is clearly a rat.  Indeed, Stone makes this image explicit, describing “an unpleasant, ratty face.” On deck he looks like he is “sniffing out menace,” and the smell of cordite hangs in the air around him.  Clearly he is not only a rat, but a dangerous one. Blessington, the protagonist, suspects that he and his fellow crew-member Gillian may become the next victims of Freycinet’s rage and drug-induced irrationality.

Of course Blessington, like Fletch in “Porque,” is himself subject to the mind-warping influence of drugs.  In both stories, the protagonists suffer from wildly mistaken perceptions of the world around them.  Blessington is a fish out of water.  He’s polite and proper, a nice Irish boy with a brogue who somehow against his will has drifted from being a resort cook to a crew member aboard a drug-running yacht captained by the psychotic rat, Freycinet.  In “Porque,” Fletch is an oppressed poet who just wants to be left alone with his fine “perceptions,” and his delicately balanced view of life.

So it seems like pretty simple set-up. A pair of troubled but basically nice protagonists, just trying to make their drug-addled way, bump up against some straightforwardly evil antagonists.  In both stories, the conflict arises out of the simple question of whether or not the protagonist will make it through the story alive. 

But a passing familiarity with Stone’s work should be enough to warn the reader that it isn’t so simple at all.  In both cases, the protagonist’s outlook—the lens through which the reader effectively sees the world of the story—is exposed in the course of the struggle with the antagonists as being terribly flawed. 

When Willie Wings says “Fletch’s perception is dead,” he’s not just hazing -- he’s telling the truth.  Fletch’s perception is dead, or at least dead wrong, as he misreads one cue after another.  Fencer is having an affair with Marge, but he and Willie Wings are not trying to kill Fletch; they really do just want to have a bonding experience up on the volcano. 

Similarly, Blessington misjudges his antagonist in “Under the Pitons”: Freycinet doesn’t want to leave Blessington to drown. He thinks Blessington is trying to leave him to drown.  They’re both paranoid. 

In the end, the reader of these stories ends up with an understanding of which the protagonist may have only the faintest glimmer.  Fletch skulks out of the bedroom (where Fencer and his wife are having snake-like sex) in a “masterpiece of silence,” the strength of his false “perception,” at least for now, intact.  Blessington fails to save Gillian from drowning but makes it to shore himself. 

Epiphany is not so much denied as postponed: the protagonists may or may not have taken the first step toward their own redemption.  But the reader has been rewarded with a nice surprise. The bad guys really weren’t all that bad, and worldviews that seem too simple, probably are.

This is the first of a two-part post on characterization in the fiction of Robert Stone. Next time, we’ll take a look at the use of leitmotif in his masterful novel, Dog Soldiers.