This is a re-read, actually. I read this book several years ago, possibly around the time I was writing “The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen,” my novel about a hippy girl’s adventures in the sixties in a wilderness commune, Haight/Ashbury, and Woodstock. The book came into my hands again when I bought a hardcover version of it for a buck or two at the Seattle Friends of the Library book sale. Otherwise I might not have given it a second try.
I wanted to like this book. I expected great things from it. Robert Stone, after all, is a good writer. I liked his novel “Dog Soldiers,” which won the National Book Award back in the mid-1970s. I expected him to delve deeply into the hippy/drug era of the 1960s, of which he seemed to be an integral part. Sadly, he does not. He skims over the most important parts of the narrative: his acquaintance with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, his involvement in the hippy scene in the San Francisco Bay area back in the early sixties before the Summer of Love, the writing of his first novel, “A Hall of Mirrors,” and his journey to Vietnam on a tourist visa in the early seventies in the last dark days of American involvement.
He touches on all these events, but they comprise just a small fraction of the narrative. I have no problem with the time he takes to describe his other travels with his wife and kids and what he and his family were going through while germinal national and international events were transpiring around them, but I wish he would have said much more about the core realities that drew me to the book. In the end, I felt I had been served a tray of hors d’oeuvres rather than a full meal. I wanted a feast of sixties insight, and Stone fails to supply it.
What he gives is interesting enough. He was, after all, right there with Kesey for part of his journey, he did go to Vietnam to see what was what, he did write some good books. He just didn’t delve deeply enough into things. He comes across, as a character in the memoir, as a casual observer, without emotion, not really giving a damn what happens one way or the other, casually downing all sorts of drugs without thought of consequence. Something’s missing – the heart of the matter.
There’s a key of sorts in a quick comment he makes at one point, that the Summer of Love ruined everything. He and his pals were having a great time until young people from all over the country came to the Bay Area and spoiled all the fun.
That, in fact, is the heart of the matter. Why were these people drawn there? What beacon shining out of the darkness caused them to leave the homes and mores and cultural prejudices of their parents and hit the road and head for San Francisco? And how did this tumultuous cultural upheaval change America and the world forever? It’s reflected in the music, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, many others.
It fascinated me, way back in the early seventies when I found myself at a university in the Bay Area in California, clueless as to what I was supposed to be doing there. I was already into drugs – marijuana at least – and I quickly became acquainted with psychedelics – which were my downfall. But through all the dark days I lived there, often stoned half out of my mind, the detritus of the cultural explosion of the sixties still clung to everything all around, and I looked through the wreckage for some sort of illumination, insight, guidance, strength of soul.
And that’s what all those young people sought back in the 1960s when they hit the road. They didn’t all make it to San Francisco. Many transferred the San Francisco experience to other cities. It established some sort of rainbow-colored contrast to the stark black and red – black for evil and red for blood – reality of so many American young people coming home from Southeast Asia as physically and psychologically crippled wrecks or in boxes.
In the end, what was accomplished of lasting value? I still don’t know. That’s why I am drawn to literature and films that depict the era, and that’s why I explore the times in my own works such as the novels “The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen” and “Sunflower” and in a number of short stories. The hippy era continues to fascinate me, even now, though I’m not really involved in it anymore and I haven’t done drugs for almost forty years. If I take Stone’s book as a guidepost, the era was ephemeral and unimportant. I think, rather, that Stone had something else in mind when he wrote this memoir and chose not to delve as deeply as he could have. Honestly, I don’t know. If I ever meet him, I’ll have to ask.
In the meantime, I would say that this book could have been one of the germinal works about the 1960s, but it is not. It’s a shame, as I said, considering Stone’s involvement in the era, but it is what it is, no more and no less. It’s readable, reasonably entertaining, and well though lightly written. That’s it.