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Author Robert Stone, Known For 'Dog Soldiers,' Dies At 77

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The novelist Robert Stone once said his subject is America and Americans. The America he captured was the country of Altamont in Vietnam, the discordant end of the 1960s, and the follies that came after. He won the National Book Award in 1975 for his novel "Dog Soldiers." Over the weekend, Robert Stone died at his home in Key West, Florida, at 77 years old. NPR's Petra Mayer has this remembrance.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: It'd be safe to say that Robert Stone had an unusual childhood. His father was absent, and his beloved mother suffered from schizophrenia. They wandered around the country, sometimes only a step ahead of child welfare authorities, as he told WHYY's Fresh Air in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBERT STONE: Although she got things somewhat scrambled, she really did love to read. And she was much more broad-minded about a great many things than plenty of people who were nominally sane.

MAYER: Stone bounced around from a Catholic orphanage, to the Navy, to New York City and finally fetched up in Northern California in Palo Alto's bohemian Perry Lane neighborhood just as the 1960s were getting underway. He met up with Ken Kesey and the group that became the Merry Pranksters, and it was idyllic at first. He once described Perry Lane as Eden with no snakes. But he said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STONE: I don't think I ever quite got on the utopian way of life.

MONA SIMPSON: He's certainly not sentimental about the counter culture, or for that matter about much else.

MAYER: That's novelist Mona Simpson, who knew Robert Stone through The Paris Review. She compares Stone to writers like Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad.

SIMPSON: In a sense, Conrad, he's definitely writing about our confrontation with other cultures and what that does to the souls and psyches of the people who are doing that, who are not necessarily the people who plan to do that.

MAYER: Stone got a taste of that confrontation in the late 1960s on a brief assignment as a journalist in Vietnam. You just had to stand in the middle of Constitution Square in Saigon and look around, and you could see how wrong, wrong, wrong this was, he later told The New York Times. It was this enormous, endless, boundless, topless, bottomless mistake, he said. That experience informed his most famous novel, the award-winning "Dog Soldiers," which follows three Americans who cook up an ill-fated plan to smuggle heroin home from Vietnam. It was later made into a movie, "Who'll Stop The Rain," starring Nick Nolte.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN")

NICK NOLTE: (As Ray Hicks) Your husband once told somebody I was a psychopath. You think he could be right?

MAYER: Stone kept on writing about missionaries and militiamen in Central America, about miserable actors in Hollywood, about all kinds of people chasing all kinds of dreams, even and especially when those dreams let them down. We need stories, he told The Paris Review, we can't identify ourselves without them. Petra Mayer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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