Dispatches | April 29, 2015

Today’s blog post is by TMR contributor Jeffrey Condran

When Kurtz delivers his, “The horror, the horror,” it is famously impossible to tell what, exactly, horrifies him so. Is it that the sight of his white countryman reveals to Kurtz how thoroughly he has taken up African life, and that the degradation is too much to bear? Or, equally possible, has Conrad filled his character with horror because the colonizers have found him, that they mean to return him to Europe and his wife, and that the very thought of leaving Africa and his new life is unbearable? Most likely, somehow, both of these possibilities are true at once.

I remember quite well the first time I read, Heart of Darkness, and encountered this line. It stayed with me as scenes from great books do, and I incorporated the ambivalence of its message into my own understanding of life. Yet as I began to read more widely, especially contemporary literature, I never again found a novel or story that affected me with such complexity, such anxiety and desperation.

Not until, quite at random, I picked up a copy of Robert Stone’s, Outerbridge Reach. The story follows the fortunes of Owen Browne, a former naval officer who can’t face the bleak prospects of his current life as a writer of advertising copy for a yacht brokerage, and who—in a mad attempt to make life feel meaningful again—enters a “round-the-world single-handed sailing race.” Lacking the proper sailing experience for such a venture, in a vessel of dubious construction, at a moment where Browne’s marriage is at the breaking point and his relationship with his daughter possibly on its way to estrangement, Stone is merciless with his character. Browne makes one poor decision after another, compromising little bits of personal integrity and, ultimately, undermining his identity to the point that he decides to commit suicide. There is a scene where Browne, his swimming gear weighted down, struggles for a moment or two to stay above the surface and watches his boat sailing away without him—its wake a white banner signaling Browne’s defeat, before he’s pulled under the waves for good.

The horror.

That I became a fan of Stone’s fiction after reading Outerbridge Reach is an understatement. I worked backward, reading all of his novels: Children of Light, A Flag for Sunrise, Dog Soldiers, A Hall of Mirrors. I kept extra paperback copies of my favorites so that I could lend them to people. I often found myself flipping to the back of Stone’s books and gazing at the image of his author photo, which—one has to admit—generally captures Stone offering the camera a rather crazy-eyed expression. Who was this man who could write book after book that stripped people down to a collection of their worst impulses and by doing so revealed a truth about humanity that even most writers didn’t want to see? I wanted very much to meet him.

After almost a decade of reading and admiration, I found my chance. Stone came to Pittsburgh on a book tour for Damascus Gate. With a friend—the same man, incidentally, who had given me Heart of Darkness—I was in the audience. It was thrilling to listen to Stone read, but rather than finally satisfying my interest, this experience only whetted my appetite further. After the reading there was a long line for readers who wanted their books to be signed. It gave me plenty of time to screw up my courage, and I said to my friend that we should invite Stone for a drink in the hotel bar. When the moment finally came it was my friend who asked if he were free for a drink, and to our surprise and delight, he agreed.

There we were in this well-appointed downtown bar, sitting in club chairs, the subdued lighting working its magic on the glasses and the alcohol—my star-struck infatuation in full flower. What did I talk about with Robert Stone? We discussed the Scotch we were drinking, my admiration for one of his lesser-known novels, Children of Light, which delighted him because it was his favorite of his own works, the writing of his friend, Madison Smart Bell. At one point our conversation turned to urban violence, Stone telling a story of being almost shot outside the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Then we talked about Haiti—he was already at work on his next novel, Bay of Souls. An hour or so had slipped past and we might have been on our third round of drinks when, quite suddenly, and without any embarrassment at all, I asked Stone if, looking back on his career, he had any regrets. I say that I wasn’t embarrassed but that was only because I was drunk. Yet he answered almost without hesitation. “I wish I hadn’t left so many books at the bottom of the bottle.” It was a brutally honest admission. I was taken aback and for several moments found nothing to say by way of response. I was surprised at what that one line revealed about Stone. Looking back, however, I should not have been. He was simply treating himself to the same kind of clarity and lack of sentimentality with which he subjected his characters. The moment was sobering.

We lost Robert Stone this January. I heard the news while waiting on a flight from Vancouver to Las Vegas. There’s something about air travel that both exhausts me and leaves me feeling oddly vulnerable, and because of this the news of his death knocked the wind out of me. I couldn’t help but to think, all in a rush, about the horrible pleasure of his novels and, of course, that now there would never be another. Immediately, I felt my reaction too maudlin, too self-pitying. And so instead, just for a moment, I imagined Stone himself treading water, taking one more good look around, before letting the weight of this life pull him forever beneath the waves.

Jeffrey Condran Author PhotoJeffrey Condran is the author of the story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated. His debut novel, Prague Summer, was published by Counterpoint in August 2014. His fiction has appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the 2010 William Peden Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations. He is an Assistant Professor of English at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and the Co-founder of Braddock Avenue Books.

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