Book Review – Prime Green by Robert Stone

  • Prime Green – Remembering The Sixties
  • by Robert Stone
  • Publisher – ecco
  • Copyright – 2007
  • 229 pages

Rating – 6/10

Review – About fifteen years ago, I read Robert Stone’s 1974 novel Dog Soldiers. It is a rarity – a successful attempt at a “big book” that captures the zeitgeist. In Dog Soldiers Stone conveys the disillusionment and rootlessness in the U.S. after our failure in the Vietnam War. More surprisingly, Dog Soldiers also succeeds in telling an entertaining story – about an ill-fated attempt to smuggle drugs from Vietnam to the U.S.

From Brooklyn to Stanford

Stone – who was born in 1937 – was a bit older than most of the sixties hipsters. Moreover, he was not the typical, upper-middle class dropout. Instead, he was raised under difficult circumstances in Brooklyn. Eventually, he quit high school and joined the U.S. Navy. The 1950s sections are some of Prime Green’s best material. Stone had some nice adventures while traveling the world in the Navy.

Eventually, the scene shifts back to the U.S. Stone spends time in New York and New Orleans, drifting from job to job and working on the novel that became 1966’s A Hall of Mirrors.  Though Stone had no academic credentials, he eventually won a writing fellowship to Stanford University. At Stanford, he became associated with Ken Kesey and many of the 1960s “big names.”

An Oft-Told Tale

Strangely, the closer Stone moves to the heart of the counterculture, the less Prime Green interests the reader. So many writers have dissected the sixties. So many aging hippies have recounted their youthful misadventures. Finding a fresh perspective on those years is difficult, and Stone – for the most part – doesn’t do so.

I don’t want to be too negative. Prime Green has some nice stories:

  • In 1964 Stone journeyed across the U.S. on a Grayhound Bus. Due to his beatnik apperance, a group of U.S. Navy sailors terrorized Stone, who took a severe beating in Highspire, Pennsylvania. (Stone points out the irony – he had been a Navy sailor). This scene is perhaps the best in the book – tense and dramatic.
  • A bit later, Stone worked for a tabloid in New York City. He interjects humor into Prime Green by describing the fabricated stories that he wrote. (Among the headlines were “Armless Veteran Beaten for Not Saluting Flag” and “Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds”). Unfortunately, Stone lessens the section’s impact by not naming the publication and by using pseudonyms for his coworkers.
  • During the early 1970s, Stone went to Vietnam. Once there, he saw the Nixon administration’s attempt to turn the war over to South Vietnamese while withdrawing U.S. troops. Stone describes the imploding U.S. war effort and the mushrooming drug culture. The reader gets a good idea of Stone’s source material for Dog Soldiers.

What’s Prime Green?

The title of the book was a mystery as I read. Eventually, Stone reveals its source when recounting his time in Mexico with Ken Kesey. At the time, Kesey was “on the lam” from a California drug charge. Stone’s explanation encapsulates his take on the 1960s:

What I will never forget is the greening of the day at first light on the shores north of Manzanillo Bay. I imagine that color so vividly that I know, by ontology, that I must have seen it. In the moments after dawn, before the sun had reached the peaks of the sierra, the slopes and valleys of the rain forest would explode in green light, erupting inside a silence that seemed barely to contain it. When the sun’s rays spilled over the ridge, they discovered dozens of silvery waterspouts and dissolved them into smoky rainbows. Then the silence would give way, and the jungle rose to blue heaven. Those mornings, day after day, made nonsense of examined life, but they made everyone smile. All of us, stoned or otherwise, caught in the vortex of dawn, would freeze in our tracks and stand to, squinting in the pain of the light, sweating, grinning. We called that light Prime Green; it was primal, primary, primo (p. 153).

Moving On

There’s really nothing wrong with Prime Green. Stone was a talented writer who was at the heart of the 1960s counterculture. Prime Green never bores the reader, but it never “catches fire,” either.  The book simply isn’t a “must read.” So much has been written about the sixties that the bar is pretty high for counterculture memoirs. If you’re looking to read something about the decade, you can do much better. For those with an interest in Stone’s work, Dog Soldiers is a much better place to start.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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