Madison Smartt Bell’s Child of Light, Biography of Robert Stone Reviewed by Caryn Coyle


child of light

Child of Light by Madison Smartt Bell, Doubleday, March 17, 2020, $35.00, 608 pages, ISBN: 9780385541602

Robert Stone was “one of the world’s most brilliant, difficult, extraordinary men” writes Madison Smartt Bell in Child of Light. With incredible detail, Bell reveals Stone’s award-winning work, his astonishing life and difficult relationships. Stone’s widow, Janice, who is the first person Bell acknowledges, kept an “archive of Stone drafts, correspondence, travel records, contracts, and everything else organized to a degree that only a biographer in possession of a magic lamp would have the nerve to wish for.”

Indeed, with a spouse as attentive as Stone’s, it is clear that all that the National Book Award winner for Dog Soldiers (1975), achieved is recorded in Madison Smartt Bell’s beautiful, page-turning prose. Every novel, short story collection, and the one memoir Stone wrote are chronicled. Excerpts from the reviews of Stone’s work, published in the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Boston Globe, Washington Post, among others, are also well documented. Revelations about how he wrote and what he may have thought of the book tours, guest lectures, and the university positions that only famous/successful writers can obtain are here. Stone’s behavior during all of it and much more make Bell’s biography so readable.

Madison Smartt Bell does not spare anything. A trip to Haiti he took with Robert Stone and “Melisandra,” his “journalist friend” who also wrote fiction, is one vivid example:

……….We climbed in a rented 4×4 Montero, me at the wheel, and headed across town to ……….the hotel. The weather was pleasant and the windows were down. I was wearing a ……….red bandanna tied over my head; the tight knot at the base of my skull seemed to ……….help me concentrate in the always anarchic Haitian driving situation – also such a ……….mouchwa tet would make bystanders think I might be a practitioner, which was in ……….fact the case. I exchanged some elementary badinage in Kreyol with people who ……….hailed me from the street. Bob later told me that when he saw me ‘doing the dozens’ ……….with these local boys, he was definitely convinced that I knew what I was doing and ……….was not going to get us in trouble.

……….Then at Oloffson, revelation. Bob wasn’t planning to share a room with me as I had ……….assumed, but with Melisandra. There was a moment of discomfiture, and nothing to ……….do but swallow it. I was extremely unhappy to find I’d involved myself in betraying ……….Janice…

I was not familiar with Robert Stone’s work, so I read Death of the Black-Haired Girl and his story collection Fun with Problems. Both books were published quite near the end of Stone’s life when he was suffering from addiction, emphysema, gout, sciatica and an elbow he broke many times. He was in such poor health, his world travels for research or promotion of his work had all but ceased. I read the ailing writer’s work with wonder. It was fitting that Bell would say: “At the end of the day, Robert Stone was his own man, and his own writer. As for the work, there is nothing else quite like it in the entire American canon.”

Child of Light is terrific reading for anyone who ever dreamt of writing a novel and wondered what a successful writer’s life was like. It’s all here; from the adaptations of his work for movie productions and the friendships with the famous that come with them, to the mental and physical health crises he experienced.

Robert Stone was invited to the Benedict Canyon home of Paul Newman for his forty-fourth birthday. Decades later, “Paul Newman left an ominous phone message for the Stones in Key West. ‘Black ice,’ he said. When Bob was finally able to reach him he learned that Paul had been hospitalized with a heart problem … Bob never saw him again.”

Stone’s experimentation with drugs and infidelity dated back to his days as part of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. There was a child born during that time, and she was acknowledged by her father, Stone and his wife, Janice, who was not her mother.

……….Bob’s enthusiasm for drugs other than drink had been noteworthy even in the Perry ……….Lane circle [the original locale of the Merry Pranksters in 1960’s California], where it ……….was shared to some extent by everyone around him. Prone to bouts of depression since ……….childhood, Bob, because of his perfectionism and the difficulty of bringing his work to ……….the high standard he required of it, didn’t get the relief from practicing his craft that ……….many writers do. That situation left him with an abiding interest in altered states by ……….any means necessary.

Throughout the book, Madison Smartt Bell chronicles the many drafts Stone would write of his work. How he worked on multiple pieces, overlapping them, and his struggles; the frequently missed deadlines, the miserable days of trying to write while ill, even how he typed. Stone’s career began with typewriters and progressed through the many stages of cumbersome word processors. Bell also writes of the clear possibility that Stone channeled parts of himself into two or more characters in each of his novels.

An added plus is what his book reveals about Madison Smartt Bell. Though both are recipients of the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award administered by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Bell never mentions his own award. They met just before Robert Stone came to Baltimore to teach at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars in 1993. After a couple of dinners, one in Key West, hosted by the Stones, the other in Baltimore, hosted by Madison Bell and his wife, Elizabeth Spires, Bell invited Stone for an after-dinner drink:

……….… but when I went to pick him up from the house the Stones had rented from Steve ……….Dixon in Mount Washington I found that he’d forgotten about it and gone to sleep. ……….Perhaps a bit impishly, I asked Janice if she’d like to go instead – and I’d have been ……….perfectly happy if she’d accepted. She declined, but with a smile.

……….I couldn’t have blamed her if she’d lumped me in with those people who wanted a ……….piece of Bob to the point that he risked being devoured altogether. Bob might well ……….have felt the same about such importunities, mine and others. I have never had ……….nearly so many fanatical devotees as he, but talking to mine has always made me a ……….little nervous.

To have one’s biography written by Madison Smartt Bell is extraordinary. For many, the reason Child of Light is so compelling could be the author, whose devotion to his subject is on every page:

……….In the summer of 1983, my mother handed me a paperback copy of A Flag for ……….Sunrise. We were on our way to spend a few weeks with friends in the Roman ……….Campagna and a couple of other places. It was my first trip to Europe; my first novel ……….had been published a few months earlier. Before I got on the plane, I had never ……….heard of Robert Stone. By the time the wheels touched down in Rome, he was the ……….writer I wished I could become.

© Madison Smartt Bell and Caryn Coyle

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of sixteen novels, including All Souls Rising (1995), nominated for a National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Prize and won the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf Award. He has also written a biography of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, Freedom’s Gate (2007) and Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution (2005) about Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, along with two books of short stories, a nonfiction book of essays on Baltimore and two text books on creative writing. He teaches writing at Goucher College.

Caryn Coyle is an editor at The Loch Raven Review.

Back to Main Loch Raven Review Site