‘Bob once said, Kesey goes for life, but I’m going for art,’ Janice told Bell. ‘And I thought he made exactly the right decision, because all those great nights of back and forth, you know, they disappeared into the ether.’ She was speaking of the Perry Lane days when Stone was at Stanford and they lived in a low-rent, semi-rural student neighbourhood near the university. Master of revels on Perry Lane was Ken Kesey, who had just published the book that would make him famous, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His personality was large and unpredictable, and he attracted an excitable crowd of the mainly young who were ready to think, do or ingest anything. Stone was ready for anything too – tonight. But tomorrow he planned on being back at work on his Stegner project, the novel A Hall of Mirrors, which moved slowly. When Kesey, with his love for big gestures and adventure, set off in a gaudily painted, rattletrap school bus to visit the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, the wilder half of the Perry Lane crowd was on the bus too, and the man at the wheel was Neal Cassady, the legendary long-distance driver of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Stone was part of the Perry Lane crowd, but when the hijinks began to eat into his writing time he slipped away. Kesey’s voyage east with the Merry Pranksters was one of the signature moments of the decade, along with Altamont and Woodstock. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test conferred lifetime notoriety on the pranksters who made the trip.
Stone was not one of them. He had already moved back to New York to finish and publish A Hall of Mirrors, which appeared on his thirtieth birthday, 21 August 1967, and won a Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship. The book’s reception was a first-time writer’s dream: glowing reviews in the best places, a contract for a British edition, solid sales and a quick agreement for a second novel. A Hall of Mirrors had literary energy and a strong narrative pull, but the quality that set the book apart was not strictly literary. Stone had a prescient sense of something dead ahead in the American road. He hadn’t figured it out in a bookish way, but simply smelled it on the wind, like a wolf in winter catching the scent of something injured and vulnerable. The novel’s main character is a heavy-drinking radio personality called Rheinhardt who lands a job with a New Orleans station: ‘WUSA – The Voice of an American’s America – The Truth Shall Make You Free.’
It is here that Stone’s genius takes hold. Rheinhardt’s hammering broadcast style and message prefigure the formula embraced by Rush Limbaugh two decades later: ranting, fact-free hostility to government, gays, welfare cheats, communists at home and abroad, American rich kids who don’t love the country but won’t leave it. The novel, like Rheinhardt’s mighty river of invective and resentment, lurches towards apocalypse. The owner of WUSA is a tycoon of sinister purpose who hopes to use the airwaves and Rheinhardt’s rants to trigger an anti-black bloodbath. What Stone imagined was radio’s potential to spark the explosion of hatreds that often seems just around the corner in American political life. ‘I put every single thing I thought I knew into it,’ Stone said much later. ‘I had taken America as my subject, and all my quarrels with America went into it.’
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor