It’s not until halfway through Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties that Robert Stone breaks out the cliché about how if can you remember the decade, you weren’t there. But he dove right into that part of his memoir last night at Politics & Prose, and the line drew exactly the kind of knowing chuckle you’d expect out of the packed crowd. “Good evening, hippies and non-hippies,” he said, introducing himself, and the crowd laughed at that, too.
Lord knows it’s not a crime to crack a few jokes at a book reading—and Lord knows that Stone, a rightly acclaimed novelist, goes to great pains in Prime Green to excise the sentimental goop that tends to clog the collective memory of ’60s America. (It gets no worse than this: “One thing being around and being the right age in the sixties gave us was the primary sensation of time’s wheel. You could catch glimpses of the fourth dimension, now and then see the world turning.”) But if the reading were all you had to go on, you’d think the book was a cheery assortment of anecdotes about peyote, Ken Kesey, the Beats, etc.—Stone groovily striding through the landscape like Mr. Natural.
But Prime Green is actually more Altamont than Woodstock. The theme, roughly, is Stone’s recurring guilt about not accomplishing enough in the ’60s and about how too often the lives around him turned stupid and/or tragic. Its climax is Stone all but nailing himself to the cross as he explains how, at a 1969 Los Angeles party, he allowed his two young children to suck laughing gas out of condoms. The theme of the reading was more along the lines of: We fucked up, but everyone after us fucked it up worse. People asked him to comment on the war on drugs and the war on terror, and he smacked both softballs out of the park. He called the Iraq war “folly,” and the crowd applauded.
He also spoke in vague terms about one woman he knew who apparently didn’t get out of the decade; her kids, he said, “were less lucky than mine.” Then bucking up: “But we still had some good times. We were all having a good time. That’s what we were after. It all pretty much worked out.” Beat. “I guess.”