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The American Id


Discussed in this essay:

Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 288 pages. $25.

“That is my subject,” Robert Stone told his Paris Review interviewer nearly thirty years ago: “America and Americans.” It’s a statement that might be made by any number of writers, but Stone’s particular genius has been to capture the mood of his times by locating his studies of that subject outside the borders of America itself. His novels tend to place artists or academics — though of an unusually competent, macho stripe — in dangerously unfamiliar settings that challenge not only their survival instincts but also their capacity to stay sane. Dog Soldiers, his second novel, which shared the National Book Award in 1975 and largely made his literary reputation, is set primarily in Vietnam. A Flag for Sunrise (1981) takes place in a fictional Central American republic torn by the sort of revolutionary violence endemic in much of Central America in those years. Geopolitically speaking, these were somewhat obvious choices for a socially conscious American novelist of the Seventies and Eighties; but even when Stone’s fiction took a turn toward a smaller-scale, more psychological approach — 1986’?s Children of Light, about a film shoot too dependent on a schizophrenic actress, and 1998’?s underappreciated Outerbridge Reach, about an amateur sailor who ill-advisedly enters a solo race around the world — he kept his fictional compatriots mostly in a kind of exile. Stone’s topic has been not simply America but American influence, American overreach, the last dark, nasty spasms of the American century.

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’s most recent novel is A Thousand Pardons (Random House). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Time’s Current,” appeared in the April 2013 issue.

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