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Telling America Its Nightmares
For several seasons, tourist shops fobbed off what was known as a "God's Eye." Now it's the "Dream Catcher"--a delicate circular frame about the size of an adult's hand, with thongs crossing it in a web, adorned here and there with beads and dyed feathers. The accompanying literature claims it was used by Native Americans to "catch dreams."
Which tribes? Huge differences exist between the Sioux and Hopi and Algonquin, for instance. Is there tradition to the use of the object, or is it a recent invention, perhaps of our own era of "spirituality," with its trend toward sentimentality and kitsch? Whether it is authentic or kitsch indeed, as its prettified feathers suggest, the Dream Catcher would interest Robert Stone. The visible artifacts of many cultures appear in his novels in their weave of detail. Further, for the last 30 years Stone has been catching the dreams of America.
What he has caught is not the Great American Dream but a series of nightmares. He was the first to flesh out the destructive mistrust (we use the reductive term paranoia) that erupted in our midst when the Murrah Building went up. Stone's first novel, Hall of Mirrors, published in 1967, records that paranoia as it occurs both on the Right and the Left—at an arranged political rally or among social services employees. Stone is never a columnist for PEN, that Masonic Lodge of poets, essayists, and novelists, as many contemporary writers aspire to be, peddling the acceptable party line in every book—though he served for a while as president of PEN.
Like a trustworthy sovereign, Stone is no respecter of persons. He listens to individuals rather than lobbying interests. He is an autodidact, as he says himself, meaning he was not processed by an academy. By the time he put in a stint as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford to get a start on his first novel, he had served on an icebreaker in Antarctica, among other occupations. He may be the only enlistee in Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters who is still ...