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Natural Born Author?

Oliver Stone
A Young Man's Fancy: Before he took to making films, Oliver Stone wrote 'A Child's Night Dream,' a novel about his youthful desires.

Taking time from his busy directing schedule, Oliver Stone conspires to release his 30-year-old, never-published first novel, 'A Child's Night Dream'

By Richard von Busack

OVER THE DECADES, director Oliver Stone has sold some unusual wares. Let's recall a few: a movie about JFK suggesting that Kennedy was murdered for his unwillingness to be a cold warrior--this in direct contradiction to Kennedy's short but fruitful career as a Russian bear hunter; a movie about The Doors indicating that Jim Morrison was a farseeing shaman, instead of the luckiest, most charismatic drunk who ever lived; a movie about Wall Street that includes a hospital-bed reconciliation scene between a father and son played by a real-life father and son: Martin and Charlie Sheen (even Louis B. Mayer never went so far).

As our filmmaker most enamored with modern history, Stone has been the proverbial blind pig who can still find a truffle. If JFK was often preposterous, it did give a handy demonstration of the dubiousness of the Warren Report. And Stone's Nixon pinpointed the fact that the really tragic victim of Nixon was Pat. Stone may have absorbed this insight from the best-ever book about Tricky, Gary Wills' 1969 Nixon Agonistes--out of print, I'll be bound, while Stone murders trees for his never-before-published 1967 "novel," A Child's Night Dream. (Stone reads Sept. 18 at San Jose Sate University as part of the Center for Literary Arts' Writers in Film series.)

Here's Wills, an eyewitness to the spooky Pat as she greeted the peasants on the campaign trail:

    Her face chilled with smiles ... the freckled hands were picking at one another, playing with gloves, trying to still each other's trembling. There is one thing worse than being a violated man. Being a violated man's wife.

In Nixon, Joan Allen is Wills' Pat Nixon to the life.

Stone possesses a knack for showmanship, a carny's energy and the balls of a burglar. And his images stick with you--call it historical resonance or guilty pleasure. The rich Hollywood grossness of the material is intoxicating. (Martin Sheen had almost died of a heart attack years before his heart- attack scene in Wall Street; I doubt that Charlie had to do much to work himself up for the son's part.)

Still, Stone's latest movies demonstrate that computerized editing can have the same ill effects on filmmaking that word processing was once thought to have on writing. Just see the disaster for yourself in Natural Born Killers' clumsiness, sketchiness, repetition, mixing of metaphors and scrambled syntax. The uncut, uncensored version comes in two video volumes--a great gift for mom.

Listening to Stone in interviews, as he defends a list of historical inaccuracies that would make Cecil B. De Mille cringe, I keep hoping that there might be some glimmering of self-knowledge stirring behind his beetle brows. No such luck, but it is strange how the hard-boiled types turn out to have a slushy side. Consider Ben Hecht.

Hecht was perhaps the most artistically successful and tough-minded screenwriter in movie history. He was famous for using his Oscar as a doorstop and for writing the final screenplay for Gone With the Wind without having read the novel. A Chicago newsman in the 1920s, he was the co-author and, in a sense, the subject of The Front Page.

Hecht, however, also penned decadent novels that were far dearer to his heart than the movie work. These books were late-period symbolist erotica featuring wealthy Sybarites in silk robes who hypnotized trembling virgins with tales of Greek myths. As Edwardian wit Max Beerbohm once noted, there was no shortage of fauns in the literature of the early 20th century.

When Stone starts in on this same vein in A Child's Night Dream with sentences like "A woman by nature is tender, but when you discover a man that is sweet, O 'tis a gift given of God to a race of centaurs," you feel like an unwilling passenger in the way-back machine. The novel is so full of verbal rhinestones that I want to toss them by the handful at the reader, like a maharajah distributing rupees to the throng.

But first the plot. The book tells of the wanderings of a young man named, imaginatively enough, William Oliver Stone, a preppie and a Yale dropout who volunteers for grunt work in Vietnam. (Which is not, as Stone admits, the way it worked out in real life. The director had traveled to Saigon as a teacher before he joined the army; he later went back to participate in what he calls, rather wistfully, "the only war of my generation.") He returns from the war, wounded in the leg, as a wiper on a merchant marine ship.

Calling Stone's book "juvenilia" would be groveling. A young man wouldn't have known any better; Stone is 51. A Child's Night Dream, as the noted film director explains in a sober preamble, was Stone's monster in a box, penned when he was 19 and carried through the years in a shoe box (some pages--not enough, alas--were tossed into the East River in "an act of despair," after a few rejection notices.)

Enter, a few years ago, Robert Weil, an editor at St. Martin's Press. Unwilling to leave well enough alone, Weil shaved Stone's beast down to a scant 237 pages. Unfortunately, he left behind awkwardness ("Saigon is like the flowering of an Oriental despot,") malapropisms ("debauched" for "debouched") and molar-splitting bonbons like Stone's apostrophe to his dead dog: "Poor Bongo. In his youthful grave."

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A pro-Stone web site.

A hypertext analysis of Stone's Natural Born Killers.

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IT'S BAD FORM to club a budding author's first novel, but by God, the man has asked for it. Neither money nor fame drew him to expose himself. A Child's Night Dream is the next century's mark to beat in the Bulwer-Lytton competition.

O my dead master, S.J. Perelman, you gift given of God to a race of centaurs, if only you had lived to see this! What would you have made of these bruise-purple metaphors, these neologisms sweeter than the insupportable sweetness of a thousand violins: "Squeeze me, you fleshridden python of eternity"; "O Mother, I am ashamed to say this to you, forgive me, but I shall lose my sanity if I stay at Yale!"; "And Paris. Where Monet and Renoir painted passion pink."

We do become acquainted with this author's passion-pink plume and, uh, inkwell: an undescended testicle has made William Oliver Stone a man in search of manhood. Despite the lack, Monsieur Boner is a stalwart character, variously addressed as "The ironhard," "Manweapon," "Wombwishing wong" and "modelman." And, on the opening page of the book, right where it can do the most damage: "Do come. With your erection. It may wish to emote. In tune with Truth."

(They say the dick never lies, but here we have one that emotes--everybody wants to get into show biz. No doubt this is the early groundwork for the scene in Born on the Fourth of July in which Tom Cruise disrupts his household with cries of "Penis! Penis!")

To be fair, when Stone abandons the purple page for the merchant marine sequence, he becomes what one would have thought from first picking up the book: a man with a personal history to share. But the straightforward account of a cross-Pacific voyage on a badly run ship ends with a bizarre fantasy of a postapocalyptic world in which the hero is shipwrecked and nurtured by Indian women who speak no English (so he won't have to hear any back talk). A long immolation fantasy during which William Oliver fucks the earth to stave off death follows, but the whole vision turns out to be nothing but--well, you guessed it.

Until reading A Child's Night Dream, I'd never thought of Stone as dumb, just a man hopelessly obsessed with moldering ideas. Old ideas vanish, except in the movie trade and, of course, in Esquire magazine. In these last refuges of high-brow machismo, the manliness of combat still invigorates tired male blood, as it did in the days of Kipling.

Call it sour grapes on my part and you'll be wrong. I wasn't old enough to be drafted for Vietnam, and I was too asthmatic to go. Hell, I'm too asthmatic for Northern California. I never proved my manhood in Grenada, the Falklands, Desert Storm or even at Fort Lee, N.J., so I still defer to people who have actually been in the wars.

I'll keep that respect, but after Stone's A Child's Night Dream, I've learned something that noncombatants should have learned a long time ago, something that should have been blindingly apparent from watching Stone's movies or from reading Robert Heinlein or James Jones--or the worst passages of Stone's brass idol, Hemingway. Remember it, too, if you're rendered silly by the military gloss of G.I. Jane or the commercials that urge you to Be All That We Let You Be:

War does not always knock the bullshit out of a man.


Oliver Stone reads from A Child's Night Dream and answers questions Thursday (Sept. 18) at 7pm at Morris Dailey Auditorium, San Jose State University. Tickets are $10/$5. The event is part of the Writers in Film series sponsored by the SJSU Center for the Literary Arts. (408/924-1378)

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From the Sept. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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