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Disappointing tale of Hollywood from critically acclaimed Robert Stone

Children of Light, by Robert Stone. New York: Knopf. 258 pp. $17.95. Strangers to Robert Stone's depressing but critically acclaimed writing will find this novel tough going at first and uncomfortably fractious after that. This is a vicious and annoying form of realism that gives us a set of characters who get no compassion from each other or their author. On location for a movie being shot in Mexico, they tear at each other with sarcasm and brittle Hollywood badinage, an immature unconcern, a childish selfishness that in Mr. Stone's theory is a byproduct of American innocence.

The main character, LuAnne, an actress and definitely a woman under the influence, sees odd manifestations around her, which she calls the ``Long Friends.'' They whisper to her and push her further to reliance on drugs and the fatal charms of Walker, a self-destructive, cocaine-addicted screenwriter.

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Swirling turbidly around the principals is a collection of the most hard-hearted characters ever assembled on a movie set. They work on the troubled actress the way winds fray a delicate banner, and after a while they start to fray the reader. Not one of them raises much sympathy, though they certainly exhibit the odd bravery that lets them face their myriad problems, most of which are self-created.

Stone has done this before (``Dog Soldiers,'' ``Hall of Mirrors,'' and ``A Flag for Sunrise''), collecting such mean and thoughtless innocents together and letting them fight it out until no one is left standing. This latest novel has more cleverness and is better paced than the others, but it is still too derivative to be considered a finished work. Mr. Stone clearly labors at his trade, studying troubled and lost souls, listening to them talk, and thinking about their thoughts. But not enough of it gets on paper.

If Mr. Stone decides to tell this tale of sound and fury, and it turns out to signify nothing, he has categorized himself unfairly, since he is obviously a sentient novelist.

Stone, by virtue of his overstatement and overcharacterization, is present on every page of this book. Misery, heartlessness, hopeless addiction, and greed have become the hallmark of his books. One becomes aware of his presence, like a macabre salesman, selling his patented view of the world. There's nothing wrong with some awareness of the author in his work, although the most skillful disappear behind the solidity of well-crafted prose.

``Children of Light'' suffers, not so much from a lack of human understanding or a lack of good writing, but from too much cocaine. The drug is everywhere, as perhaps it really is, out there among the movie crowd. Stone may not be exaggerating, but that's not the point. The literary experience suffers when the drug takes over the thought and speech of the characters. When cocaine becomes the greatest force and symbol in the plot, then it becomes for the reader what it has evidently become for the characters: a sad and boring misery.

Robert Stone could continue to contemplate the misery of such people, who may be more interesting, in a sad glittery way, than the folks next door. But as he currently writes, his characters are as confusing as they are confused, and even at their most intriguing, one gets the feeling that the incomplete quality of their indecisive yearnings leads to an incomplete novel, even if such yearnings are shared by the reader.

For the further development of his talent, which is considerable, and for the edification of his readers, Robert Stone might try to look at people from whose struggles, defeats, and victories we can learn something of what he has learned.

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