After only three novels, Robert Stone has established himself as one of the most important novelists, perhaps even the foremost of his generation, now writing in America. Many of his peers, at any rate, feel this way, if honors are an indication. When he broke on the scene with A Hall of Mirrors (1967), a story about a fanatically patriotic radio station and its influence, he was awarded the Faulkner Award for best first novel. For his second effort, Dog Soldiers (1974), a story centering on a drug smuggling scheme between Vietnam and California and its effects on the participants, he won the National Book Award. His third novel, A Flag for Sunrise, was nominated for the American Book Award and the P.E.N./Faulkner Award. A Flag for Sunrise has its share of technical and stylistic flaws, but in terms of moral seriousness and purpose, it is without a doubt one of the most significant books of the year. Stone’s analysis of the effect of the Vietnamese experience on the American psyche may perhaps strike with particular force those readers who belong to the Vietnamese war generation, but all readers who value the discussion of serious questions in literature are bound to respond to the book’s concern with such issues as the effects of colonialism, the burden of personal involvement, the nature of human evil, and the yearning for religious certainty.
Unlike so many novels today, then, A Flag for Sunrise is written by a man with moral obsessions. What distinguishes this book further is that it also contains a number of memorable characters and a smashing story in the bargain, a story which, incidentally, has the immediacy of today’s headlines about the political turmoil which has taken hold of Central America.
The story takes place primarily in Tecan, Stone’s fictional country which appears to be an amalgam of Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. This country, after decades of dictatorships supported by American business and the CIA, is ready to revolt. The novel provides glimpses of a number of native citizens preparing themselves for the inevitable upheaval, but the story concentrates more on the various Americans who become involved in or affected by the revolution. The story ultimately focuses on three Americans whose fates become intertwined with the revolution and with one another.
The novel begins by introducing an American character, Father Egan. He is a rum-soaked Roman Catholic priest who, though left in charge of a failing mission located on a Tecan shore, is drifting toward a kind of bizarre, gnostic faith. In the novel’s opening scene, this burnt-out priest is forced to get rid of the body of a murdered girl which the Guardia Nacional’s Lieutenant Campos, the most vicious and cynical of the story’s characters, had stored in his freezer. It is a cruel, profoundly disturbing scene, and it sets the tone for the rest of this grim story.
Then the action shifts to the United States, where Frank Holliwell prepares for a trip to present a university lecture on an anthropological subject in a country bordering Tecan. Before he leaves, a friend attempts to inveigle him into doing a bit of spying on the Tecan Catholic mission for the CIA, the sort of thing he had done before in Vietnam. Holliwell, still deeply tormented by his experiences in that war, insists he is not going to be used this time. Once he arrives in Central America, however, he is inevitably drawn to the mission, where a nun, the only other staff member still remaining aside from Father Egan, is under suspicion by Lieutenant Campos and the CIA for her revolutionary sympathies.
As a nun, Justine Feeney embodies most clearly a factor which drives the other major characters in this novel—the obsession with religion; or, as appears to be the case not only with Justine but also with Holliwell, the apparent despair of finding lasting religious meaning. In addition, she embodies most vividly the terrifying beauty of revolutionary self-sacrifice. Because of both the religious and political factors (besides the fact that Justine has great physical beauty), when Holliwell finally meets her, he falls in love. Justine surprises herself by eventually responding to Holliwell’s hesitant advances, but the interlude...
(The entire section is 1749 words.)