Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Damascus Gate is Stone’s seventh published book, following five novels and a collection of short stories. He tends to set his books in locales that are exotic, war-torn, or both, and his characters are typically lost, weak, or desperate, in search of something that eludes them. Stone’s first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), is set in New Orleans, a city of masquerades, hustlers, secret passages, and mysterious cults that resembles the Jerusalem of Damascus Gate. A Flag for Sunrise (1981), Stone’s third novel, is set in war-ravaged Nicaragua and focuses, as Damascus Gate does, on a detached outsider who is trying to grapple with forces and people beyond his understanding. Dog Soldiers (1974), set in Vietnam, prefigures the drug smuggling and political betrayals of Damascus Gate.

Stone’s work also contains echoes of other writers. Outerbridge Reach (1992) features a rootless, deluded character who is swallowed by the sea during a solo circumnavigation of the world; it echoes such great sea stories as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900), and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Stone has commented that he learned how to write a novel from the work of Conrad, whom he accounts his greatest teacher, and how to construct multidimensional characters with intersecting parallel lives from the work of John Dos Passos. In its emphasis on the high costs of adhering to social, religious, and political ideals, Stone’s work has been compared to that of Chinua Achebe, particularly Anthills of the Savannah (1987). In its violent and darkly powerful religious sensibility, it has been compared to the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Borrowing an epigraph from Herman Melville’s tortuous philosophical epic poem, Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), Damascus Gate also resonates with Clarel in its angst-ridden hero’s wandering through the Holy Land accompanied by pilgrims who advance passionate belief systems.

Stone’s novels have commanded both critical and commercial success. Dog Soldiers, Stone’s novel about Vietnam, won the 1974 National Book Award and was produced as the 1978 motion picture Who’ll Stop the Rain. A Hall of Mirrors received a Faulkner Foundation Award and enjoyed a less successful film adaptation.