Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667
Winner of the William Faulkner Award for best first novel and filmed as WUSA in 1970, A Hall of Mirrors , as Stone says, takes the United States as its subject and has built into it “all . . . [Stone’s] quarrels with America,” but most particularly right-wing “exploitation of...
(The entire section contains 667 words.)
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Winner of the William Faulkner Award for best first novel and filmed as WUSA in 1970, A Hall of Mirrors, as Stone says, takes the United States as its subject and has built into it “all . . . [Stone’s] quarrels with America,” but most particularly right-wing “exploitation of the electronic media.” Some have called it a story of the dark night of the American soul, or more particularly a distillation of the disparate elements that made up the 1960’s. Its title comes from Robert Lowell’s poem “Children of Light,” in which the puritan children of light become the corrupted, evil children of night, “the Serpent’s seeds,” and the whole world is inverted into a hideous hall of mirrors where “candles glitter,” a reflected image of “might-have-beens.” Thus, the children of the night in this novel, three rootless drifters seduced by illusions, must face a perverted potential, distorted and tainted. One of them, Rheinhardt, even turns the reference into a play on vampires and a bloodsucking world where all is not as it seems.
Once a brilliant classical clarinetist, now a failure and an alcoholic, Rheinhardt is down-and-out in New Orleans and happy to espouse any cause in order to be taken on as the rock disc jockey of a right-wing radio station, WUSA, whose motto, “The Truth Shall Make You Free,” is perverted by the reality of its racist message. Rheinhardt’s refrain is “I am not dead . . . I am—but hurt. Defend me friends, I am but hurt.” Stone calls him his “scapegoat” and “alter ego.” The second child of the night is a lonely, abused, and scarred country girl from West Virginia. Geraldine, who seeks love but finds only bitter alienation (“they’re about to lay me low” becomes her refrain and later, to Rheinhardt, “you done undermined me, love”). She is ignorant and down-and-out, but decent, and her affair with Rheinhardt only brings her more pain and disillusionment. The third child of the night is Morgan Rainey, an idealistic but ineffectual social worker, pursued by childhood nightmares of black people tarred and feathered. He takes a room in the same rundown building as Rheinhardt and Geraldine, as he helps conduct a supposed “welfare” census, but he finds that every positive act results in pain and injury and leaves him “feeling broken” (though it is those affected by his misguided attempts to help who are truly broken).
The novel captures the conflicts and obsessions of the South in the 1960’s. M. T. Bingamon, a power-hungry, right-wing demagogue, exploits the racist fears of poor white people, aided by Brother Jensen, a con man, philosopher, and supposed missionary, head of the Living Grace Mission. The comic strategies Stone develops herein to satirize the political right have served him well throughout his canon. Rheinhardt and Rainey become pawns in Bingamon’s power plot. The final third of the novel is an apocalyptic Armageddon, a nightmarish description of the violent, fanatical, racist, “patriotic” rally that the radio station sponsors and of the ensuing riot, which leaves nineteen dead. Rainey is grievously wounded, and Geraldine, picked up for vagrancy, finds herself unable to face the cold, metallic solitude of her jail cell. At the end, Rheinhardt, a misfit and a drifter, is on his way out of town, a survivor who finds the battle and its losses endless. Rheinhardt, Geraldine, and Rainey’s hall of mirrors reflects an American nightmare in which civilization proves a false image, actions produce unintended results, and humanity wanders confusedly without direction.
Rheinhardt’s ironic, drug-inspired speech about American innocence sums up the illusions that Stone’s novel negates:The American way is innocence. In all situations we must and shall display an innocence so vast and awesome that the entire world will be reduced by it. American innocence shall rise in mighty clouds of vapor to the scent of heaven and confound the nations!
Stone’s characters have lost their innocence and their Garden of Eden, and instead blindly and mistakenly pursue their self-interests.