Robert Stone

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Maureen Karagueuzian (essay date winter 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3981

SOURCE: Karagueuzian, Maureen. “Irony in Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 24, no. 2 (winter 1983): 65-73.

[In the following essay, Karagueuzian notes ironic parallels between Dog Soldiers and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, asserting that Stone underscores the inadequacy of Hemingway's moral and aesthetic vision by contrasting the nihilism and dissipation of Vietnam-era American drug-runners with Hemingway's expatriate Americans.]

The ironic tension in Robert Stone's second novel is powerful, but its sources are difficult to isolate, as one reviewer has pointed out, citing examples of statements that, excerpted from the text, “sound exceedingly flat.”1 What is basic to Stone's irony is that the plot of Dog Soldiers (1974) parallels America's involvement in Vietnam; once this is clear, the novel becomes impossible to read solely at face value. Moreover, Stone compounds his irony by literary allusion: using Hemingway's world as backlight to call up ideals against which the Vietnam era may be measured, he makes clear, at the same time, that those earlier ideals are inadequate. In Dog Soldiers, which won the National Book Award in 1975, Stone uses irony to look beyond the Hemingway ethic and also beyond the extreme pessimism of his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967).

John Converse, with whom Stone's novel begins, is a newspaperman who has collapsed in terror during a fragmentation bombing in Cambodia. Upon returning to Vietnam, he acquires three kilos of heroin which he sends to the United States with his old Marine buddy, Raymond Hicks. While Hicks and Converse's wife Marge are fleeing brutal, corrupt narcotics agents, she also becomes dependent on the drug. Marge and Hicks save Converse's life, but Hicks is killed and Converse surrenders the heroin.

Stone makes it plain that Dog Soldiers is far more than the thriller these events may suggest, first by his dedication to the Committee of Responsibility, the organization that brought wounded Vietnamese children to the United States for medical care, then by referring, with his epigram from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, to “a flabby, pretending weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.”2 The heroin is thus a figure of corruption and John Converse, as his name suggests, representative of the war that so many Americans found counter to their nation's ideals. “We didn't know who we were till we got here,” Converse explains to Hicks in Vietnam. “We thought we were something else” (57). The name of Converse's carrier is also significant. Representing that group of Americans, frequently uneducated, usually without any other involvement, who were willing to do the actual fighting in Vietnam, Hicks has trouble with the work “piquant” and, before he met Converse, had never finished reading anything but The Martian Chronicles and I, the Jury. After an initial objection to smuggling the heroin, “Why not,” he thinks, “There was nothing else going down. … It was interesting and kind of scary” (55).

Converse and Hicks are doubles: ex-Marines, former drinking companions, moviegoers, and readers of Nietzsche—by the end of the novel they have slept with the same woman. Converse has written a play whose hero has difficulties with the ideals of the Marine Corps; when, in the opening scenes of Dog Soldiers, he obtains the heroin from an American woman who lives in one-half of a villa occupied by a French family in colonial days, he is apparently following the same path as the liberal American president who involved his country in one section of Vietnam. The woman “liked Saigon,” Stone writes. “It was a bit like Washington. People were nice” (12). Furthermore, the structure of

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he obtains the heroin from an American woman who lives in one-half of a villa occupied by a French family in colonial days, he is apparently following the same path as the liberal American president who involved his country in one section of Vietnam. The woman “liked Saigon,” Stone writes. “It was a bit like Washington. People were nice” (12). Furthermore, the structure ofDog Soldiers parallels that of American society in relation to the war—one segment lacking total commitment, another doing the fighting—as the scene switches back and forth from Converse to Hicks, with the latter taking responsibility for both the heroin and his friend's wife. The parallel with Vietnam is complete at the conclusion of the novel, when Converse surrenders the drug, leaving it for the narcotics agents marked with a white flag of Kleenex.

The devastation of the war is underlined throughout Dog Soldiers, as this parallel is maintained. Having given an overdose of heroin to a Los Angeles writer who is taking it for the experience, rather than to alleviate pain, Hicks gropes for meaning: “Hue City,” he says. “We had guys who were dead the day they hit that place. In the morning they were in Hawaii, in the afternoon they were dead” (203). Going out into the darkness high, carrying the heroin, he recalls people in Vietnam “who claimed to have gone into the line on acid but he had never believed them” (294). Even Converse hears “to his astonishment a sound which he was certain might be heard in Vietnam and nowhere else. … an M-70 grenade launcher firing its cartridge. In a moment a monstrous ball of fire swelled up under the trees down the hill” (298). “Chieu hoi” he shouts later, and Hicks responds. Finally, as that carrier courageously meets his death, still carrying the heroin, in a canyon whose “tortured rock spires [are] like the towers of … pagodas” (316), he becomes a Christ-figure, envisioning himself as the bearer of pain: “Pain, man. Everybody's. Yours too, if you only knew it” (329). Here, too, is Vietnam: “That kid—some joker shot him off his water buffalo—I'll take care of that for you, junior.” Or, “Napalm burns, no problem—just put it on here” (328).

Stone focuses, of course, on what the war has done to America. “It's gone funny in the states,” Hicks cautions Converse in Vietnam (57). What was formerly an Italian restaurant in Oakland is now a bar, complete with caged go-go girls Hicks finds “an affront to sex” and its former bartender, now manager, talking around sadomasochism and drugs. In Los Angeles, people who are said to be “the Spock generation,—I wannit, I wannit”—are covered, in varying degrees, with a green fungus. Outside the city in the canyons, no one is safe. Converse's wife, who looks like a schoolteacher but works as a cashier at a porno movie, believes in the right to take drugs, as a matter of principle. Complementing Hicks and Converse, she represents another segment of American society during the war, all those children of the middle class who rejected the standards and lifestyle of their parents. Even Janie, Marge and Converse's five-year-old, sometimes bounces on her red plastic horse “for over an hour in an unvarying rhythm with a blankness in her eyes” that her mother finds alarming (92).

The hippy Dieter, Hicks's old roshi, who lives at the top of the hills in what was formerly a Jesuit monastery, urges Hicks to destroy the heroin, and explains to Marge what went wrong: “it occurred to me that if I applied the American style … if I pushed a little, speeded things up a little, we might break into something really cosmic. The secular world was falling apart. Nobody knew what they were doing or what they wanted. … I knew! So I thought, a little push, a little shove, a little something extra to shake it loose. And I ended up as Doctor Dope” (272).

The wastefulness of this situation, for Stone's characters and also for America, becomes even more apparent when viewed in the light of Hemingway's world. One of the clichés of literary history is that The Sun Also Rises shattered our romantic illusions about war and love. Indeed, generations of educated Americans were to pattern themselves after Hemingway's characters, freed—in some measure by his nihilism—to work out their own standards. Dog Soldiers describes what has been done with that freedom: the United States is at war, fighting on the “wrong” side, and the kind of excitement that was once reserved for sex has been transferred to drugs.

Allusions to Hemingway illuminate this Vietnam novel: a cosmic figure who has outlived the earlier period, echoes in Saigon of the situation and tone of the expatriates, scenes that have parallels in The Sun Also Rises compound the irony with which Stone looks at his own generation.

The ideals of Hemingway's era are put into context in Dog Soldiers with Douglas Dalton, a San Franciscan who has survived into the modern period. Dalton's pale complexion reflects the dying illusions of the older generation; his references to his “crowd” are a degradation of the expatriates' term “one of us,” which referred to the courage of Jake Barnes and his friends, distinguishing them from their contemporaries. Dalton's alcoholism, impotence, and ideas about being “in love” also caricature the traits of Hemingway's hero. In the same vein, the older man, a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade, sings to the tune of “Red River Valley,” “There's a valley in Spain called Jarama” (132). Stone's telescoping the two wars in this scene, of course, imposes the “rightness” of the Spanish Civil War on World War I, for an increase in contrast with the new generation's immoral war in Vietnam.

In the era of that conflict, Dalton's ideas are ludicrous. What he says about his generation's disenchantment with war is no more than the disappointment of an adolescent who refuses to give up his romantic expectations. “They were Moors,” he explains. “I thought—being very young—this is like the Chanson de Roland. Moors. They would come up to the wire and pretend to surrender. … Some of the fellas would let them come over and get a dagger in the gut for it.” Dalton ignores Converse's explanation that in Spain and Vietnam “essentially we were on different sides.” Insisting on respect for one's enemy, he tells Converse: “You shouldn't call them gooks. … We didn't” (132).

Dalton's view of sex is also ridiculous. He is trying to be modern, allowing only an occasional protest or reminiscence to interrupt that compromise. Survivor of a generation brought up to believe in romantic love, he quotes The Rubyiat but writes for a tabloid that emphasizes sex. When Converse attributes his own difficulties to the American woman Charmian, Dalton is quick to respond in old-fashioned tones, “Lovely. … A lovely old Southern name,” concluding, “So … you're in love.” Converse responds, “No. Not at all.” The scene ends on a comic note as he refers to his impotence: “‘That's all over for me,’ he said merrily. ‘Since the Jarama’” (133).

Although Dalton's position is ludicrous in the era of Vietnam and the ideals of his generation are shown up as adolescent and unrealistic, they nevertheless provide a strong contrast with those of the modern period. Poorly prepared for decisions, Stone's characters are clearly, sadly in error. Dog Soldiers underscores the modern dilemma of how to live well in a situation of almost unlimited freedom, without an established system of values.

John Converse is Jake Barnes's heir: impotent newspapermen of different generations, they approach life with the same ironic acceptance. Alone in his hotel room toward the end of Hemingway's novel, Barnes, with an ironic “That was it,” admitted his part in Brett's affairs with other men and began to renounce the illusion she represented. At the beginning of Stone's novel John Converse displays a similar irony but, true to his name, moves in a different direction from Hemingway's hero. His restaurant merriment interrupted by a bomb, Converse is alone in a Saigon hotel room. “There it is,” he thinks. “That was what everyone said—GIs, reporters, even Arvins and bar girls. There it is. It would have been good not to have had a bomb that night. To get stoned … and then sleep” (38). Confronting the moral objections to dealing heroin in this scene, Converse concludes that in a world like his, “people are just naturally going to want to get high” (42).

Echoes of Hemingway's world emerge even earlier in Dog Soldiers as Converse and his Australian friends, the Percys, in a situation reminiscent of The Sun Also Rises, move from bar to restaurant in Saigon, which has far more sterility and corruption than the expatriates' Paris. Ian Percy is said to be fond of children, but the Percys have none. “They met in Vietnam,” Stone writes with characteristic understatement, “and it was not a place in which people felt encouraged” to become parents (27). After the bombing in Cambodia, moreover, Converse is impotent. Impotent Jake Barnes in Hemingway's novel enjoyed good food and at least passable wine, but in Vietnam relaxation depends on beer said to be made with formaldehyde, marijuana said to be rolled by lepers, and peanuts from which—as a matter of course one must dislodge “tiny, spiderlike insects.”

Not only the situation of Converse and his friends recalls Hemingway's expatriates but also their ironic tone as they view their own lives in terms of past ideals and find both wanting. The following exchange, for instance, looks ironically at the missionary's belief in Satan and the reporter's search for news and, at another level, refers to the war and Converse's secret corruption: “I met a lady today,” Converse said, “who told me that Satan was very powerful here.” Ian replies, “Check it out. … Don't dismiss anything you hear out of hand” (32). Party to the traffic of heroin, Converse had responded to the missionary's comment about Satan's being powerful in Vietnam with “Yes. … He would be” (9).

Echoes of Hemingway are also clear as Converse and Jill parody exotic romance in an exchange that originates in the question of what the American woman Charmian has to gain from the Vietnamese Colonel Tho. As Converse and Jill discuss “fancy fucking east of Suez,” Stone's reader is aware of facts that lace their conversation with irony: Converse has found himself impotent with Charmian; and Tho, owner of heroin refinery, has provided the three kilos she has given Converse.

Hemingway's expatriates also joked about sex as they made the rounds, and that past rises in the background for Stone's reader, compounding the irony of this scene, for the assumptions of Converse and Jill are rooted in a freedom that the earlier generation evolved out of great pain. Even more important is the fact that Stone's characters' view of what-might-have-been except for the war is far more realistic than that of the expatriates. Lady Brett Ashley and sometimes even Jake Barnes envisioned a blissful happiness in love that the war had made impossible; a freer generation, making camp of romance, envisions happiness as an ordinary state of parenthood that Ian Percy would enjoy. While Jake Barnes attempted to be hardboiled about Brett's promiscuity, Converse has no ideals about sexual fidelity. “No spicy stories for you this time,” his wife writes, “because I didn't make it with anybody” (3). The irony of the sexual situation in Dog Soldiers mounts as Hicks, the only one of Stone's characters who is tough and disciplined enough to succeed in the era of Vietnam, eventually dies because of his love for Marge. In that world, such fidelity has no place.

Vietnam has made its mark on the new generation, and they have misused their freedom. In loneliness for a husband who has been gone two years, Marge buys dilaudid from her employer. “It was a seduction,” she thinks. The drug “would seal some chaste clammy intimacy; there would be long loving talks while their noses ran and their light bulbs popped out silently in the skull's darkness” (66). The heroin in Dog Soldiers has erotic significance, it is true: Charmian, with whom Converse has been intimate, has led him to its traffic; and, as Hicks explains to Marge, “People use it instead of sex” (171). What Stone makes primary, though, is the choice between good and evil that the drug involves. “I'd like to give it back,” Marge shivers. “To wherever the hell it emanates from.” Hicks tells her firmly, “It doesn't emanate. People make it” (110).

In Dog Soldiers the dealing of heroin—that is, the Vietnam war—is placed in perspective by means of scenes that have parallels in The Sun Also Rises. The first of these scenes involves a prostitute. Hemingway's hero picked up a woman with the “sentimental” idea of having company at dinner, introduced her as his fiancée, and then went off with Brett, leaving the prostitute dancing with a group of homosexuals in turn. Yet the woman had been sympathetic, telling him that she too was “sick,” and he had been careful to leave money at the bar in case she left alone. The memory of these superficial kindnesses in a generation known as “lost” accents the discrepancy between Converse's ideals and sensibilities and the drug traffic in which he is involved. Waiting to turn the heroin over to Hicks, Converse notes that the beautiful young Vietnamese girl who solicits him has been coarsened by American style; but he touches her, only to be put off by seeing, in the next cubicle, a price tag on the sole of someone's shoe. After a gesture that makes the guilt-ridden Converse think she is going to blow her nose on him, the girl argues about the amount of money he has given her, asking if he likes little boys. “Diddy mao,” Converse tells her, “‘Fuck off!’ He had never said diddy mao to a Vietnamese person before” (48).

In these scenes, Stone uses the backlight of Hemingway to compound his own irony. He takes another glance at Converse, again in the light of Hemingway's hero, in a scene that takes place in a Catholic church. Barnes, visiting a church in Spain, knelt and prayed for everyone he knew, regretting that he was such a “rotten” Catholic. Converse, a Catholic who no longer believes, goes into church to rest and enjoys a facile irony in the thought that “other young men on the wrong side of the law—perhaps other importers of heroin waiting to see their lawyers—might at the same moment be sitting at the feet of St. Anthony and thinking of their mothers” (150).

Now firmly established, the backlight of Hemingway's 1926 novel further compounds Stone's irony as a new generation, in its freedom, becomes “lost” as a result of war in a way more terrible than anything Hemingway ever imagined. Undercut as they are by what has come before in Dog Soldiers, these scenes also make clear that the Hemingway ideal is no longer, perhaps never was, functional. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes found relief from his hectic, wasted life on a five-day fishing trip. As Marge, in need of a similar escape, turns to heroin, she and Hicks are seen in the motel bungalow with an ocean view from the perspective of Barnes' escape into nature: rendered free of pain and guilt by the drug, she agrees that it is “better than a week in the country.” Similarly illuminated by Jake Barnes who, temporarily free of Brett, sat under a tree before lunch reading a “wonderful” story of true love, Hicks, having joined Marge in the heroin out of loneliness, brushes his teeth after vomiting and sits alone in front of a TV set that is not working properly, watching some “nice color bands.”

At the very center of Stone's novel, the ironies involved in Hicks's fidelity and Marge's addiction are also compounded by the backlight of Hemingway. In parody of a religious service, Barnes and his friend Bill Gorton picknicked on hard-boiled eggs, chicken, and wine, light-heartedly rejoicing at their blessings.” Their carefree attitude is in the background for Stone's reader as Marge refers to her heroin high in words originally used to describe a nun's view of the perfect, cloistered life for which she is leaving the world: “where springs fail not.”3 Stone lingers at the scene, and his relentless irony culminates as Hicks places his hands between Marge's breasts in a gesture of prayer.

The weakness of the Hemingway ethic, Stone suggests, leads to situations like Converse's and like Vietnam. John Converse has obviously failed to extract from his experiences a coherent set of principles by which to live. Telling him that Colonel Tho is going to find out what all the best things in the world are in order to get one of each, Charmian asks Converse what he will do with the money he makes on the heroin; unlike Jake Barnes, who decided to limit himself to areas of life in which he could get his “money's worth,” Converse cannot answer the question. He finally tells his wife, “I don't know what I'm doing or why I do it or what it's like.” “Nobody knows,” he continues confidently. “That's the principle we were defending over there. That's why we fought the war” (307).

Even more important is that Converse lacks an awareness of man's potential for evil, a fault Stone attributes to the older generation's failure to educate its young. As Converse has told Marge repeatedly—and, once again the reference is to Vietnam—his father kept from him the facts about Hiroshima. “He never told me about it,” Converse insists. “He thought it would upset me” (332). Especially if one arrives independently at the values that make life worthwhile and especially if physical sensation is to be primary—freedoms that Jake Barnes's generation struggled toward—is it necessary to have a clear idea of what constitutes good and evil. Converse and Marge's decision to enter the heroin traffic, after all, violates one of the few dicta in Hemingway's world, Lady Brett's not wanting to be “one of those bitches that ruins children.” Asked to deliver the heroin to the United States, Hicks responds to Converse: “You and your old lady—I thought you were world-savers. How about all these teenyboppers OD-ing on the roof?” (54).

Two minor characters in Stone's novel suggest the choice that does not emerge clearly for Converse, who sees only that the two men are physically similar. Smitty, a brutal ex-convict, sometime user of heroin, works with the narcotics agent, hoping to get ahead in “the system.” Grimes, in contrast, dead at the time the novel takes place, was a young medic who went through the jungle handing out morphine to men dying in pain. The latter provides Converse's “solitary link with an attitude which he publicly pretended to share—but which he had not experienced for years and never thoroughly understood. It was the attitude in which people acted on coherent ethical apprehensions that seemed real to them” (261).

Also important in this connection is the phrase “God in the whirlwind,” which is repeated during the conversation between Converse and the American missionary. That image from the Book of Job, which subsumes all the evil and pain of this world, appears again at the end of Dog Soldiers as Marge and Converse, having left the heroin for the crooked narcotics agent, look back over the flats at the dust raised by his vehicle: “The column rose, a whirling white tower with a dark core, spewing gauzy eddies from its spout, its funnel curving to the shifting of the wind” (338). That the agent is accompanied by a Mexican who may rob him of the heroin at any moment, as Stone indicates, suggests that evil is always a possibility, that it may erupt anywhere, at any time.

As critics have pointed out, such a recognition was beyond Hemingway's ken, and in this sense the idyllic natural world that was the province of Jake Barnes is unreal, as Hicks well knows. In the mountains, he says to his old roshi, “I could put myself to sleep fishing that stream in my head. Pool by pool. Like Hemingway” (226).

That Dog Soldiers parallels America's involvement in Vietnam and also describes the effects of that war give it significance: “Stone brings the war home, and leaves it here.”4 At the same time, Stone's allusions to Hemingway compound his irony and place Dog Soldiers in the context of American literature, where strictly on its own merits, it belongs.


  1. Jeffery Klein, The American Scholar, 44, (1975), 686.

  2. Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). Subsequent references are to this edition.

  3. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Heaven Haven,” Poems, ed., W. H. Gardner, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), p. 40.

  4. Klein, p. 688.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2376

Robert Stone 1937-

(Full name Robert Anthony Stone) American novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Stone's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 23, and 42.

Author of the National Book Award-winning novel Dog Soldiers (1974), Stone has earned distinction for his exceedingly dark explorations of contemporary social and moral disintegration, particularly as presented through the experiences of cynical American expatriates, Vietnam veterans, and drug addicts whose self-destruction belies a longing for spiritual meaning in an apparently godless world. Though his works are typically plotted as thrillers—rife with violence, betrayal, and insanity—they are also marked by a profound, though inherently uncertain, religious sensibility. In Dog Soldiers,Children of Light (1986), and Outerbridge Reach (1992), Stone places ethically dubious protagonists in extreme—and often ironic—situations to create cautionary tales about the difficulty of acting as a moral being in an indifferent and overtly hostile universe. In other novels, such as A Flag for Sunrise (1981) and Damascus Gate (1998), Stone underscores the problem of resolving fervent and abiding faith with a distant, and seemingly unknowable, deity.

Biographical Information

Stone was born on August 21, 1937, in Brooklyn, New York, to C. Homer Stone and Gladys Catherine Grant. Stone's father abandoned his mother during her pregnancy, leaving Stone fatherless from birth. His mother, a schoolteacher, came from an affluent family, but suffered from schizophrenia and had to be hospitalized soon after Stone's sixth birthday. When no members of his family would take him in, the New York family court system decreed that Stone would live at Saint Ann's, the boarding school that he had been attending. After Stone's tenth birthday, his mother was released from the hospital and the two began living in inexpensive hotels on Manhattan's West Side. Stone continued at Saint Ann's, where he began writing short stories. Although an unenthusiastic student, Stone won a New York State Regents' scholarship largely on the strength of his writing talent. However, just before graduation, he was expelled from St. Ann's for converting another student to atheism. Stone subsequently joined the Navy, serving as a radioman during two Mediterranean tours of duty, where he witnessed combat during the Suez Crisis of 1956. He eventually passed his high-school equivalency test and earned a job as a Navy journalist. In 1958 he returned to New York and took a job with the Daily News. He began taking creative writing classes at New York University, where he met Janice Burr, whom he married in 1959. In early 1960 the couple moved to New Orleans, where they lived for the next eight months. During this time, Stone worked as a census taker, a dock laborer, and a door-to-door salesman—all the while gathering material for what would be his first novel. In late 1960 Stone, along with his wife and a newborn daughter, moved back to New York, where he worked as an advertising copywriter. During this time, he wrote the first thirty pages of a novel, which he sent to the creative writing program at Stanford University; he was accepted into the program on a Wallace Stegner fellowship in early 1962. While at Stanford, Stone worked on his novel and took part in the early LSD experiments led there by writer Ken Kesey. After the birth of their second child in 1963, Stone moved his family back to New York so that his wife could pursue a psychology degree at City College. In the summer of 1966, Stone finished his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, which was published the next year and won the William Faulkner Award for best first novel. In 1968 Stone sold the film rights to the book and wrote the screenplay for its film adaptation, WUSA (1970). Stone moved to England for two years, returning to the United States in 1971 to teach creative writing at Princeton University. Early in 1971 Stone traveled to Saigon (now Ho Chi Mihn City) to cover the Vietnam War for an English magazine. Enthralled and repelled by the expatriate underworld he discovered there, Stone immediately began working the material he uncovered into a novel, Dog Soldiers, that earned him the National Book Award. In early 1976 Stone traveled for several weeks through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. The situations he encountered there eerily resembled those he had seen in Vietnam years earlier, and he was soon at work on a novel set in Central America. The resulting book, A Flag for Sunrise, received an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award and John Dos Passos Prize as well as nominations for the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In the late 1970s Stone resumed his teaching career and, between 1979 and 1983, taught in five separate creative writing programs, including those at Stanford and Harvard University.

Major Works

Stone's first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, is set in New Orleans during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. The story follows Morgan Ranie, an idealistic census-taker, who discovers that the census is being used to legitimize a plot to remove poor African Americans from the state's welfare rolls. In an effort to thwart the scheme, Ranie befriends Rheinhardt, an alcoholic disc jockey at a right-wing radio station, hoping to coerce information from him. However, the charming and thoroughly amoral Rheinhardt is more than a match for the young Ranie, and he decides to string Ranie along, partly for his own amusement. While Ranie does succeed in winning over Geraldine Crosby, Rheinhardt's good-hearted but troubled girlfriend, the novel ends tragically, climaxing with a race riot engineered by a racist multi-millionaire. Ranie is killed and Crosby hangs herself after being unjustly arrested. Stone's second novel, Dog Soldiers, is laced with his characteristic black humor but is entirely devoid of sympathetic characters such as Ranie and Crosby in A Hall of Mirrors. Instead, the plot focuses on former Marine Raymond Hicks, a Nietzschean and stoic, who contracts to smuggle a bundle of heroin, valued at several million dollars, from Vietnam to Berkeley, California. After being double-crossed, Hicks teams up with Marge, a drug addict married to John Converse, one of Hicks's old Marine Corps friends. The pair then flees to the site of an old counter-culture commune in New Mexico with corrupt government agents in pursuit. As a scathing critique of the moral vacuum that resulted from the collapse of the ideals of the 1960s, Dog Soldiers is not without a moral center and Stone continually juxtaposes the ideals of Hicks—who sees life as a constant struggle for power—and John Converse—who will do anything to live another day.

In A Flag for Sunrise, Stone explores the moral framework of Gnosticism, a philosophical school which holds that the universe was not created by the divine but rather by a dark power and that only a scant vestige of the divine in the universe exists in each human being. The novel is set in Tecan, a fictional Central American country on the verge of a communist revolution. The action centers around a Catholic mission headed by Father Charles Egan, an aging alcoholic, who is working on a book about Gnosticism, and Sister Justin, an idealistic nun in her twenties, with ties to the revolutionaries. Just before the revolution commences, two Americans visit the mission—Frank Holliwell, an anthropologist and Vietnam veteran who is searching for an utopian paradise, and Pablo Tabor, a deserter from the Coast Guard who is looking to make a fortune in the drug trade. For a period of ten days, the characters struggle to find their moral place in the universe, but at novel's end, all have fared badly. Sister Justin is murdered for her part in the revolution and Holliwell, concluding that there is no good in the world, has converted to Gnosticism. Children of Light also explores the idea of the unavailability of God, though without the overlay of social criticism that marked Stone's previous novels. The protagonist, Gordon Walker, is an actor and screenwriter who has just finished a three-month run playing the title character in King Lear. Walker journeys to Baja California, where Lu Anne Bourgeois, an actress and former lover, is starring in a film he wrote. Stone's build-up to the reunion is ominous, however, as both characters are on the verge of nervous breakdowns. Walker, despondent over the departure of his wife and the bleakness of the role he has played for the past three months, is sinking into depression, alcoholism, and drug use. At the same time, Bourgeois has stopped taking her anti-psychotic medicine to help her acting and is beginning to show the symptoms of her schizophrenia. In Outerbridge Reach, Stone again examines personal disintegration with the story of Owen Browne, a conservative middle-class copywriter, who clings to his right-wing political and social ideals, despite a corporate scandal that rocks the yacht brokerage where he works and his own disturbing experiences as a naval officer during the Vietnam War. When given the opportunity by his company to circumnavigate the globe by himself, Browne eagerly accepts, much to the dismay of his wife Anne. Browne's preparations for the trip, which are largely slapstick misadventures, are filmed by Ronald Strickland, a documentary filmmaker hired by the yacht company even though he is known for cynically exposing the follies and hypocrisies of his subjects. The novel presents two equally tragic tales. The first is Browne's ill-fated expedition. Unable to exist on his own, he quickly descends into hallucinations and madness, destroying his homing device and creating a false captain's log. The second is Anne's gradual submission to Strickland's sexual advances, prompting her to become filled with self-loathing and resolving to embark on a solo voyage of her own.

In the seven stories collected in Bear and His Daughter (1997), written between 1969 and 1997, Stone revisits many familiar themes from his novels with his characteristically dark sense of humor. “Under the Pitons” follows a group of drug smugglers in the Caribbean, while “Aquarius Obscured” involves an amphetamine-addicted stripper who experiences a religious epiphany during an encounter with an aquarium porpoise. In “Miserere,” Stone uses a woman who smuggles aborted fetuses from a clinic to be baptized before burial in order to examine the concepts of fanaticism and faith. In the title story, an aging poet's gradual decline is horrifyingly hastened when a reunion with his estranged daughter goes terribly awry. Stone shifts his thematic focus almost entirely to religious themes in the novel Damascus Gate, presenting a detailed examination of the minutiae of Jewish theology and the unique messianic fervor of those who travel to Jerusalem, which Stone terms “Jerusalem Syndrome.” Though the protagonist of the story is a journalist named Christopher Lucas, the true central character of the novel is the teeming city of Jerusalem itself. A recent arrival in Jerusalem, Lucas is writing a book on the city's apocalyptic religious cults. In the course of his research, he becomes involved with Adam De Kuff, a manic-depressive native of New Orleans who believes that he is the Messiah. Lucas also falls in love with one of De Kuff's followers, Sonia Barnes, a young Sufi jazz singer who is half-Jewish and half-African American. Though the novel's main plot revolves around this trio, there are dozens of secondary characters and subplots involving fundamentalist Christians, Israeli settlers, Hamas operatives, Mossad agents, and, most importantly, a plot to bomb the Mosque on the Temple Mount. In 2003 Stone published Bay of Souls which follows the tribulations of Michael Ahearn, a middle-aged English professor living in Minnesota who experiences a mid-life crisis. Ahearn returns from a hunting trip to find his wife has been injured while rescuing their adolescent son who was freezing to death from exposure. Subsequently, Ahearn becomes infatuated with a female colleague, Lara Purcell, and follows her to a Caribbean island called St. Trinity. On the island, he witnesses a series of voodoo ceremonies in which Lara tries to reclaim the soul of her late brother, an AIDS victim. Ahearn also participates in a diving expedition to recover contraband from a sunken plane and inadvertently becomes involved in an island war and a military junta.

Critical Reception

Stone has been highly regarded by critics for his scathing critiques of political hypocrisy and moral ambiguity among 1960s-era radicals, revolutionaries, and artists. The overt social and political content of A Hall of Mirrors and Dog Soldiers has established him as a trenchant commentator on the anomie of contemporary American life in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Reviewers have been impressed with Stone's broad erudition, as evident in novels such as A Flag for Sunrise and Damascus Gate, in which he grapples with the complexities of theology and religious belief. However, some have contended that Stone's work is often overly ambitious, arguing that certain novels—most notably Children of Light—have failed under the weight of his philosophical concerns. Many critics, however, have approved of Stone's efforts to raise political discourse to the level of moral discourse. Despite the occasional critical resistance to the bleakness of his worldview, Stone has received near universal praise for his technical abilities as a novelist, particularly his ability to create characters with genuine psychological depth. Even in Stone's least favored book, Children of Light, reviewers have still found his portrayal of the emotional decline of the two principals to be dramatically effective. Stone has also been regularly praised for his realistic dialogue, with critics noting that Stone's effective use of vernacular diction and slang enables him to portray the inner workings and social reality of his characters. Stone has additionally been commended for his literary craftsmanship, displayed in his ability to present lively action sequences and to navigate longer expository passages on topics such as the minutiae of sailing and the philosophical intricacies of Gnosticism. Several critics have considered Bay of Souls to be one of Stone's strongest efforts, citing his descriptive detail and precise narrative as highlights of the novel. Other reviewers have asserted that the plot suffered from too many plot threads and an overabundance of themes and adventures. Amy Wilentz, despite acknowledging that Stone “can create gasps of awe with his paragraphs,” has commented that “the taut line that should keep [Bay of Souls] moored is lost amid uncharted twists and turns.”

Frank W. Shelton (essay date winter 1983)

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SOURCE: Shelton, Frank W. “Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers: Vietnam Comes Home to America.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 24, no. 2 (winter 1983): 74-81.

[In the following essay, Shelton examines Stone's bleak evocation of moral disintegration and the demise of the American Dream in Dog Soldiers.]

Dog Soldiers (1974), the National Book Award winning novel by Robert Stone, remains arguably the best novelistic treatment of American involvement in Vietnam. Unlike such other recent novels as Tim O'Brien's Going after Cacciato (1978) and James Webb's Fields of Fire (1978) (both by former soldiers in Vietnam), Dog Soldiers does not concern the fighting or the political and moral issue of American involvement in Asia. It assumes the war as a given and traces its effects on the noncombatants both in Vietnam and the United States.

In a sense, the novel is a very conventional chase story, for which some reviewers have criticized it. Yet beneath the exciting surface story is a layer of philosophy or contemplation, often only obliquely alluded to in a cool and ironic tone, which gives the novel its subtext of meaning. Dog Soldiers conveys a feeling of paranoia, an emphasis carried over from Stone's first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, which described what was called the “Big Store” and gave the sense that people somewhere higher up are manipulating others and even reality for their own purposes. To this end the most corrupt people in Dog Soldiers represent the law, which is the supposed seat of order and authority in society. The feeling of paranoia gives the reader, even though the scenes of action are very spacious, a sense of claustrophobia. While not at all pleasant and without characters who are conventionally sympathetic, Dog Soldiers is compelling and sheds a great deal of light on the effect on the United States of the Vietnam War.

Dog Soldiers satirizes the left wing and the counterculture in the same way that A Hall of Mirrors deals with the right wing. Almost all the characters either have or have had some connection with the counterculture. Some of the minor characters are almost parody figures. See, for example, Eddie Peace, the Los Angeles hustler who could have stepped out of The Day of the Locust, or Dansker and Smitty, the two bohemian narcotics agents who are crazier in both a humorous and a threatening way than anyone outside the law. Anthiel, the Federal officer with a law degree who ultimately is in charge of the smuggling operation, certainly functions as more than a parody, but, looking “rather like a sympathetic young dean at an eastern liberal arts college,”1 he evokes in Converse a feeling of complete awe.

The motif of the novel is announced when Hicks says, comparing Vietnam and the United States, “Here everything's simple. It's funnier there” (57). Actually things are not simple in Vietnam, or rather things are simple only in the sense that existence has been reduced to the basic struggle between life and death. Converse has a revelation while being fragmentation-bombed on the Red Field by the South Vietnamese Air Force: “the ordinary physical world through which one shuffled heedless and half-assed toward nonentity was capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death. Existence was a trap” (185). The same sort of situation exists back home; the only difference is that a façade of civilization covers the murderousness. In such a world morality has no place; it is mere excess baggage. Without reference to or dependence on morality, the issue is who among the characters can best adapt to the Darwinian world of the novel.

The plot concerns the smuggling of high-grade heroin from Vietnam to the United States. The heroin becomes the symbol of the corruption of American life and the human need to escape the world as it is. Converse, the journalist who went to Vietnam to gather material for a novel, sets the plot in motion. Though he frequently considers the morality of drug smuggling, he has disposed of the issue to his satisfaction. A detached, articulate, intellectual, he observes that Vietnam is “the place where everybody finds out who they are” (56). In this view Vietnam does not change people; rather it is the crucible in which their natures are revealed. What Converse learns about himself is his own emptiness: he realizes that there will be no novel. In addition he has never really embraced any moral principles upon which he was willing to act.2 In the journalistic pieces he writes, “he was always careful to assume a standpoint from which moral objections could be inferred” (40), but apparently he feels no reservations about the war itself. So when Converse disposes of the moral objections to heroin by reference to the Great Elephant Zap: “if the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high” (42), Stone accomplishes two things. He reveals the absurdity of the war and how such absurdity may lead people to desire an escape from reality, yet he also shows Converse rationalizing his own involvement in illegal activities.

The bankruptcy of his life is also indicated when he tells Hicks, “I feel like this [the smuggling] is the first real thing I ever did in my life. I don't know what the other stuff was about” (56). Thus the focus of his life has been drastically reduced; out of frustration and impotence he has willfully rejected the ethical, moral considerations which were a part of his past life, but he is not able to forget them entirely, as his constant self-contempt indicates. He assents to June's calling him a “funny little fucker” and thinks: “What a feckless and disorderly person he was. How much at the mercy of events” (182). While being bombed in the Red Fields he also learns fear, which becomes the touchstone of his being: “I am afraid, Converse reasoned, therefore I am” (42). With fear he feels a desperate desire to live: “He was the celebrated living dog, preferred over dead lions. … Living dogs lived. It was all they knew” (186). In essence he confronts and tries to neutralize his fear by deciding to smuggle the drug, but after setting the plot in motion he merely drifts through the rest of the book, passively awaiting events. Periodically he attempts to “preserve what remained of the fiction of volition” (212), but after he is captured by the narcotics agents he actually luxuriates in his feelings of helplessness. He embraces a fatalism which precludes the obligation to act or think—all he needs to do is fear. Thus Converse, a cynical dilettante intellectual, tries to engage the world but is completely defeated.

Although without his intellectual pretentions, his wife Marge is quite similar to him. Why she agrees to participate in the smuggling scheme is not really clear—perhaps it is not clear to her either. Yet Stone provides clues: he mentions offhandedly that she “loved all that was fateful” (24), suggesting a fatalism in her similar to her husband's, a reluctance even to attempt to direct her life. She lacks will and drifts through the entire novel. When first introduced, she is addicted to pills and so is already in retreat from reality, a retreat which becomes more extreme as the novel progresses. She seems to have an affinity for corruption, preferring to work at a pornographic movie theater rather than at the University of California. Perhaps she feels this kind of life is more “real,” or she has a desire for degradation, self-destruction. At any rate, after agreeing to act as go-between in the smuggling scheme, she, like Converse, is at the mercy of events.

Hicks, who brings the heroin from Vietnam to the United States, does make some attempt to shape his life. A Hemingway-like character in his concern with acting well under pressure, he is a definite contrast to Converse and Marge, yet he is a Hemingway character without Hemingway's romanticized treatment and with all the imperfections showing. Stone's attitude toward him is complex. For example, Hicks decides to smuggle the heroin with these thoughts: “Why not, he thought. There was nothing else going down. He felt the necessity of changing levels, a little adrenalin to clean the blood. It was interesting and kind of scary” (55). Stone suggests that Hicks really has little choice, that Converse has already mentioned him to the other smugglers and if he does not do the job, he will be arrested. Paradoxically, even as a drug smuggler or dealer, “he endeavored to maintain a spiritual life” (75), and in his unique fashion he is honorable, concerned with right ways of acting. To him, unlike Converse, the morality of drug smuggling is irrelevant, but in a strange way he is ethical. A devotee of Japanese culture and Zen, he is proud of being “at home in the world of objects” (76) and being able to control objects. He feels that heroin is simply another object which “belongs to whoever controls it” (111). The way that one controls himself and the world defines his spiritual life.

At a crucial moment in the novel, when he at least feels that he can still abandon Marge and the heroin, he thinks:

In the end there were not many things worth wanting—for the serious man, the samurai. But there were some. In the end, if the serious man is still bound to illusion, he selects the worthiest illusion and takes a stand. The illusion might be of waiting for one woman to come under his hands. … If I walk away from this, he thought, I'll be an old man—all ghosts and hangovers and mellow recollections. Fuck it, he thought, follow the blood. This is the one. This is the one to ride till it crashes.


Thus he consciously makes a choice, knowing that it may be illusion but feeling in the blood it is the right thing to do. Henceforth, he attempts to act in a coherent way upon that choice. In his action, his engagement with the world of objects, his selfhood is tested.

Stone very clearly shows the underside of Hicks's concern with self as it is defined through such tests. At its worst, it becomes antisocial macho, a person lashing out at others for very little reason. On his first night back in this country, Hicks gets drunk and feels an aimless, generalized rage wash over him. More especially, when anger at Eddie's treatment of him causes him to give Gerald a possibly fatal overdose of heroin, Hicks, who so much reveres control, is dangerously out of control. Converse had called him a psychopath; while Marge does not assent, saying it is “a very imprecise term” (104), Hicks does seem to be subject to barely controllable and potentially destructive rages.

What gradually becomes clear is that to one who sees the world as an arena of combat where he must prove himself (and Stone surely depicts the world that way), the central consideration is power and control. Human relations for any purpose other than manipulation are a nuisance and, in fact, dangerous. Hicks, then, for all his admirable qualities as a man of action, is a stunted human being, which is especially clear in his relationship with Marge and, by extension, with women in general. When she first sees him, she thinks: “He had a hungry face. … Deprivation—of love, of mother's milk, of calcium, of God knows what. This one was sunburned, usually they were pale. They always had cold eyes. They hated women” (95). Initially their relationship seems purely sexual, but Hicks finds himself falling in love (or at least what passes for love with him) with her. The way he expresses his love is revealing: he gets her addicted to heroin. Before he first gives her the drug, he thinks:

The pain in her eyes gave him pleasure. If he could make the pain leave her, he thought, and bring her edge and her life back, that would give him pleasure too. The notion came to him that he had been waiting years and years for her to come under his power.


After she takes the drug, “The glow had come back to her skin, the grace and suppleness of her body flowed again. The light came back, her eyes' fire. Hicks marveled. It made him happy” (171). Subsequently, their relationship seems wholly based on her dependence and his power as the dispenser of heroin, for Marge desires further and further retreat from reality. Drugs, to her, are “simpler than life” (173), while Hicks, who knows drugs and life better than she, says they are life. This woman, with whom he has sex once and whom he gets addicted to heroin, he calls, when she leaves him near the end to try and surrender the heroin, “the love of my life” (291). As far as the reader can tell, nothing remotely resembling love has been present in their relationship, thus revealing that indeed his life has been deprived of love, so deprived that he is incapable of it. Love, as is true of almost all relationships in his life, is translated into power.

Something similar happens in his relationship with Dieter, the failed guru on the mountaintop. Once very close to him, now Hicks only wants him to buy the heroin. When Dieter refuses and in an attempt to return to the simpler, more peaceful, nongrasping way of life they had in the past, tries to throw the heroin over a cliff, Hicks misunderstands, thinking Dieter wants the heroin for himself, and kills him. Hicks explains his actions to himself:

It was one he had to win. He was trying to get it on again. He was being stronger. Damn it, if you're going to make a gesture you have to have some grace, some style, some force. You have to have some Zen. If you act like a drunken thief, and people haven't seen you in a while, they're likely to think that's what you are. He [Dieter] had certainly fucked his gesture.


In this manner Hicks rationalizes killing a man who was almost a father to him. When grace, style, and gesture become more important than other human beings' lives, then something human has been irrevocably lost. In effect, people become simply other objects to be manipulated and controlled. Dieter correctly characterizes Hicks when he says: “He's trapped in a samurai fantasy—an American one. He has to be the Lone Ranger, the great desperado—he has to win all the epic battles single-handed” (272). Having lost the capacity to feel a connection with others, Hicks sees all life in terms of conflict.

Yet the novel suggests that, reality being as bleak and brutal as it is, the only choice one has may be among fantasies. Converse has his fatalism, Marge her drugs, and Hicks his self-chosen role. Dieter's guru-like wisdom and his commune are another alternative. In his treatment of the commune, Stone most specifically links his novel to the counterculture movement of the 1960's. Founded on ideals of peace, love, and the contemplative life, the commune after a time was corrupted. The primary reason for its failure was what Dieter calls his succumbing to the American dream. Seeing that the commune was good, Dieter explains,

Then it occurred to me that if I applied the American style—which I didn't really understand—if I pushed a little, speeded things up a little, we might break into something really cosmic. … So I thought, a little push, a little shove, a little something extra to shake it loose. And I ended up as Doctor Dope.


Part of his plan was to allow others to think he was God, so he too is not immune to egotism and the drive for power. The American go-getter way of pursuing the ideal led to its inevitable corruption. “Those Who Are” (who prided themselves on knowing what is real) retreated into illusion through drugs. Now, however, Dieter wants to revitalize the commune and begs Hicks to stay. Hicks feels the mountaintop, on which in the past the commune members were able at least physically to isolate themselves from the world, is no longer a sanctuary. According to Hicks, that time has passed; besides he will not renounce the heroin or his self-created role. He is committed to the drug, which Dieter calls “all allusion and false necessity. It's suffering human ignorance. It's hell” (312). Whether Stone wants the reader to believe that the commune ideal is really dead is ambiguous; certainly, it is dead for Hicks, who has already given his allegiance to the world. Whatever else is said of him, he remains faithful to his commitments and attempts to act upon them to the end.

Near the conclusion of the novel, Stone portrays three alternative reactions to the experiences the novel recounts. The Converses have survived and are together again. In keeping their promise to meet Hicks, they remain faithful to their friend, even though in so doing they risk their lives again and have no coherent idea of why they do it. All of Marge's experience takes place on the level of inchoate need, while Converse, more verbal, expresses what some have taken to be the point of the novel: “I don't know what I'm doing or why I do it or what it's like. … Nobody knows. That's the principle we were defending over there. That's why we fought the war” (307). Certainly, it is a principle the Converses embrace. At the end of the novel they seem hopelessly and fatalistically bound together in their ignorance.

Hicks, however, is different. A case can be made that he too is ignorant and does not know why he acts as he does. He decided to take the heroin but never had any ultimate goal in mind. Yet he has strength the other characters lack, and the end of the novel reveals him to be more caring about his friends than we might have believed. He could have escaped but receives his fatal wound in an attempt to rescue Marge and Converse. In a sense then, he is not hard enough to survive; loyalty to others leads to his death. Further, in Stone's compelling description of his walk down the mountain and through the desert is presented perhaps the most positive statement of the novel. Delirious, Hicks visualizes his childhood self, an orphan, and gives him advice:

You better do something about the way you cringe and whine. I don't want to see you do it. … For one thing it makes you weaker. For another nobody gives a shit. Who are you whining to? People? They don't care. … You know what's out there? Every goddamn race of shit jerking each other off. Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis, two hundred million rat-hearted cocksuckers in enormous cars. Rabbits and fish. They're mean and stupid and greedy, they'll fuck you for laughs, they want you dead. If you're no better than them you might as well take gas. If you can't get your own off them then don't stand there and let them spit on you, don't give them the satisfaction.


At this point the reader understands why Hicks is as he is and the nature of the paranoid vision of the novel. Certainly, one can appreciate the sheer courage and endurance of his walk. In an impersonal, even malevolent world strength consists of not complaining, of enduring. Human emotion leads to vulnerability, which leads to weakness. In his delirium Hicks becomes almost messianic, wanting to take on the pain of everyone in the world, feeling he can relieve them by shouldering their burdens.

Hicks, however, is not allowed the last word in the novel—that is given to Anthiel, the corrupt Federal agent who has finally recovered the heroin. He thinks back with satisfaction on the operation:

In many ways, he thought, the adventure had been instructive. His heart filled with native optimism. If you stuck with something, the adventure demonstrated, faced down every kind of pressure, refused to fold when the going got tough, outplayed all adversaries, and relied on your own determination and fortitude, then the bag of beans at the end of the rainbow might be yours after all.


By concluding the novel with this parody of the American dream, put in the mouth of the most corrupt character in the novel, Stone emphasizes that the American dream of peace, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness is dead.

Stone has created, then, a world in which brutality and illegality are the norm and not the exception and has implicitly linked that condition to the Vietnam War. However, Vietnam has not caused this situation; it simply reveals that violence and corruption are endemic to American life. In such a world, no moral perspective is possible; in fact, moral and ethical concerns have become dangerous and can be lethal. Humanity is a diminished thing in Dog Soldiers. Close personal relationships are not possible, and hence everyone is alone. No one learns anything in the course of the novel. The Converses helplessly fall back on fatality as an explanation of their experience. Only Hicks attempts to take any control of his life, but he is a stunted human being whose actions are finally aimless and fruitless. Stone presents a mirror for our times: a time when corruption seems omnipresent, action is futile, human fellow feeling is dead—when peace or happiness can only come through either drugs or death.


  1. Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 206. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  2. See the description of the play he wrote ten years earlier. It concerns a Marine who objects to the military system but who does not act in any way upon his convictions.

Principal Works

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A Hall of Mirrors (novel) 1967

*WUSA (screenplay) 1970

Dog Soldiers (novel) 1974

Who'll Stop the Rain [with Judith Roscoe] (screenplay) 1978

A Flag for Sunrise (novel) 1981

Children of Light (novel) 1986

Outerbridge Reach (novel) 1992

Bear and His Daughter (short stories) 1997

Damascus Gate (novel) 1998

Bay of Souls (novel) 2003

*Stone's film adaptation of his novel A Hall of Mirrors.

†Stone's film adaptation of his novel Dog Soldiers.

Jeff Danziger (review date 17 March 1986)

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SOURCE: Danziger, Jeff. “Disappointing Tale of Hollywood from Critically Acclaimed Robert Stone.” Christian Science Monitor (17 March 1986): 26.

[In the following review, Danziger criticizes Children of Light, asserting that the novel is filled with disturbing, greedy characters and a grim and depressing plot.]

Strangers to Robert Stone's depressing but critically acclaimed writing will find this novel [Children of Light] 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.

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.

Further Reading

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Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 66, no. 3 (1999): 417-30.

Bell praises Stone's depiction of the city of Jerusalem in Damascus Gate but faults the author for attempting to force too many characters, plots, movements, politics, and detail into one novel.

Bell, Pearl K. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 59, no. 2 (1992): 282-95.

Bell offers a negative assessment of Outerbridge Reach, asserting that it contains overbearing metaphors and overt symbolism.

Blumenthal, Ralph. “A Novelist Who Stalks Authenticity.” New York Times (26 May 1998): E1.

Blumenthal provides an overview of Stone's life, work, and critical reception upon the publication of Damascus Gate.

Gray, Paul. Review of Children of Light, by Robert Stone. Time 127, no. 72 (10 March 1986): 72.

Gray evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Children of Light.

Higgins, George V. “Crossing the Bar.” Washington Post Book World (1 March 1992): 5.

Higgins praises Stone's writing in Outerbridge Reach, calling the narration simple and direct.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Believers and Cynics on a Road to Rebirth.” New York Times (14 April 1998): E1.

Kakutani offers a favorable review of Damascus Gate but criticizes the novel's laboriousness while establishing characters and plots.

Kaplan, Morton. “Robert Stone's Damascus Gate.World and I 13, no. 9 (September 1998): 243.

Kaplan offers an overview of Stone's life and writings upon the publication of Damascus Gate.

Lehman-Haupt, Christopher. “Unleashing the Poison that Floods from Anger.” New York Times (3 April 1997): C19.

Lehman-Haupt praises the stories collected in Bear and His Daughter.

Leonard, John. “Blame It on Jerusalem.” Tikkun 13, no. 5 (September-October 1998): 71-3.

Leonard discusses Stone's evocation of Jerusalem and the quest for religious meaning in Damascus Gate.

Pritchard, William H. “Sailing over the Edge.” New York Times Book Review (23 February 1992): 1.

Pritchard offers a positive assessment of Outerbridge Reach.

Rosen, Jonathan. “Jerusalem Syndrome.” New York Times Book Review (26 April 1998): 14.

Rosen finds shortcomings in the symbolism, reductive dichotomies, and ahistorical qualities of Damascus Gate.

Ryan, Richard. “A Grand Novel of Grand Things.” Christian Science Monitor (13 March 1992): 13.

Ryan lauds the writing in Outerbridge Reach, calling Stone's narration “stunning” and “well-wrought.”

Weber, Bruce. “An Eye for Danger.” New York Times Magazine (19 January 1992): 19.

Weber provides an overview of Stone's life and writing upon the publication of Outerbridge Reach.

Additional coverage of Stone's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 23, 66, 95; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 23, 42; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 152; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1.

Richard Eder (review date 23 March 1986)

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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. Review of Children of Light, by Robert Stone. Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 March 1986): 3.

[In the following review, Eder asserts that Children of Light suffers from overwritten characters, poor dialogue, and a plot that dissolves as the book progresses.]

[In Children of Light] Gordon Walker writes florid movie scripts and acts King Lear on the stage. He belongs to the Southern California beautiful-and-damned set. His life is a mess, his children are a mess, his wife has left, and he is off to Baja California to look up Lee Verger, a former beautiful-and-damned playmate, who is starring in a film based on one of his scripts.

But every time Gordon does something emotional, he needs to stop for a hamburger. Before he makes love: a hamburger. Afterwards: a hamburger. When he sets out for Baja: a hamburger. When he spots Lee, wreathed in glory and hallucinations: a hamburger. When he trails her on a final unhinged adventure, he ducks inside for: still another hamburger.

Well, of course it's not hamburgers. Children of Light takes very expensive people at their own level of self-indulgence. So it's cocaine and alcohol. But it might as well be hamburgers. This painfully bombastic novel is very largely about what people ingest and how it makes them feel. Gordon is a bottle. Filled with white powder, he turns white. Whiteness is his romantic agony.

Stone, as he showed in Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, is a writer of considerable force. He can lay out death, particularly death of the soul, in a couple of lines. He is all high-tension wires; and here too.

But in the other books, he was dealing with large subjects. His characters were defined more by their taut and twisting emotions than by their natures, but we heard them even if we didn't especially feel them.

Children of Light—its title announces its ambition—aims to be a searing portrait of decadence. But for the “damned” to matter, the “beautiful” must matter too. Neither Gordon, nor the alluring and demented Lee, whose real name is Lu Anne, nor the whole squalid pack of film makers amounts to very much.

For Gordon, living on the point of crack-up, the trip to Baja is a pilgrimage of a sort. His agent, who represents reality—Gordon doesn't seem to have friends—wants him to straighten up, dry out, and take steady jobs to hold himself together. Clearly, he is heading into danger. He is trying to re-create the druggy exaltation of his younger days in the company of an old lover who herself is on the fringe of madness.

The agent argues with Gordon, and the agent's young assistant sleeps with him; but to no avail. He will have his last fling, though he takes the precaution of stopping at a doctor's to get some downers to offset the cocaine/alcohol cycle. Alice-like, nibbling alternately on the growing and shrinking sides of his mushroom, Gordon advances into wonderland.

It is a despicable place, populated by Nathanael West locusts. In its isolation, its artificiality, and its self-absorption, a film location is both a convenient and a well-worn way to symbolize a decaying and alienated society. The collection of monsters that Gordon encounters are all too familiar. There is Drogue, a talented but corrupt director, and Drogue's father, a goatish and cynical man who was once a celebrated director himself. There is a revolting journalist, a demented PR man who tries to blackmail the production, a shadowy producer with mysterious money behind him, a blank and sexy starlet.

They work, drink, snort, scheme and quarrel. Stone is very skillful at suggesting the murderous tensions and pressures among the company. Outside, of course, lies Mexico; rather like Malcolm Lowry's volcanoes, and with a similar estranging effect.

In this murky aquarium, Gordon and Lu Anne are the shiny and poisoned fish. A radiant product of the Yale Drama School, she, like Gordon, has been through the twin burnouts of chemicals and fantasies gone bad. Her burnout is worse, though; she is attended by imaginary creatures with lacy wings whom she calls her Long Friends. They make her scream suddenly, or mistake the figure on a crucifix for a martyred cat.

Lu Anne, nearing 40, sees in the film she is making a last chance to save herself. She refuses the medication prescribed to hold madness down, because she wants to shine. As old Drogue puts it: “She has a way of being crazy that photographs pretty well.” Clearly, her last chance will be her death warrant.

She and Gordon withdraw into each other for days of drugs, sex and hallucinations. Finally, Lu Anne snaps. She hauls Gordon out to climb a mountain. On top, in a thunderstorm, she strips, daubs herself with mud, and lacerates herself with flints. The couple end up pelting each other with pig manure. Other things happen afterwards, but this is the book's climax; it's a blithering one.

Stone, who had managed some tight writing, dissolves along with his characters. The mountain is called Mount Carmel, and the whole episode, self-inflicted stigmata and all, becomes a hokey mystical vision. The dialogue is a ludicrous melange of the hip and the holy. Here is a bit, on the way up; starting with Gordon:

“There's to and fro. There's back and forth. There's up. Likewise down. There's taking care of your feet.”

“And the small rain,” Lu Anne said.

“And mud. And gravel and sand. And shit. And wet rot and dry rot. And going over fences.”

“Can you look back?”

“Never back. You can look down. You have to see where you're going.”

“But is there a place for art?” Lu Anne asked with a troubled frown.

Not really. Stone's efforts to make a touching and sardonic parable out of Gordon, Lu Anne and their bottles amount to a classical definition of melodrama; the application of grand emotions to trivial subjects.

Jeffrey Meyers (review date 10 October 1986)

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SOURCE: Meyers, Jeffrey. “Suffering and Squalor.” National Review 38, no. 19 (10 October 1986): 57, 59.

[In the following review, Meyers compares Children of Light to Kate Chopin's The Awakening but faults Stone's novel for lacking the “depth and power” of his earlier works such as Dog Soldiers.]

Robert Stone is the master of desperate situations. His previous novels dealt with alcoholism in New Orleans, Vietnamese drugs in California, and revolution in Central America. All his books end in an apocalyptic bloodbath. “I want to deal with extremes of brutality,” Stone said in an interview, “[to show] that the innocent suffer at the hands of people or forces driven by ignorance and greed.”

Children of Light (the ironic title comes from Luke 16:8) concerns Gordon Walker—actor and screenwriter, alcohol and cocaine addict, predator and survivor. He has just been successfully acting King Lear, but sees “his life as trash—a soiled article, past repair.” In an attempt to recapture past happiness and satisfy a “mythic longing,” he decides to seek his old love, Lee Verger. He is attracted by “her closely reasoned madness, her nightmare undersea beauty and deluded eyes.” She is starring in a film, made on the coast of Mexico, that is based on Gordon's ten-year-old script of Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899).

Both Gordon and Lee are crazy and live in a fearful world, threatened by real dangers as well as by hallucinations. They have driven away their spouses and children, are besieged by darkness, and take their identities from their theatrical roles. At the end of Stone's novel, during a thunderstorm on top of a Mexican mountain, Gordon is made Lear on the heath (“I fear I am not in my perfect mind”).

And there are many parallels with The Awakening, a morbid novel of mixed marriage and adultery in Louisiana. Miss Chopin's book also concerns a quest for freedom compromised by the inevitability of death; a trapped and desperate woman, briefly awakened and then driven to her doom. Edna Pontellier's lover flees to Mexico—where the film is now being made. The filmmakers see Lee as Mr. Pontellier sees Edna: as “a valuable piece of property which has suffered some damage.” Miss Chopin's ominous portent of a silent woman dressed in black is transformed into the demonic Long Friends of the schizophrenic Lee Verger. The Long Friends gather in the darkness and vanish into the shadows. Then, increasingly unafraid, they cluster about, trying to grasp her “with their long, delicately clawed fingers, affecting to enfold [her] in the fine tracery of their dark wings.”

Children of Light combines the satire in the Hollywood novels of Fitzgerald and West with the savagery in the Mexican fiction of Lawrence and Lowry. Gordon and Lee meet halfway through the novel, when he drives down to Bahía Honda. He wants to destroy the last part of his life that is still uncontaminated—the precious memory of his lost love—and to achieve the ultimate degradation. He knows that there is no clear conscience in this film crowd, that he is not among friends, and that there will be trouble. He has, in fact, come to die.

“I've been high on you for five hundred miles,” Gordon tells Lee, “and when I get here you're playing footsie with that big swamp rat.” This is Dongan Lowndes, a once-serious novelist with a flayed face, poxy sores, and fecal eyes. He is writing an article about the film for an intellectual magazine and is lusting after Lee. When Gordon beds the feline actress, “It was as though she drew in all softness, took up her own slack, and curled the flesh around her long bones.” But the publicity man on the set photographs them naked and sniffing cocaine, and attempts to blackmail the film company by giving the picture to Lowndes.

Certified and certifiable, Lee, like Gordon, has “never found anything beyond despair except more despair.” She has given up the medicine that controls her hallucinations, is trembling on the edge of a breakdown, and is haunted by terrifying visions: “When she looked up at the crucifix [in church] she saw that the hanged Christ nailed to the beams had become a cat. It was burned as black as the figure had been, its fur turned to ash, its face burned away to show the grinning fanged teeth.” But she is acting brilliantly in an important film. A crucial question in the novel is why Gordon gives Lee cocaine. His motives seem purely destructive, and Stone suggests there is no salvation in love.

The apocalyptic climax comes when they flee the set, fly over the mountains (“We're going to where it's morning.” “Will there be something to drink?”), and drive up the hilltop to a holy place, sacred to Lee, that is actually a pig farm. In a pseudo-religious quest, she crawls over the jagged stones, bloodies her clothes, strips them off, and sits “naked in a mix of mud and droppings, swarming with tiny pale creatures that fled the light.” This is the end of her rainbow. Rescued by the tourist police, they find their way back to Bahía Honda, where Lee resumes her role and fulfills the destiny of Ophelia, Edna Pontellier, and Virginia Woolf.

This vivid, sharp, and repulsive novel is extremely readable and especially interesting on the boredom and corruption of filmmaking (the director and his father may be based on Walter and John Huston). But this nihilistic book lacks the depth and power of Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise. As they are crawling up the hill Lee exclaims: “I know it must all mean something, Gordon, because it hurts so much.” Stone strives for but fails to achieve a transcendent significance in suffering and squalor.

Richard Eder (review date 1 March 1992)

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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Against the Tides of Mediocrity.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 March 1992): 3, 5.

[In the following review, Eder alternately praises and faults Outerbridge Reach, calling the writing “lucid and thrilling” in its passages about the sea but “bombastic” in its development of certain characters and events.]

Even the climate in Outerbridge Reach speaks corruption. It declares America's decline in loyalty, valor, love, republican virtue, individual pride, sound workmanship and the tang of the wilderness. Global consumer greed equals global warming; it has been the mildest winter in 100 years: “The ambiguity of the weather made time seem slack and the year spiritless.”

Such is the opening and theme of Robert Stone's novel about a man's ill-fated revolt against the moral entropy of the day. Owen Browne's revolt is set off by a defective plastic tube, made in South Korea, in the bilge-pump of the spanking new 45-foot sloop he is delivering to a customer. It is the top line of a Connecticut boatyard which, despite its suggestion of a stout New England maritime heritage, is owned by a conglomerate. The boat founders, and Owen limps humiliatingly into a company dock on the New Jersey coast.

It prefigures what will happen later in the book when Owen, striking a blow against mediocrity—his own as well as the world's; he writes the yacht company's ads—sails single-handed in a round-the-world race. He is sponsored by the conglomerate and, once again, betrayed by it. What can a heart of oak do in an oak-veneer world? Specifically, what can it do in a South Atlantic gale sailing a shoddy fiberglass boat, built on the cheap in the Far East on a plan ripped off from a Western designer?

If novels were presidential candidates, Outerbridge Reach would be Patrick Buchanan; partly because of its libertarian bent—its man-alone against the sea, its nativist values and its suspicion of “left-liberals,” supranational capitalist octopuses and cheap foreign imports. And partly because of its teeming hyperbole, the tides of doom that rise periodically to flood out a shrewd wit and, in Stone's case, some limpid writing and an inveigling narrative current.

Owen enters the book trailing malaise. He might have been allowed a little space to develop some, but Stone over-instructs his book; every moment is a signal. His hero, vague and hesitant before he embarks on his climactic venture, is an Annapolis graduate who served in Vietnam and has found no such purpose or camaraderie since. Anne, his wife, is the handsome, half-estranged daughter of an unscrupulous tycoon. She writes for a travel magazine, tries ineffectively to make money on the stock market, and devotedly shares her husband's state of high-minded unease.

Anne and Owen are Stone's innocents, caught up unhappily in a world of rotten values, suffering from it, but finding no way out. Owen's bilge-tube mishap releases his rage. It only finds a real outlet when Thorne, who runs the conglomerate in the wake of its yachtsman-founder's mysterious disappearance, offers to let him do the round-the-world race in the latter's place.

Thorne is one of two figures of absolute evil in the book; a ruthless financial manipulator with no interests beyond his bottom line. He develops a vague affection for Owen, and a more specific one for Anne, but it is the casual benevolence of a collector. The race is marginal public relations; the boat is a cut-rate job; Owen gets no back-up and the most minimal of practice time.

If Thorne is a shadowy evil, Strickland is a full-blown Mephistopheles. He is a trendy, cynical maker of documentaries. A frustrated artist—he visits a Winslow Homer show and goes into a rage over the painter's integrity—he settles for journalistic power. He claims to show things as they are. “The people are the town, I'm the clock,” he says of his subjects, but he knows that truth lies in the editing.

Stone sees in Strickland the epitome of intellectual corruption, the personification of media's power to twist and distort reality. He paints the filmmaker so garishly that he turns a potentially clever portrait into a bombastic cliché. Over and over, we hear Strickland boasting of his ability to edit whatever he wants into his films. When an assistant, viewing the raw footage after a Central American shoot, asks how to tell the good guys from the bad, Strickland replies: “When you learn to cut film, you'll decide.”

A man who goes to bed with every woman he finds attractive—walking through a playground, he fondly recalls seducing a nanny there—Strickland is turned loose on Owen and Anne. Their high-mindedness, their genteel Waspiness, above all their innocence present an irresistible challenge. His drugged-out, succubus-like sidekick, Pamela, all but drools as she encounters Anne's exurbanite wholesomeness. “Oh Ronnie, you'll have such fun,” she says.

Ostensibly filming an upbeat documentary about Owen and Anne, Strickland sniffs disaster and prepares to extract it. Once Owen sets out on his race, he goes to work on Anne. “There's a level at which she's never been got to,” he confides to Pamela. “You can do it, if anyone can,” she assures him; and she's right.

Stone's portrait of Strickland is turgid overload; Owen and Anne, by contrast, are pallid and rather formless. The book lights up wonderfully once Owen embarks on his solitary pilgrimage. Its account of the early sailing scenes, Owen's struggles with illness, and the gradual malfunctioning of his craft, are lucid and thrilling. When the storm comes, he curses the flimsy cracking of the fiberglass. “Like a little tin soldier in a paper boat, he thought, biting his lip, headed for the drain. He was riding a decomposed piece of plastic through an Antarctic storm.”

Such luminousness does not last. Owen's growing hallucinations, once he begins to live with the consequences of his boat's shoddy unsurvivability, are woolly and overwritten. The ending, in which both evil and innocence are punished, but evil wins out, is forced.

Stone's women are whores or nurturing wives; Anne is both, by turns. The author writes beautifully about the sea, about men doing things, about the gleam of simple action. He fails when he supercharges these things with apocalyptic doses of good and evil. His book, like the big American cars that stand both for a more innocent America and for its troubles, is a gas guzzler.

Robert M. Adams (review date 26 March 1992)

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SOURCE: Adams, Robert M. “Fall of Valor.” New York Review of Books 39, no. 6 (26 March 1992): 29-30.

[In the following review, Adams offers a positive assessment of Outerbridge Reach, calling the work a “strong, unhappy novel.”]

The new book by Robert Stone is a tough Irish-American novel set mainly in and around New York harbor. Its themes are contemporary and touched with cruelty; its prose is as hard as that of John O'Hara, which is high praise. Though basically it is an action story, and Stone's considerable reputation is that of a hard-boiled suspense novelist, the reflective reader will find in the pages of Outerbridge Reach a good deal on which to meditate. Like John Converse, the very unheroic hero of Stone's earlier novel Dog Soldiers, the central figure of Outerbridge Reach is a weak man in a tough situation; that can be either an odd predilection of Stone's imagination, a reflection on suburban society, or an almost Old Testament denunciation of a society choking on its own naiveté, weakness, and self-disgust. The toughness of Stone's novels has been readily accepted as on the surface; but there's an inner toughness of judgment that, when one stubs one's toe on it, is even more impressive.

Owen Browne is presented to us as an Annapolis graduate, class of 1968, a Vietnam veteran, but now working as a salesman and copywriter for a boat company somewhere off Long Island Sound, perhaps in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Reasonably prosperous, and happily though a bit uneasily married to Anne, with an adolescent daughter, Margaret—Owen as he enters his mid-forties is latently restless and dissatisfied with his life. Apparently he is pretty good at his job, but does not feel that it's much of a job. Salesmanship, as a career, does not fulfill him, any more than service, again doing paperwork, fulfilled him in the navy. So when Matt Hylan, the head of the conglomerate containing Altan Marine Corporation, pulls out of a solo sailing race around the world, Browne volunteers to replace him.

As a great many people see, and some of them say, this is a reckless venture. Browne, though a competent knockabout sailor, has no open-ocean sailing experience. The people at Altan Marine are businessmen and publicity agents; none of them knows anything about deep-sea sailing. The head of the firm, Hylan, who got into the project and then disappeared, is described as a young playboy, whose escapades have led him into bankruptcy, perhaps defalcation, and almost certainly a multitude of other financial malpractices. For purposes of the race, Browne can have the best of the boats in the current Altan line, but nobody seems to have inquired whether it has been built or rebuilt with an eye to sailing long distances across open oceans.

This seems a matter of some importance. A forty-foot craft designed for the day cruises of a rich owner around the Sound, down the Inland Waterway, or perhaps as far as Bar Harbor, can hardly be taken with confidence around Cape Horn or through the Sunda Straits without some extensive reconstruction. But in the novel, nobody pays much attention to the dreary, detailed, and expensive business of rebuilding Owen Browne's vessel. Instead, major attention is concentrated on preparing a motion picture documenting the great adventure. A man named Strickland, with several successful documentaries to his credit, is hired to produce it; he has a studio, he has assistants, he actually turns up on the spot. But at about this point a reader with a moderate sense of the practical realities will start to feel faintly seasick.

Sailing solo around the world requires a great many days and an equal number of nights; during most of this time, the only item of cinematographic interest will be limitless expanses of open water. If the sailor has to be at the same time navigator, housekeeper, radio operator, and movie maker, what kind of movie can he be expected to produce? Suppose that in this prolonged race the Altan entry has the misfortune to finish out of the money, what will be the box-office appeal of what is essentially a home movie?

No matter: the movie maker is hired, though of course he can't go on the trip; but he takes some preliminary footage of the Browne family going about their daily routines while getting ready for Owen's departure. This quite extended period gives us a chance to get acquainted with Strickland the movie maker, who turns out to be a character quite as underhanded and exploitative as Owen Browne is bumbling and foolish. Stone's contempt for paperwork and publicity people—of whom he has himself been one—verges on the malignant. Not surprisingly, Strickland is a shady and manipulative character, whose previous work in a vaguely anti-Vietnam documentary has given him only a questionable standing on the fringe of the hippie movement. Besides, he is a predatory and voracious womanizer. Though apparently well supplied from his frequently replenished collection of usable women, Strickland turns his eyes on Anne, and such is his magnetism that he introduces himself into her bed almost before Owen's little boat has halfway crossed its first ocean.

The whole venture, in short, is ill-fated from the beginning. Browne takes his vessel out for a shakedown cruise on the Sound, and manages to fall overboard. He hires an excellent carpenter to install some cabinets, but gets into an argument with the man over Vietnam and comes by to find that all his new cabinetry has been carefully removed and his money contemptuously returned. (This episode of moral rigor contrasts sharply with the loose indifference of Strickland, whose earlier movie had supposedly been anti-Vietnam but who accommodates easily to Browne's gung-ho militarism.) Temperamentally, Owen Browne is not presented as a man of assured action or solid character. About some things he is rigidly righteous, about other things, sloppy and egotistical. He is a hollow man who repeatedly impresses others as intensely disagreeable. Strickland thinks him a creep and has not the slightest hesitation about cuckolding him. The workers at the shipyard despise him, his best friends at Annapolis don't think him fit to be in the race, his father-in-law can hardly bring himself to pronounce Owen's name, his wife has no faith in him, and he gets on his daughter's nerves. On every level and in every relationship, he appears to be a barely presentable pain in the ass.

Why then does Owen, when his boat starts to disintegrate in the first heavy weather it encounters, when he sees clearly that he's been turned out on the Atlantic in a flashy, flimsy, plastic cockleshell, without the faintest chance of making it around the world—why doesn't he radio for help and put into the nearest port? Other competitors in the race do it. Later on, perhaps, when he has started to hallucinate, when he has demolished the transponder which is his major piece of electronic gear, and even more when he has started to drift at random, making up an imaginary log with fake positions, invented weather, phony episodes—by then it is clearly too late. But the moment when he slips around the bend passes unobtrusively by. I think it may be the moment when deep in the South Atlantic he sails up to a little volcanic island—real or fantastic, there's no knowing—and simply forgets about the race for a while.

After a few days his rebellion assumed a routine. During the brief periods of darkness he would head just off the wind with only a storm jib up, sailing away from the island. With first light, he would come about and head back toward the peaks. Every day, winds permitting, he got a little bolder and approached the shore more closely, feeling his way in on the sounding device. There seemed to be no bottom anywhere.

The high-seas operator at Whiskey Oscar Oscar kept him apprised of the race into which he betrayed himself.

Somewhere in here he's losing track. Previously he had seemed brave if distinctly foolish; excessively righteous, perhaps, but not crazy. But when he starts talking with his dead father and inventing artificial personalities for himself, it's clear that the core personality, such as it is, is disintegrating.

It is hard to see the story except—begging Mr. Stone's pardon—as a form of allegory. Owen Browne is a straight-arrow, boy-scout type graduated to junior executive. As seen through Robert Stone's contemptuous, disillusioned eyes, he is soft yet pretends to be macho; he is the victim of his own commercial rhetoric; he is righteously patriotic; he is sentimentally neuter, and he is just aware enough of his own weakness to be dissatisfied with it. Between the invisible rogue Hylan and the office organization, he has just enough energy to bring about his own destruction. Through the story of Owen Browne the disgrace and disintegration of the Vietnam War toll like funeral bells. That war, which the author evidently recalls as a savage, meaningless slaughter-orgy sinking gradually into a morass of murderous drug and anti-drug operations, lies heavily on the imagination of Robert Stone. Even the language of Dog Soldiers degenerates into a sledgehammer repetition of conventional obscenities. The bleakness of Owen Browne's judgment of himself and his life goes far beyond any language at all.

The title of the book makes the theme of collapse and disintegration all the more resonant. Outerbridge Reach is a strip of desolate marshland off the Kill van Kull on the back side of Staten Island, where all manner of broken-down maritime junk is left to molder away. Derelict ferry boats, ruined barges, and slimy, abandoned lighters lie there half-buried in mud. It is a place that Browne visits just once, briefly, early in the book—apparently it was part of his wife's family property. But Stone would hardly have given such prominence in the title to this eerie emblem of utter desolation if he had not wanted it to stand for an important element of his novel.

The Fall of Valor was the title of a very different novel some years ago; it suggests the understated vein of quiet grief that Stone weaves into the story of Owen Browne—a weak and appallingly deluded man, but one who hardly deserves the storm of disgrace and ridicule with which (as we understand) his name will be covered. The sour workers at Altan shipyard, who sneer at Owen while stealing as much of his money as they dare, are perfectly right about him. In their dialect he's a pussy, he's a preppy, he's a fuckin' hype artist. And yet one of them says, half bemusedly, thinking of the race, “My bet would be this—either he wins or he dies.” That, for better or worse, is part of Owen Browne, too.

Out in the middle of the South Atlantic somewhere, he cleared the tangle of dirty compromises in which he had trapped himself by fastening heavy weights to his legs and stepping overboard. As for Strickland, the movie maker who had seemed impenetrably tough and successful in his cynicism, he—though encumbered by no guilt over Vietnam and no responsibility for the race, or shame for the “hero's” widow whom he had seduced and robbed—he winds up more painfully in Outerbridge Reach than anybody else. Having saved him for the end, the author goes after Strickland with a particular measure of sadistic vengeance that suggests a latent streak of moral feeling. He is despoiled of the cheap pickings he has acquired by pretending to be Anne's lover, he is abandoned by her, he is handed (by her father's agents) a savage professional beating. This ends the novel with a bang, but leaves the reader looking around for any significant character in the world of Outerbridge Reach who does not deserve, for sins of omission or commission, an equivalent punishment.

The story is well paced, the dialogue crisp and forceful, the interweaving of illusions with maritime reveries deftly managed. On a couple of occasions—when Strickland in an early chapter either fascinates or rapes a girl named Rachel just after he meets her, and in later passages when Browne first starts to hallucinate—one isn't altogether sure how far to take the implications. This reader took it that Strickland was a straight sadist and Browne was an ill-assembled and weak-sinewed man. As for mythical or cosmic overtones, like those attached to the Ancient Mariner and the White Whale, this reader didn't recognize, or feel the need of, any. Outerbridge Reach is a fine book without transcendental overtones. It's a strong, unhappy novel about a stage in the life of our times—nearly a quarter century ago—that ought to have something less sullen and despairing to say for itself, but apparently isn't going to.

Mark Edmundson (review date 20 April 1992)

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SOURCE: Edmundson, Mark. “America at Sea.” New Republic 206, no. 16 (20 April 1992): 42-5.

[In the following review, Edmundson contends that the reductive characters in Outerbridge Reach limit the depth and authenticity of the novel.]

Near the beginning of Children of Light, Robert Stone's fourth novel, which appeared in 1986, Gordon Walker sets out south from Los Angeles along the coastal road heading for Mexico and a disaster that he, through no particular virtue, manages to survive. Walker slows down to stop in a seedy little American town along the way: “At right angles to the coast road, garnished with a rank of rat-infested royal palms, ran the lineup of tackle stores, taco stands, and murky cocktail lounges that was the beach's principal thoroughfare.”

The detail about the rats is pure Robert Stone. In the harsh vision of his first four novels, claims to nobility or high-mindedness (much less to royalty) are inevitably revealed as corrupt or corruptible. Stone's vision, his comprehensive sense of how brutally the world works, is so insistent that it penetrates his novels at every level. Sweet blossoms conceal cancerous defects; religious shrines are sites for human despoilment; a hotel called the Paradise becomes the nerve center for a vile counterrevolution; there are rats in the royal palms.

Stone's central figures are often idealists who succumb, with surprisingly little resistance, to some form of moral blight. His first protagonist, Rheinhardt in A Hall of Mirrors (1968), was a gifted musician: the scene of his Juilliard audition is one of the most beautiful and generous things Stone has written. Rheinhardt ends up as a disk jockey for a rabid right-wing station in New Orleans during the early days of the civil rights movement. The reactionary homiletics, of which he doesn't believe a word, pour out like water. “Where did you learn to do that? he enquired of himself in his new Rheinhardt voice.” Then the reply: “O, but it's nothing really. It's just a routine. I have a lot of routines and that's just one of them.”

Why does Rheinhardt's celestial moment at Juilliard degenerate into the crazy radio routines? One of the novel's implicit answers is that finer passions disintegrate when there is nothing—no religious principles, no cultural or political forms, no varieties of personal connection—to which one can entrust them. Uncorroborated and unsupported, what's best in people turns vile. And the more grace that is given, the lower we sink: witness the degeneration of Rheinhardt's exquisite musical powers into an exquisitely lacerating drunken meanness. Stone's indictment in his first novel is aimed at an America that doesn't provide a home for the renovating energies that it nonetheless succeeds in stimulating.

Hicks, one of the two protagonists of Stone's Dog Soldiers (1974), is a member of the merchant marines who has just finished a hitch in Vietnam. He's also a student of Nietzsche (“what does not kill me makes me stronger”) and a practitioner of Zen and t'ai chi. Finding no outlet for his higher passions, he becomes a heroin smuggler and dies in a lost and unworthy cause. Hicks gets hooked (addiction is rife in the book) to a view of himself as a questing anti-hero, and he dies sustaining it. For Stone, however, it is only an initial nobility that makes such addiction possible. In Hicks's fall, Stone means us to see an image of the degeneration of America as it pitched itself deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War. Unable to be Asia's heroic rescuer, we became, with equal intensity, its despoiler.

Stone's novels have tended to head south. Gordon Walker goes to Mexico, Hicks flees far into Southern California to escape his pursuers, and Frank Holliwell, the main figure in A Flag for Sunrise (1981), makes his way to Central America, where he is duped into revolutionary intrigues that are way beyond his stunted and endemically American powers of understanding. Holliwell is a well-intentioned, irresolute academic with some CIA connections in his background. A sentimental boozer, he's much softer man than Rheinhardt or Hicks. In many ways Holliwell resembles Converse of Dog Soldiers, a character who, in a moment of devastating fear, comes to know himself as a quivering congestion of flesh insulting to the earth, a “funny little fucker.”

But Holliwell, with his gelatinous liberal goodwill, sows more destruction than either Hicks or Rheinhardt. He ends up selling out the woman he believes himself to love, the brilliantly rendered Sister Justin, and giving aid to the reactionary party in the revolution, the party of the Paradise Hotel. Holliwell is, I think, Stone's most impressively achieved character. Though his ineptitude is obvious, one is often forced to admit that it would be very hard in his situation to act differently than he does. Moreover, his narrow fumblings in Central America serve to illuminate America's larger failing there and elsewhere, failings that are owed to the American inclination to believe that whatever is in our own interest must also be virtuous. A Flag for Sunrise is more than a superb adventure novel and a shrewd character study. As an account of America's spiritual blindness in the world at large, the novel may be unsurpassed.

In one sense Stone is an allegorist. All of his novels venture into some heart of darkness, be it Mexico or the New Orleans ghetto. All feature erotic triangles (always two men and a woman). All tell the story of innocence destroyed or destroying. Stone tends, somewhat in the manner of Saul Bellow, to recycle his characters: Gordon Walker recalls Rheinhardt; Holliwell resembles not only Converse but Rainey from A Hall of Mirrors. But the obsessive patternings in Stone's novels don't make the work feel schematic or predictable.

A good deal of Stone's prowess lies in his ability to sustain a tension between his allegorical designs and the moment-to-moment texture of his writing. Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise are written one barbed sentence at a time, often in an arrestingly ironic compound of elegant syntax and American low-life diction. The dialogue is superb. Not only is Stone's inner ear for American speech unerring, but he always proceeds with the playwright's conviction that good dialogue is, if only obliquely, antagonistic. Stone's characters speak because they want to get something done, usually to their interlocutors. As an observer, Stone is also remarkable: he knows just the detail that will work to make you conjure up everything else that's in the room. And this skill contributes to Stone's extraordinary success in pacing; he writes at a velocity perfectly attuned to readers whose powers of response have been accelerated by a lifetime of movie-going. So when Stone is working at his best, he provides a plausible and engaging foreground that refines the allegory. His obsessions haunt his novels subtly, which is an uncommon achievement; they surround everything with a faintly ominous aura.

Outerbridge Reach—the title itself suggests that the writer is attempting to stretch his powers—has the vast ambition that one has come to associate with Stone. He has set out again to write America's biography, this time to show how it is with us in the graceless year of 1992. Stone has embarked on a sea story, a large enough subject for an American writer, who must operate in the wake of Melville and Hemingway. The new novel is full of brilliant writing, and it is populated by arresting, swiftly rendered characters. Stone's knack for evoking a place (especially New York City) is sharper than ever. And the novel has a beautiful classic design, moving adroitly from sea to land. Outerbridge Reach is, among other things, a splendid device, poised and graceful as a gyroscope, and its formal beauty serves as an artful contrast to its characters' inability to find significant form anywhere in life.

At the center of the novel is Owen Browne, an Annapolis graduate, class of 1968, who has served in Vietnam and been one of the country's anointed ones, a trained heir to the last third of the American Century. But the American Century didn't unfold according to plan: humiliated in Vietnam, the nation found itself with little pressing need for men like Browne. In many ways Browne is a character out of Hemingway: brave, clear-minded, intense in his loyalties, with no particular gift for appraising the world, much less himself, ironically. “Irony,” Stone has said in one of the few unironic lines he has allowed into print, “is my friend and brother.” A Stone character who lacks that allegiance is not likely to fare well.

At the opening of the book Browne is in his early 40s and is working as marketing director for Altan Marine, a yacht brokerage in Connecticut. He and his wife, Anne, vote Republican, read The American Spectator, send their daughter to school with the nuns, and nurse a grudge against their generation for not supporting the war in Vietnam. Weary of his work and weary of his home life, Browne is beginning to believe that he has lost the main chance: nothing noble (nothing, that is, that Hemingway might have cared to chronicle) will come of him. Browne is shallow enough not to recognize that he is going through something of a standard midlife crisis, but he is brave enough to translate his unfocused desperation into something more than a down payment on a Porsche or a fling with a 19-year-old.

When Matty Hylan, the owner of Altan's parent company, disappears on the eve of an around-the-world solo boat race, Browne hastily volunteers to take his place. The physical challenge is large: Browne is an experienced, but not an expert, sailor. Stone's main interest, though, is in the voyage of Browne's spirit. Can this man, who embodies some share of what conventional America calls virtue, handle the rigors of isolation on the sea? Is there a possibility for heroism in America's middle class? (There is, in Browne, something of a younger George Bush—capable, confident, unself-questioning—just as Holliwell, in his jejune benevolence, obliquely suggested Jimmy Carter.)

Once again Stone is putting America on trial. The key witness is Ron Strickland, a maker of documentary films who has been contracted by the Hylan Corporation to record Matty Hylan's triumphal circumnavigation and who stays on, after the corporate boy-wonder absconds, to film Browne's story. Strickland is an aging hipster in the Rheinhardt/Gordon Walker mode, though he's much more capable and productive than either of them. In Strickland's case, corruption and purity have merged to produce a repugnantly charismatic amalgam. The purity is manifest in Strickland's drive to tell something as close as possible to the truth in his documentaries—and his willingness to pay for it. Once in Vietnam a group of tunnel rats who didn't like Strickland's style tied him overnight in an enemy tunnel. “‘But I take comfort,’” Strickland says. “‘I was doing my job. Follow truth too close by the heels, it kicks you in the teeth. Famous saying.’”

But it's in Strickland's idea of truth that his limitations lie. He is an instinctive proponent of the view that the worst truth about some person or thing is the most central truth. “‘Christ,’” says Strickland's assistant Hersey, as he watches Central American footage in which an American diplomat tries to explain himself, “‘you really open them up.’” “‘I get them to spread,’ Strickland said. ‘That I do.’” Strickland is pivotal to an understanding of this book not only because his perceptions are more intense and provocative than the other characters', but also because he shares more with Robert Stone than his initials. The two are drawn to similar subject matter: Strickland's film on Vietnam, L. Z. Bravo, brings Dog Soldiers to mind, just as his work in progress on Central America recalls A Flag for Sunrise. Strickland also shares some biographical data with Stone. Both the character and his creator grew up as only children in intense communion with itinerant, educated, possibly deranged mothers, and both have strong associations with New York.

Surely Stone doesn't mean us to draw a correspondence between Strickland's character and his own. Strickland is a consistently unethical man: selfish, manipulative, cruel. What's at stake in the resemblance is the stature of Stone's own work, throughout his career, but chiefly here, in Outerbridge Reach. Is this book, like Strickland's films, a product of a reductive fallacy? Does it ungenerously reduce its characters to their most pitiable or repugnant qualities, and thereby give its audience a facile sense of superiority? Such charges have been made against Stone in the past.

By putting Strickland in the novel, by showing the limits of his character and suggesting the limits of his art, Stone, it seems to me, is trying to pass beyond whatever there is in himself that would be satisfied with Strickland's kind of simplifications. To what degree, then, is the novelistic sensibility that organizes our view of the Brownes different from the sensibility of the filmmaker who is busy creating what will inevitably be a lacerating vision of them and their world? At times Stone and Strickland seem to merge, as in this passage in which Strickland takes in the scene at a Manhattan club where the entertainment is being provided by a band called Low Density Babylon:

Low Density Babylon ground on; the dancers splayed their hands and boogied. It was a weeknight and a weeknight crowd had turned out: a few blacks who could dance, a few of Hersey's fellow students, a contingent of English media scum. The English imagined themselves and their schemes invisible and danced with abandon, looking goatish and soiled. Strickland had observed that they were always the best dancers in the place. Lights played on their toothy faces.

The passage is essential Strickland: witty, pungent, worldly, unpleasant, giving no quarter. But it's also vintage Stone. Note the characteristic skill with which he balances precise observation with allegorical intimations. There's a background whisper of Babylonian corruption, Poe's dancing maskers, fire and plague—but it's conveyed subtly, with no damage done to the realistic texture of the book. The word “soiled” is a favorite of Stone's; it occurs a number of times in the novel, always connoting inevitable human corruption, paradise not so much lost as befouled.

You can easily conceive the results when Strickland, fresh from making the powers in Central American spread, sets to work on Owen Browne. One of Strickland's most useful attributes is a stutter that gets men like Browne thinking that he's an inept weakling to whom they can, in brave language, explain life's meanings:

Idea-wise, Strickland found that Browne had a few nuggets for the camera:

“I think most of us spend our lives without ever having to find out what we're made of. Our lives are soft in this country. In the present day a man can live his whole life and never test his true resources.”

And also: “The sea is the bottom line. Out there you have the elementals. You have day and night. You have ocean and sky. Your boat and yourself. It's a situation of ultimate self-reliance.”

“The great American virtue,” Strickland said. He was not averse to helping out.

Strickland mocks Browne unequivocally, though Browne is a touch too dense to pick up on it. Stone, however, reserves a higher regard for physical courage, even when it comes unaccompanied by developed powers of self-appraisal. He seems to concur with Browne's lines about our lives being too soft and about our failure to seek significant challenges. The sentiment is evident in his treatment of Browne, and it was underlined in a recent article in The New York Times in which Stone castigated Americans for having “made a virtue of mediocrity,” and went to the length of offering mobsters some ambivalent praise for taking risks and living by a code. “Self-interest,” he said at the close of the piece, “can take us only so far. At a certain point, human nature rejects it as an end, requiring something higher and finer.” Owen Browne would agree.

But Browne isn't up to the quest he takes on. His self-reliance proves about as effective at sea as the other deluded variants on the Emersonian virtue do in Stone's visions of Vietnam and Central America. It's not long into the race before Browne, cast back on his own spiritual resources, finds himself close to bankrupt. He has never developed the kind of inner life that would arise from playing principles off against measured amounts of skepticism, measured doses of irony. For Browne, to disbelieve a little is to disbelieve all; and on the ocean, without society's assurances, a little disbelief is easy.

Unable to converse fruitfully with himself, Browne is talked to by others. He attends to the voice of his father who has been dead for many years, to the voices of evangelists coming over his ship radio, and then, through the evangelists, to something he dimly feels is the voice of an alien, disapproving God. Self-reliance undone, Browne finds authorities to fill the empty inward space. As Browne's identity dissolves, Stone's prose becomes sparer, toward the end verging on a blank anonymity. Here Browne, in a deserted house on an empty island, reflecting on his inadequacies and on his willingness to cheat in order to win the race, touches on despair:

On this ocean, Browne thought, goodbye to almanacs and hope in Stella Maris and the small rain down. This is a game beyond me. A diver, he felt as though he were breathing from an empty tank. His windpipe contracted in its greed for the thin stream. His gasps went unrewarded. He knelt down on the floor of the house. He felt the suspension of hope and wished for it back. He regretted lying.

The authorial voice is detached, but it is not without elegiacal intimations, not without some respect for Browne.

Left home while Browne goes off to the race is his wife, who also undergoes something of a fall. Like Owen, she looks back to the Vietnam War as the most intense, and even the happiest, part of her life: “She remembered the happiness of youth and the feeling of fuck the world, the proud acceptance of honor, duty, and risk. In spite of everything they had proved life against their pulses then, beat by beat.” Now Anne is conservative, respectable, and reined in. At the start of the book, she's writing for a yachting magazine, rendering airbrushed versions of the kind of voyage that will ruin her husband.

With Owen gone, Anne descends first into liquor. Stone is an American laureate of alcohol. No one is better at portraying the subtle, pleasing enhancements of consciousness, and the sudden self-lacerations, to which liquor soothes the way. Here Anne, not without sympathy from Stone, steps gingerly off the wagon:

Scotch from a decanter. Sipping hers, Anne savored the tawny glow of the lamps and the bright apartment and the heavy-browed elegance of the unhappy man across the room from her. Drinking it, she soon missed her clear head and regretted the wasted days of self-denial. In spite of that, the drink made her feel better. Owen, she thought, what have you left me to?

To Strickland, among other things: it is not long before Anne descends into an affair with the filmmaker. She is drawn to Strickland out of hopes for more life, as a way of toppling her boredom. Strickland comes after Anne, a woman he calls “a big creamy bitch,” at least in part to tear down her high-toned self-image. He wants her to understand that she's not so unlike Pamela, the prostitute who is Strickland's intermittent sidekick. (“She looked capable of anything,” Strickland thinks observing Pamela, “at the point of becoming either the perpetrator of a major felony or the victim of one.”) Strickland's appetite for the “truth” acts up here: he takes it as a personal affront when he encounters anyone who doesn't know the worst about himself or herself, and where possible he offers tutelage.

Soon he has Anne broken down. She crops her hair close to her head (“for disgrace,” she says, more truly than she's aware) and takes to wearing tight silk out of deference to Strickland's tastes. (“Silk. Skin. Something visual. So we can see where everything is.”) Anne's visual transformation, I assume, is the erotic equivalent of Owen's own surrender of himself and willingness to cheat. What the ocean does to Owen, Strickland does to Anne. In neither case does it take long. In neither case is the resistance offered anything to marvel at.

And it is the relative ease with which Owen and Anne come apart that makes the book something less than tragic. Though Stone sometimes pulls back and makes a nasty pronouncement about the Brownes, in general he takes pains to inhabit them as sympathetically as possible; in this regard he is distinct from Strickland, who will surely take every opportunity, small and great, to humiliate Anne and Owen in his film. Still, by choosing the Brownes, and particularly Owen, to represent the middle class in a book that aims to be an allegory of American life now, Stone is, I think, emulating Strickland with a reduction of his own.

For Stone could have picked a smarter and hipper character to fill Browne's place. By creating a character with Browne's particular defects, Stone has made his own conclusions about the general ineptitude of the comfortable classes seem a little rigged, a little too easy to achieve. (In A Flag for Sunrise, by contrast, Stone came up with Holliwell, a figure of genuine, if flawed, feeling and intelligence, who succeeds in implicating the reader in ways that Browne cannot.) By using Browne, Stone barred his novel from reaching an authentically tragic dimension, prevented it from rising far above the limits of Strickland's art. Moment to moment, Outerbridge Reach surpasses the filmmaker in subtlety and tact, but in its overall design, it is the work of someone who is satisfied with setting up a large target and then blowing it away.

Christopher Caldwell (review date 27 April 1992)

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SOURCE: Caldwell, Christopher. “The Intrepid Traveler.” National Review 44, no. 8 (27 April 1992): 49-50.

[In the following review, Caldwell praises Outerbridge Reach, commending Stone's moral concerns but citing weaknesses in the novel's narrative structure.]

Robert Stone's characters have cleaned up their act in the last two decades. In his National Book Award—winning Dog Soldiers (1974), for example, they worried about what routes to take to smuggle heroin out of Vietnam, how many Dilaudids to pop for breakfast, and what kind of automatic weaponry to bring to meet the police. In his newest book, Outerbridge Reach, they worry about prep-school tuition, the ozone layer, and how to cover margin when the Dow drops fifty points.

Owen Browne (Annapolis '68), Mr. Stone's latest hero, is, as one associate puts it, “clean cut but serious. Serious but not weird.” He fought bravely and proudly in Vietnam along with his friends, the “last good children of their time,” and made a successful life for himself. He writes ad copy for a yacht company, sails in his free time, knows “Dover Beach” by heart, loves Melville and Elgar, and subscribes to The American Spectator.

Yet Browne is weary, on the wagon, and in mid-midlife crisis as the book opens. His marriage is under strain, if solid, and he is beginning to feel something of a nostalgia for Vietnam, where danger imposed a code of conduct and values that was ultimately liberating. Without that imperative, Browne is adrift, and beset by a consuming and nameless dread. Jokes and accidents bring it home: it is a “fear of failing from the inside out.”

Matty Hylan, who—like Godot or, more to the point, God—never appears in the book, offers Browne a way out. Hylan, the owner of the yacht company Browne works for, a “millionaire vulgarian in the contemporary mode,” is heading toward Chapter 11 by chapter 6, and disappears in a Maxwellian shroud of mystery. When he drops out of a solo around-the-world yacht race, Browne volunteers to replace him.

In a recent interview, Mr. Stone recalled the first sentence of the Blue-Jackets' Manual he used in the Navy in the 1950s: “The sea isn't inherently dangerous, but it is unforgiving.” Too unforgiving to be faced by oneself. And Browne, with no company on his voyage but the broadcasts of a blind South African Morse-code hobbyist (“repeat zulu 1800 description playboy centerfold august 1989 over”) and an English short-wave evangelist (“Are you a covenant keeper or a covenant breaker? … How lovely it would be if all our listeners were covenant keepers”), is out of humanity's reach: he must finish his journey alone.

It's difficult to pull off the story of a solitary journey, and Mr. Stone doesn't quite. The book cleaves uncomfortably in two: one part on the preparations for the race, one on the race itself. His technique of introducing characters obliquely and bringing them together in explosive situations is less dramatic here than in his other books: Browne is too remote for the second half, and the carryings-on of his wife and associates an ocean away seem less a part of his quixotic journey than a running postmodern counterpoint to it. This is not to mention the difficulties inherent in writing a philosophical novel about honor and truth when “the world [is] no longer safe for good manners.”

Yet no author writing today has a better understanding of the grey area where human desire and ambition meet ineluctable circumstance, and none has a better claim to be taken seriously as a moralist. Browne's ruminations on board take on a relentless logic, albeit a convoluted, hallucinatory, and suicidal one. His obsession—and the problem for all of Mr. Stone's characters—is how to make moral choices when one is unsure of what one believes, how to act decisively before all the facts are in. It is a particularly American obsession, this craving for codes of conduct. And those familiar with Mr. Stone's other books will recognize it as the goad that pushes his characters into Zen, astrology, Alcoholics Anonymous, auspication, and radical ideologies. It also leads them into rash and blind acts of escapism; not just booze and drugs but also Converse's decision to smuggle heroin in Dog Soldiers, and Holliwell's Central American cloak-and-dagger work in A Flag for Sunrise.

Even Ron Strickland, the glib documentary filmmaker ready to cut through any dogma and knock anyone off his moral high horse, is blind. Convinced the world is on the make, and intimate with whores and other lowlife, he is unimpressed by the “idealism” of the aid workers who travel to Nicaragua to sleep with Sandinista leaders. He is impatient with his left-wing assistant, who thinks Annapolis looks “fascist.” (“I don't find this place particularly fascist. … The Guggenheim Museum is fascist. This is about something else.”) He sees through the heroism and poetry of Browne's quest to its pathos and escapism. Yet when Strickland falls in love with Browne's wife, Anne, it becomes clear that there is a hole in his heart where something else should be, and that that something else is the kind of “traditional” loyalty in love that the Navy and marriage have taught Browne:

The trouble was, Strickland decided, that his work was too much like things. People required their illusions. … On the other hand, he thought, perhaps that was not the problem. Perhaps the trouble was that things had some aspect he could not perceive. … The other aspect of things might be routinely visible to the average a— in the street.

When Strickland tries to convince Anne to run off with him in her husband's absence, she leans on that “routinely visible aspect” and offers a refusal straight out of Beckett:

“We have to go on living,” Strickland said. “Remember that.”

She agreed absolutely. Somehow, she thought, he failed to understand that this was the problem.

John Sutherland (review date 22 May 1992)

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SOURCE: Sutherland, John. “In Dangerous Waters.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4651 (22 May 1992): 28.

[In the following review, Sutherland criticizes Stone for failing to acknowledge his debt to the documented true story of ill-fated sailor Donald Crowhurst in Outerbridge Reach, upon which the novel is apparently based.]

Robert Stone started writing relatively late in life and has accumulated his now considerable reputation slowly. His first published novel, A Hall of Mirrors, came out in 1967. A study of moral decay in New Orleans, it established Stone as a Catholic novelist of the Greenian, “why this is hell, nor am I out of it” mould. A Hall of Mirrors was filmed as WUSA in 1970, starring Paul Newman. The movie helped out Stone on the large cultural map and raised expectations for his second novel, Dog Soldiers (1974). Coinciding as it did with the dirty Peace with Honour years, Dog Soldiers projected a truly infernal vision of modern America. Taking as its starting-point national defeat in Vietnam (Stone had visited the war as a reporter in 1971), the novel showed an extraordinary inwardness with the seamy depths of American drug culture. It established Stone as a novelist of international stature.

Since Dog Soldiers, Stone's own career has taken a downward turn, as he has unsuccessfully sought scenarios that can bear the crushing weight of his spiritual despair. And Outerbridge Reach, his fifth novel, will not, I fear, arrest the decline. The story is easily summarized. A Donald Trump-like playboy resolves to compete in a round-the-world solo sailing race, to publicize a new line of yacht his firm has developed. There is a financial scandal, and the playboy-mariner goes to ground. His place in the race is taken by one of his firm's salesmen. Owen Browne is a veteran of Annapolis and Vietnam, happily married and clean-cut. But inwardly—as his closest friend perceives—he is a seething mass of spiritual discontent.

Browne's firm has recruited a filmmaker to record the voyage from shore. (This dual hero scheme—one who acts and one who watches—is recurrent in Stone's novels.) A decadent hipster, Ron Strickland made his reputation with a documentary satirizing American involvement in Vietnam. Browne's all plastic and fibreglass vessel fails its great test. As he founders in the South Atlantic, he decides to fake his voyage—on the grounds that the only truth at sea is the truth you make. He sabotages his transponder, compiles false logs, and marks time, intending to pick up his competitors on their way back and beat them to the finishing line. But, as he drifts in the empty ocean, religious mania overtakes him, and he walks off his boat having discovered, as he thinks, the secret of the universe. Meanwhile, back on shore, Strickland seduces Mrs Browne.

One can locate the origin of Outerbridge Reach in known features of Stone's past. He served in the US Navy, from 1955 to 58, and sailed to the Antarctic, which provides some of the vivid seascapes in the novel. He is now an enthusiastic yachtsman, as the full-page backplate of the bushy-bearded author at the wheel of his boat testifies. In the formative years in the late 1960s, before he embarked on fiction, Stone based himself mainly in London, as did other young Americans opposed to the war. This was the era of round-the-world sailing mania. In May 1967, Francis Chichester circumnavigated the globe single-handed. Feverish—and in retrospect childish—public excitement was fanned by newspapers, keen to boost circulation by sponsoring this newest manifestation of British pluck. In 1968, the Sunday Times announced a “Great Race” for solo circumnavigators. Posterity has generally forgotten who won the “Golden Globe” (Robin Knox-Johnston). But Donald Crowhurst, who spectacularly failed to win the race, is still legendary. Crowhurst's experimental trimaran failed him. He hid himself in the southern ocean, faked his logs, and intended to pick up the race on the homeward leg and win by fraud. But, in his loneliness, Crowhurst apparently succumbed to religious mania, and walked into the sea, convinced that he had discovered the secret of the universe.

In his foreword, Stone declares that “An episode in this book was suggested by an incident that actually occurred during a circumnavigation race in the mid-1960s. This novel is not a reflection on that incident but a fiction referring to the present day.” This is vague to the point of shiftiness. In its narrative outline and in many of its details, Outerbridge Reach matches exactly the last voyage and death of Donald Crowhurst. In itself, this derivativeness is not culpable. Fiction is forever rewriting history. But Crowhurst's story is not a matter of neutral record. It is not, so to speak, in the public domain. The story of Crowhurst's failure, deceptions and death was the outcome of brilliant detective work by two Sunday Times journalists, Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. Their discovery (much of which was, and remains, hypothetical) was published as The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (1970). For Stone not to mention Crowhurst is understandable; but not to credit the book which ingeniously reconstructed Crowhurst's story—a book on which Stone exclusively draws for the main matter of his novel—is churlish, to say the least. Stone's failure to credit his sources is the more surprising since he seems also to have woven elements of Tomalin's professional career (notably his scathing anti-Vietnam article, “The General goes Zapping Charlie Cong”) into the conception of Ron Strickland. At the end of the novel, Strickland is intending to make a “Strange Last Voyage” film. Tomalin was killed reporting in Israel in 1973. If nothing else, Stone's not entirely satisfactory novel may have the virtue of introducing a new generation of readers to his work.

Francis King (review date 23 May 1992)

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SOURCE: King, Francis. “The Tragedy of a Valour-Ruined Man.” Spectator 268, no. 8550 (23 May 1992): 36-7.

[In the following review, King extols the passages concerning the high-seas adventure in Outerbridge Reach and commends the “noble and grand scale” of the novel.]

In these days of radio communications, satellite tracking and helicopter rescue, to sail single-handed round the world is not as daunting an undertaking as once it used to be. But, as this fine American novel demonstrates, it is still daunting enough. It is particularly daunting for Owen Browne [in Outerbridge Reach], a graduate of the Annapolis naval academy and a Vietnam veteran, since this will be his first experience of taking a yacht out on to the high seas alone. Why then does he attempt something so foolhardy?

One reason is merely circumstance. The millionaire owner of the yacht company for which Browne has been working as salesman suddenly disappears, leaving evidence of gigantic fraud behind him. This millionaire was to take part in a single-handed round-the-world race, in order to win publicity and orders for a new product, built in Finland, of his company. Browne, at the last moment, is invited to replace him.

Another and more important reason is that Browne, having now reached his forties, all at once feels the need to reverse an inexorable decline in his life from the exciting uncertainties of unshackled youth to the dull predictabilities of married middle-age. Here, in the challenge that has fortuitously presented itself, is the opportunity to develop an interior voice, a commanding self able to cope with sea and solitude, so that he can once more become master of his destiny, instead of its vassal.

Contrasted with Browne, with his old-fashioned aspirations and ideals, is Ron Strickland, an ageing hippy, maker of documentary films, whose devotion to his craft excludes any loyalty, respect or compassion for the individuals unlucky enough to be sucked through the lens of his camera. One such individual, observed with a remarkable blend of tartness and compassion, is a rootless, aimless prostitute about whom he has already made a documentary. If Browne represents life's doers, Strickland—at one with the biographer who regards it as his sole duty to drag out the truth, however much that truth may cause suffering to others—represents its cynical commentators. Caught between these two poles is Browne's tough, intelligent, hard-drinking wife Anne, who, her husband having embarked on his heroic odyssey, then embarks on an ignoble odyssey of her own, a love-affair with Strickland, now immersed in making a film about Browne and the race.

Disaster soon overtakes Browne. The boat which he had thought to have been built in Finland turns out to be a botched Korean copy, doomed eventually to disintegrate when struck by mountainous waves and ferocious gales. Is he to retire from the race in ignominy? Or is he to press on, in the certain knowledge that eventually he will drown? He rejects both these alternatives and, in doing so, reveals a flaw in his character no less fatal than the flaw in the boat. He will take refuge in the natural harbour of an uninhabited island off the coast of South America and will there begin to falsify his log, making it appear that he has pushed on, ahead of all competitors. Already half-crazed by isolation, he now goes wholly mad and eventually kills himself. (It is clear that in writing of these events, Stone must have been inspired by a real-life story of similar fraud, madness and suicide, of a few years ago.)

The most absorbing sections describe this voyage, followed by the descent into madness and the death. It is therefore a technical misjudgment that, instead of these sections comprising the main body of the narrative, they should be more in the nature of an annexe to it. The account of everything that goes before Browne sets sail and of Anne's adultery with Strickland after he has done so is handled with great skill; but it distracts the attention from the book's true theme—the tragedy of what Melville (clearly an influence on Stone) called ‘a valour-ruined man’.

Stone's twin preoccupations with the sea and with valour recall not merely Melville but Conrad. There is a moment when Browne is reported as

feeling as though he were standing at the edge of a great darkness with an ear cocked to the wind, attending silence.

There is another when he is infuriated by ‘the spirit of No Can Do—it was everywhere, poisoning life and the country’. Both moments might have been experienced by a Conrad or Melville hero. Similarly, when Browne is three times betrayed—first by his boat, then by his wife and then, most importantly of all, by his own self—the betrayals are such as are common enough in the works of his two great predecessors and exemplars.

This is a book on a noble and grand scale; and if, like its protagonist, it suffers from a major flaw, then that flaw no more invalidates Stone's achievement than Browne's flaw invalidates the essential nobility and grandeur of his character.

Gordon Burn (review date 28 May 1992)

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SOURCE: Burn, Gordon. “Where Mine Is At.” London Review of Books 14, no. 10 (28 May 1992): 20-1.

[In the following review, Burn discusses the links between Stone and Tom Wolfe and criticizes Stone's uncredited use of a published account of the Donald Crowhurst story in Outerbridge Reach.]

When Robert Stone's best-known novel, Dog Soldiers, was published in 1974, there was a small but significant overlap of material with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe's souped-up, superheated journalistic account of the beginnings of the counterculture, published six years earlier. The coincidence of material was in many ways inevitable. Stone had been part of the California bohemian underground grouped around the ‘drug apostle’, Ken Kesey, and his acid-snaffling followers, the Merry Pranksters; and Stone both figures in the narrative of Acid Test and is acknowledged by Wolfe in his Author's Note: ‘There were several excellent writers, in addition to Kesey, who were involved in the Prankster saga … Robert Stone told me a great deal about Kesey's fugitive days in Mexico.’

The stake-out that forms the climax of Dog Soldiers recognisably draws on the six-week-long Pranksters/Hells Angels ‘Trips Festival’ that is one of the set-pieces of Wolfe's book, relocated by Stone from La Honda, California, to a border-village in Mexico; similarly, the character of Dieter in Dog Soldiers is in part based on the Kesey of Acid Test, and Hicks is modelled on Neal Cassady, the link between the old-style Beat life and the new hippy movement. These kinds of dislocation, transposition and cannibalisation of personal experience are, of course, not only permissible in a novel: they are the reasons for the novel's existence in the first place. It is something Wolfe himself, for twenty years a tireless sword-rattler and noisemaker on behalf of the non-fiction novel, accepted late in the day, in an essay published as a postscript to his first extended work of fiction, The Bonfire of the Vanities. ‘I found the sudden freedom of fiction intimidating,’ Wolfe confessed. ‘It was at least a year before I felt comfortable enough to use that freedom's advantages, which are formidable … The economy with which realistic fiction can bring the many currents of a city together in a single, fairly simple story was something that I eventually found exhilarating. It is a facility that is not available to the journalist, and it seems more useful with each passing month.’

This, though, is not the climb-down it seems. Repeatedly in the same essay, Wolfe restates the views that he had first set out in The New Journalism in 1973, and reiterates his belief that ‘at this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.’ Reclaim it, that is, from the ‘Neo-Fabulists and Minimalists’ and writers of ‘faded Audubon prose’, in the name of social realism.

After publishing his Kesey book in 1968, Wolfe writes, he worried that ‘somebody out there was writing a big realistic fictional novel about the hippy experience that would blow The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test out of the water … After all, among the hippies were many well-educated and presumably, not to mention avowedly, creative people.’ After Radical Chic had come out in 1970, ‘once again I braced and waited for the big realistic novels that were sure to be written about this phenomenon that had played such a major part in American life in the late Sixties and-early Seventies: racial strife in the cities.’

Once again the years rolled by, and these novels never appeared. Throughout the Seventies, in common with ‘half the publishers in America’, Wolfe scanned ‘the billion-footed city for the approach of the young novelists who, surely, would bring [us] the big novels of the racial clashes, the hippy movement, the New Left, the Wall Street boom, the sexual revolution, the war in Vietnam. But such creatures, it seemed, no longer existed.’

But this was to ignore, or discount, his informant on the Kesey book, Robert Stone, all of whose novels had taken as their subjects exactly those ‘big, rich slices of contemporary life’ that, as late as 1990, Wolfe was complaining had been cold-shouldered by writers of serious fiction. A Hall of Mirrors, for instance, Stone's first novel, published in 1967 when he was 30, was an epic attempt to cram all the major issues of the Sixties into a single narrative. ‘A Hall of Mirrors was something I shattered my youth against,’ Stone has said and, reading it, you can believe that. The narrow subject is right-wing extremism and race hatred in the American South. Its larger purpose is to bring back the news of the pop-apocalyptic cultural revolution ripping through America. Dog Soldiers (1974) is Vietnam replayed in Southern California. It follows a three-kilo assignment of heroin and a number of deadhead drifters up, down and across America, and explores the social fall-out of the drugs revolution pioneered by Kesey and Stone's friends in the Merry Pranksters. A Flag for Sunrise (1981) tackles United States adventurism in Central America. Children of Light (1986) is about the dream factories of Hollywood.

Perhaps what makes Stone ineligible for inclusion in the Wolfe canon is that, while his novels have the sheen of social realism, they are not ‘realistic’ in the sense of being the products of a steady and relentless accumulation of detail that is itself the result of dedicated pavement-pounding and on-the-spot legwork.

From the beginning Stone's central subject has been young, bombed, directionless, wasted, disillusioned America—‘the desperate, ruthless, wandering, savage part of American life’, in Truman Capote's words. And so cosmic preoccupations, heavily mysto speculations about the Big Picture, keep breaking through the conventional surface of the narrative like fat wax-headed weeds through city tarmac. Tom Wolfe used a combination of stream of consciousness, saturation reporting and his trademark typographical fireworks to try to get across what it was like to be inside the head of somebody experiencing an acid flash. But Wolfe was a visiting fireman on this scene; Stone was an accredited, paid-up member. Robert Stone novels, like the people in them, have a tendency to lurch between the focused and specific, and the apparently improvised and spacey. He has a habit of bombarding the reader with a welter of (usually) inconsequential and cumulatively surreal details about the life of a character who, after a couple of pages, may be immediately sucked back into obscurity. ‘What's going on out there,’ somebody in A Hall of Mirrors says, ‘is there are like a few billion people walking around and every one of them has a head with a lot of stuff going on in it.’ ‘I want to find out about humanness,’ another says. ‘What it is. Where mine is at and how I can keep it there when I find out.’

The stoned rap, the junky jabber, is something of a Robert Stone speciality. His people talk like people who don't know where they are a lot of the time, and a lot of the time they don't. They consume vast quantities of drugs and drink and, like Smitty, one of the gutter sociopaths in Dog Soldiers, sometimes think they've been in Vietnam when they haven't.

That's his way of making out, you know what I mean? He meets a chick and right away she's hearing about the atrocities. “And then I machine-gunned all the kids. And then I strangled all their grannies. And then we set the mayor on fire” … The more ghastly, the more horrible, the more they love it.

Stone was in Vietnam at the end of the Sixties, reporting for the Guardian, and his experience of the war has become like a climate that pervades his fiction. ‘It has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting-place for the diverse activities of people whom no tradition controls,’ as Virginia Woolf once said of sport in the work of Ring Lardner.

Although, according to its foreword, Outerbridge Reach, Stone's new novel, is ‘a fiction referring to the present day’, Vietnam still leaks a constant drizzle into the life of Owen Browne, ex-US-Navy and war veteran and now a yacht salesman and advertising copywriter in the grip of some unnameable but debilitating midlife tristesse. This, together with a staling, non-specifically dysfunctional marriage to Anne, a scribbler for the kind of ‘slick yuppie’ periodicals her husband detests, and Mags, an adolescent daughter who treats him with undisguised contempt, persuades Owen to set off to sail single-handed round the world in a gimcrack boat built for weekend jaunts. Some Emersonian strain is obviously intended-here, some evocation of the venerable American cultural myth of continuous exploration, a sense of the archetypal American as an adventurer searching out the furthermost reaches of life. But to anybody familiar with the case of Donald Crowhurst and, more particularly, with The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, published in 1970, Stone's book raises increasingly uncomfortable questions about when fair use of research material crosses the border into unfair appropriation.

As the line separating fact and fiction grows progressively fainter because of the volume of traffic across it, it is becoming common practice for novelists to acknowledge their sources. At the beginning of The Child in Time, for example, Ian McEwan lists Christina Hardyment's Dream Babies, David Bohm's Wholeness and the Implicate Order and Joseph Chilton Pearce's Magical Child. In Time's Arrow, Martin Amis acknowledges, among a number of others, Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors, Lawrence Shainberg's Brain Surgeon and ‘the works of Primo Levi, in particular If This Is a Man,The Truce,The Drowned and the Saved and Moments of Reprieve’. It is no longer acceptable, if it ever was, to regard journalists and other toilers in the seams of non-fiction as ‘day labourers who dig up slags of raw information for writers of higher “sensibility” to make better use of’ (Wolfe again). There is a disclaimer in Outerbridge Reach which says that ‘an episode in the book was suggested by an incident that actually occurred during a circumnavigation race in the mid-Sixties. This novel is not a reflection on that incident.’ The text includes references to Sir Francis Chichester (who called Donald Crowhurst's doomed voyage ‘the sea drama of the century’), Sir Alec Rose, Joshua Slocum, Vito Dumas and other famous sailors: but the name ‘Crowhurst’ is never mentioned. As the only British writer represented in The New Journalism (with a 1966 Sunday Times piece from Vietnam), Nicholas Tomalin would have been no stranger to Tom Wolfe's view that it was possible for the writer of non-fiction to get completely inside the ‘subjective reality’ of the person or event he was reporting; the aim was to take the reader ‘inside the points of view or central nervous systems’ of the characters, to penetrate their ‘mental atmosphere’.

In The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, Tomalin and Hall recognise that ‘there is a temptation to … re-create imaginatively thoughts and attitudes of protagonists that can never be known with absolute certainty (how can one tell precisely what was in the mind of a sailor alone at sea?).’ Crowhurst is a book of considerable literary ambition, but its authors restrict themselves to a diet of verifiable information. ‘If, despite this rigorous approach,’ they add, ‘the book should have some of the flavour of a novel, it is simply because the actual sequence of events had the shape and inevitability of fictional tragedy.’

Like Donald Crowhurst, Owen Browne is a flake beset by money worries; like Crowhurst, Browne is under-equipped and under-prepared for his solo circumnavigation of the world; like Crowhurst's boat, Teignmouth Electron, Browne's boat, Nona, starts falling apart the first time it is nudged by anything bigger than a ripple; like Crowhurst, Browne starts giving false positions to the organisers of the race and keeping a false log; like Crowhurst, he deliberately closes down all communication with the outside world and starts dawdling in the South Atlantic; like Crowhurst, he suffers an extended period of delusional torment before turning himself over to the sharks.

Numerous small incidents from the Tomalin/Hall book which throw light on Crowhurst's and his wife's characters are discernible in Outerbridge Reach. Crowhurst accidentally falls overboard in the course of his boat's maiden voyage, and so does Owen Browne. ‘For 12 hours he sat at … his chart table with his bucket beside him, retching every few minutes,’ write Tomalin/Hall. ‘Every few minutes he had to turn away from work to retch over a bucket,’ writes Stone. Clare Crowhurst ‘borrowed a carrier bag from the Royal Hotel and filled it with a hotel meal … She also included a long, personal letter. She took the carrier bag and carefully placed it on Donald's bunk’ (Tomalin/Hall). ‘I will give him a letter,’ Anne Browne ‘thought, to read at sea’ (Stone). ‘“If you give up now,” Clare said, “will you be unhappy for the rest of your life?” Donald did not answer but started to cry. He wept until morning. During that last night he had less than five minutes' sleep’ (Tomalin/Hall). ‘Lying in the dark he wanted more than anything not to go, wanted it with an intensity that made him feel like weeping. His heart raced. Anne stirred beside him and he was tempted, in his black panic, to awaken her. Then he realised she was awake’ (Stone). One idea was ‘that Donald and Clare Crowhurst should visit a waterside chapel for a few moments of silent, photographed prayer just before the departure. Donald, without Clare, was finally lured to the chapel. Hallworth still has pictures of him there, refusing to pray’ (Tomalin/Hall). ‘According to Duffy's plan, Browne would spend his last minutes ashore in prayerful meditation in the chapel at the Seamen's Welfare Association farther down South Street. “But it's bullshit,” Browne said amiably. “Because I don't happen to be a church-going fella.” “That's true, Owen,” Duffy said quickly. “It's bullshit but that's no reflection on you”’ (Stone).

Even the secondary plot of Stone's novel has precedents in the Bell and Howell 16mm camera and Uher tape-recorder which the BBC gave to Crowhurst to use on his trip. Strickland, a media glibber with avant-garde aspirations, has been hired to make a film of the Owen Browne saga for showing on television. Strickland's relations with Mrs Browne, and with another former ‘project’, a spaced-out prostitute called Pamela, seem to have been devised by Stone as a way of rehearsing some of his characteristic stylistic riffs. But the writing in these sections remains as becalmed as in most of the rest of the book.

Robert Phillips (review date autumn 1992)

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SOURCE: Phillips, Robert. “Making Sense of What Takes Place.” Hudson Review 45, no. 3 (autumn 1992): 491-98.

[In the following excerpt, Phillips argues that Outerbridge Reach is a successfully engaging narrative due to Stone's use of meticulous detail.]

“I know of almost no pleasure greater than having a piece of fiction draw together disparate incidents so that they relate to one another and confirm that feeling that life itself is a creative process,” John Cheever wrote in one of his letters; “that one thing is put purposefully upon another, that what is lost in one encounter is replenished in the rest, and that we possess some power to make sense of what takes place.” The best of the following works of fiction accomplish just that, and when a novel or story fails, it often may be because the writer failed to “make sense of what takes place.” The reader is left with inconclusive evidence. …

Joseph Conrad's credo as fiction writer—“A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line”—applies to Robert Stone's work as well. His new novel is especially Conradian in the manner, through the written word, he convinces the reader that he or she is seeing, hearing, and feeling his scenes and characters. In Lord Jim, Conrad spoke of “the meticulous precision of statement,” for that alone can “bring out the true horror behind the appalling face of things.” Stone achieves such a precision. On every page of Outerbridge Reach he gives us the details necessary to believe his fiction. “That winter was the warmest in a hundred years,” is the novel's first sentence, and immediately the reader begins to relate. Yes, it was, we say, and go on to encounter a falling stock market, polluted waters, further unnatural weather, in a world where nothing seems to work any more.

The hero is Owen Browne, an Annapolis graduate and Vietnam veteran, a former golden boy of whom the author says, “He and his friends had been the last good children of their time.” After them came the hippies, the flower children, the yuppies, the dinks … And that is part of the reason for Browne's discontent. His moment never seems to have come. The beginning of the novel finds him fortysomething, married to the same woman for twenty years, and the father of an insolent teenage daughter. He is resigned to his private unrest. He feels a personal failure in a homeland which fails to function as a community or cause, a land pervaded by the spirit of No Can Do. The rat-infested marshes of Outerbridge Reach seem to symbolize these failures: “He remembered scraps of the place's history. Thousands of immigrants had died there, in shanties, of cholera, in winter far from home. It had been a place of loneliness, violence, and terrible labor …”

The novel revolves about a triangle and a challenge. The triangle involves Browne, the honorable honest man, his wife, and Ron Strickland, a dishonorable and dishonest filmmaker who exploits others and would push his grandmother down a flight of stairs if he thought it would make a good sequence on film. The challenge occurs when Browne agrees to participate in a solo circumnavigation race for which he is inadequately skilled and prepared, having only once sailed alone from West Palm Beach to North Carolina. That time he had suffered both fatigue and hallucinations. Yet Browne accepts the challenge, seeing it as an opportunity to get a hold on his life, to accomplish something visible and solid.

The novel breaks neatly into two halves, before the race and during the race. The chapters alternate between the Brownes and Strickland. The scene and mood shift from highly civilized Connecticut and Manhattan to the elemental world of the sea. Once underway, Browne has close calls with an enormous shark, a plague of insects, and floating icebergs. His problems become almost mythical, while the sailboat on which he has staked his life turns out to be jerrybuilt: “He was riding a decomposing piece of plastic through an Antarctic storm.”

Stone brings to bear numerous literary allusions to illuminate Browne's plight. Among them are quotations from Shakespeare, Marlowe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hart Crane, and of course Melville. For the jacket and title page, the publishers have chosen a Rockwell Kent nautical illustration, Hail and Farewell, and it is highly appropriate, since so many of my generation first read Moby Dick in the Modern Library Giant edition filled with Kent's woodcuts. Like Melville's great novel, Stone's also employs the sea as his image of reality, which ultimately is ungraspable. Like Moby Dick,Outerbridge Reach is a parable on life and existence, with emphasis on all that eludes and crushes the human spirit, all that is out of reach. Both Ahab and Browne become mad in their pursuits. Just as Pip counsels Ahab, the ghost of Browne's father advises him.

It has been written by Dominic Loehnis in The New York Observer (May 25, 1992), that Stone's novel not only echoes Conrad and Melville, but also “commands greater comparison with a book called The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, an account of an around-the-world yachtsman who disappeared in 1969. It was written by two British journalists, the late Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall …” The acknowledgments page of Stone's novel bears the statement, “An episode in the book was suggested by an incident that actually occurred during a circumnavigation race in the mid-60s. This novel is not a reflection on that incident but a fiction referring to the present day.” Loehnis and Ron Hall would have us believe there are more parallels between the two books than “an episode” or “an incident.” And 1969 is not the “mid-60s.” Whatever its sources and inspirations (and they may not matter), Outerbridge Reach is a compelling novel attempting to make sense of what takes place in a world out of control.

Jon Saari (review date fall 1992)

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SOURCE: Saari, Jon. Review of Outerbridge Reach, by Robert Stone. Antioch Review 50, no. 4 (fall 1992): 771-72.

[In the following review, Saari contends that Stone is a “writer of rare power” who successfully examines the darker side of human nature in works such as Outerbridge Reach.]

This novel [Outerbridge Reach] continues the themes that run through all of Stone's books and reinforces why he is regarded as a writer of rare power. He persuades through his understanding of the darker side of human motivation, and his literary progenitors are clearly Melville and Hawthorne. In this new novel the classic themes of obsession and confrontation with the unknown and evil take a new twist when atypical Stone protagonists—upright Owen Browne and his wife, Anne—leave their sheltered middle-class existence and seek a future of risk and danger.

Usually Stone characters like teetering on the edge of life and its possibilities by actively inviting disaster. Owen is an Annapolis graduate and Vietnam veteran whose attitude towards life is decidedly out of step with his generation. He lives without ambiguity while feeling an incompleteness about the meaning of his own life. When through a fluke he has the opportunity to sail around the world in a competition, he sees it as a chance to prove himself even though he lacks the necessary sailing experience. A seriously flawed boat complicates his quest for redemption.

Owen's employer has hired Ron Strickland, a maker of documentaries, to film the competition. Originally Owen's boss was to compete, but he has vanished, leaving his financial empire in jeopardy. Strickland knows that in time all of his subjects give themselves away, revealing their pretensions and absurd values. His job is to document (and expose) their foibles. Strickland makes, as one character tells him, films about his attitude towards his subjects and not reflections about things as they are. Strickland sees his nihilism as a mark of his superiority and plots to discredit Owen and win over Anne.

At sea Owen encounters a level of existence that leads him to meet head on demons long buried within him. After surviving a devastating gale, he gains the freedom he has not afforded himself on land, and he must decide how to extricate himself from the consequences of his actions. What Owen does is best left unsaid here. Through the help of her father, Anne revenges her adultery with Strickland who underestimated her resolve to protect her husband from a film that would expose his duplicity. Stone knows how to capture inner rage even in characters whose life plan has been to keep it buried and silent.

George Packer (essay date winter 1993)

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SOURCE: Packer, George. “Robert Stone: The Funny Apocalypse.” Dissent 40, no. 1 (winter 1993): 115-19.

[In the following essay, Packer provides an overview of Stone's novels, thematic concerns, and character types, noting that although Children of Light and Outerbridge Reach are weaker than his first three novels, Stone's visionary critique of American society remains underappreciated by a majority of critics.]

For a quarter century Robert Stone has been the American Baudelaire—poète maudit of Catholic mysticism and controlled substances, critic of modern folly, romantic pessimist in love with apocalypse. His five novels are all alike in structure and atmosphere, carrying two or three characters through a tense, incremental convergence toward catastrophe; taken together, they diagnose sick America in the rush and crash and flashback of Vietnam, which reverberates through all his work. And like Dos Passos and Faulkner and Bellow and Mailer, Stone writes novels that demand to be taken together. They don't simply create distinct imaginary worlds—though they do this with the kind of indelible power that can be dangerous for young novelists; they also attempt a sustained commentary on American life. Stone begins at the time when Bellow went sour, in the sixties, and everything he's written carries the marks of that traumatic birth: not skeptical humanism but lofty fatalism, closer perhaps to Melville, among American novelists, than to any of Stone's contemporaries.

Such a writer is rare enough these days, since ideas are now taken to be examples of bad writing, and an important subject is a sign of bad taste. A good deal of the praise Stone has received throughout his career carries a sort of unquestioning gratitude: at last, here's one in the grand tradition—an ambitious novelist, and readable too. What Stone actually says about American life often gets overlooked; enough that he says anything at all.

From time to time one of his characters tries to articulate a vision, too obliquely or too explicitly, in vernacular or highbrow terms, with which Stone is equally at ease. Here is Rheinhardt, the nihilistic hero of A Hall of Mirrors (1966), high on pot and whipping a New Orleans stadium full of right-wing fanatics into a frenzy:

Americans, our shoulders are broad and sweaty but our breath is sweet. When your American soldier fighting today drops a napalm bomb on a cluster of gibbering chinks, it's a bomb with a heart. In the heart of that bomb, mysteriously but truly present, is a fat old lady on her way to see the world's fair. This lady is as innocent as she is fat and motherly. This lady is our nation's strength. This lady's innocence if fully unleashed could defoliate every forest in the torrid zone.

Here are Converse and Hicks, the ex-Marines of Dog Soldiers (1974), planning to smuggle heroin home from Vietnam:

“You'd better be careful,” Hicks told him. “It's gone funny in the states.”

“It can't be funnier than here.”

“Here everything's simple,” Hicks said. “It's funnier there.”

Or Holliwell, the liberal anthropologist in A Flag for Sunrise (1981), delivering a drunken lecture on the two American cultures to a scandalized audience in Central America:

We have quite another culture concealed behind the wooden nutmeg and the flash that we're selling. It's a secret culture. … Our secret culture is as frivolous as a willow on a tombstone. It's a wonderful thing—or it was. It was strong and dreadful, it was majestic and ruthless. It was stranger to pity. And it's not for sale, ladies and gentlemen. … Underneath it all, our secret culture, the non-exportable one, is dying. It's going sour and we're going to die of it. We'll die of it quietly around our own hearths while our children laugh at us. So, no more Mickey Mouse, amigos.

Or Gordon Walker, the burned-out screenwriter in Children of Light (1986), embarrassed in the act of doing cocaine by a Mexican painter:

“A case could certainly be made,” Walker said, “that it's bad for the Indians. In terms of exploitation.”

Maldonado waved the argument away.

“It's neither good nor bad for the Indians. It makes no difference for them. It's ourselves and our societies that we're destroying.”

“That's as it should be,” Walker said.

Or Owen Browne, the Vietnam veteran in Stone's most recent novel, Outerbridge Reach (1992), lying awake with night thoughts after watching a public-television film on Cuba:

The documentary had been no different from a hundred other programs that had offended Browne with their liberal humility and left-wing bias. But the vision of its imagined country, a homeland that could function as both community and cause, was one that remained with him. Browne felt his own country had failed him in that regard. It was agreeable to think such a place might exist, even as home to the enemy. But no such place existed.

The war would never be fought because the enemy had proved false. All his fierce alternatives were lies. Surely, Browne thought sleepily, this was a good thing. Yet something was lost. For his own part, he was tired of living for himself and those who were him by extension. It was impossible, he thought. Empty and impossible. He wanted more.

Or Stone himself, writing recently in the New York Times:

Having hung on and outlasted every conceivable variety of ancient villainy and foreign “ism” what use can we make of our victory? Over the long process of defining America we seem to have reached a point at which our nation signifies the virtual apotheosis of the interested self.

It's worth trying to work out the common vision that produced these various statements, because Stone's strengths as a writer have always been bound up with his subject matter, and so have his flaws. Of his five novels, the two most recent are noticeably weaker and thinner. A hundred factors may account for this, but perhaps the most revealing is the change in Stone's subject itself, which he once called America and Americans.

Stone's work offers several kinds of thrill: complicated cinematic plots packed with tense excitement, frightening images of various hells, and the intellectual reach provided by characters who can articulate the meaning of their own destruction. Sophistication and low life together, terror and irony, Shakespeare and skag, create the distinct moral atmosphere of his work. You know you're in a Robert Stone novel when the captain of a motor yacht running contraband guns quotes Hamlet on Divine Providence as he reaches for another Flor de Cana. Stone achieves much of his irony by contrasting a somewhat formal expository style with the terse vernacular of the dialogue or that formal style with the grim absurdity of the content it conveys, as in this moment between the two heroin smugglers of Dog Soldiers:

[Converse] reached over, picked up the Portable Nietzsche which Hicks had set on the chair beside his, and inspected the front and back covers. There was something slightly contemptuous about the way he looked at it.

“You still into this?”

“Sure,” Hicks said.

Converse laughed. He looked wasted and flushed; there was pain in his eyes compounded of booze, fever, and fear.

“Jesus,” he said. “That's really fucking piquant.”

“I don't know what that means,” Hicks said.

“Inspected,” “slightly contemptuous,” “compounded of,” “piquant”—they raise the tone a little higher than fits the scene, so that at the flatness of “wasted,” “booze,” and the dialogue, it has all the farther to fall. In Dog Soldiers Stone's ironic mode almost never lets up, but in all the novels there is at least one character who either shares Stone's fascination with human sordidness and folly or is himself so “funny,” “wigged out,” so much “the thing itself” (favorite phrases of Stone's), that his every profanity affords his creator this sort of distance.

Stone's central characters fall loosely into two types—ironists and seekers. The former seem closest to the writer's own consciousness and provide moral commentary on their situation and the larger world; the latter are generally either psychopaths or women (or, as in the case of the mad film actress of Children of Light, both). The former survive ignobly; the latter violently perish. “He was the celebrated living dog,” Stone writes of John Converse, “preferred over dead lions.” Like all of Stone's ironists, Converse—“a funny little fucker”—makes one “half-assed” and fateful attempt to overcome his bone-deep fear of life and stake a grander vision. In his case, it's his decision to smuggle three kilograms of heroin into California. Converse's attempt ends badly, bringing terror into his life and death to Hicks, the novel's Zen-deluded seeker. The ironists fail not just out of poor judgment and incompetence but because they don't believe fervently enough and are paralyzed before greatness by their awareness of the ultimate futility of “things”—an overused word that stands for reality, raw mindless matter, and, at times, a sinister metaphysical force that inhabits it and sabotages every human scheme.

As for the seekers, they want “More,” “Life more abundant.” “In her eyes, the hunger for absolutes,” thinks Holliwell, the anthropologist, of Sister Justin Feeney, the nun who struggles with faith in God and revolution in A Flag for Sunrise, Stone's finest work. “A woman incapable of compromise who had taken on compromise like a hair shirt and never forgiven herself or anyone else, and then rebelled. She could, he thought, have no idea what that look would evoke in the hearts of smaller weaker people, clinging to places of power. She was Enemy, Nemesis, Cassandra. She was in real trouble.” Justin, being a seeker, a woman, and guileless, is doomed. And her real trouble is Holliwell himself. Like Converse, Holliwell makes a gesture toward the life of action and meaning: he goes, at the request of a CIA friend, to Sister Justin's mission in Tecan, a Central American country about to blow. His plan is to spy not for the government but for himself, “to see people who believed in things, and acted in the world according to what they believed.” But it's an ambiguous gesture at best, and when he falls in love with Justin's spirit the ambiguity lands her in the hands of torturers. Holliwell survives, like Stone's other living dogs, with regret, the characteristic emotion, along with fear, of the ironist.

The seekers' end always arrives in an apocalypse, with an ecstatic glimpse of meaning that's like a reproach to the ironists' fallen world of “things.” Sister Justin's death, rendered with the deepest pathos, comes as Tecan's revolution explodes all around, and her last words to her torturer are sublime: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” In the same novel Pablo, the speed-freak Coast Guard deserter, has a demented revelation just before his violent death: “There's a process and I'm in the middle of it. A lot of stuff I do is meant to be.” At the end of Dog Soldiers Hicks feels something similar: dying of a bullet wound sustained in a phantasmagoric shootout, carrying his heroin across the desert flats, he imagines himself bearing Vietnam's and the whole world's pain in a triangle at the base of his skull: “‘All you people,’ Hicks shouted, ‘Let it go! Let it go, you hear! I'm out here now. I got it.’ … So there was always a reason, he thought. There had always been a reason. You never know until the moment comes and there it is.” In Children of Light Lee Verger, the schizophrenic film star pushed over the edge by a visit from her old lover Gordon Walker and his cocaine, drowns herself in the ocean after a storm, quoting Cleopatra and murmuring, “It's bliss.” In Outerbridge Reach Browne, beset by hallucinations and defeated by storms and solitude in a single-handed sailboat race around the world, dies by drowning too, though his final moment is painfully free of illusion: “Jumping, stepping into space, he had to wonder if something might not save him. Somehow he had always believed that something would. He had never realized how much he had believed it. Be out there for me, he thought. Stay my fall. Nothing did.”

The apocalypses toward which Stone drives all his plots break the habitual spell of irony. But in the best of his work irony and apocalypse, ironists and seekers, belong to the same vision. It's a vision of universal misguidedness, confusion, fatal innocence, stupidity, cruelty, randomness. All the characters lose their moral bearings, everyone “fucks up,” and none of it can be accounted for, either in history or in theology. It's simply Stone's instinct, the sort of profound bias at the heart of any important writer's worldview, that “things” are this way. Stone sums it up in the three words everyone who's been in Vietnam keeps repeating through his novels: “There it is”—a cosmic shrug, but much darker and scarier than Kurt Vonnegut's “So it goes.” “Oh, man,” says a character in Dog Soldiers. “Who knows why they do the shit they do?”, and Hicks answers, “The desires of the heart are as crooked as a corkscrew.” “Damn it,” Holliwell says when spooks and local cops demand his reason for being in Tecan, “I don't know quite why I came. … You may live in a world of absolute calculation but I don't.” Holliwell's scorn for the world's “positive thinkers” who “convince themselves that in this whirling tidal pool of existence providence was sending them a message” seems not at all different from Stone's. Instead of providence there is “whirl,” “delusion,” “primary process”; at best “spasms, flashes,” “glintings,” “a slender notion”—“One is only out here in this, whatever it is.” Cosmic pessimism clothed in a strange and harsh vernacular: no wonder Stone sprinkles King Lear on all his novels and drenches Children of Light with it.

Of course, this is partly the worldview of a Catholic experiencing—as all of Stone's Catholics do—a crisis of faith. As Holliwell says, God is no longer “in this place,” and Stone, unlike novelists who have no faith to lose, is left without the possibility of even mundane redemption in political structures or personal relations: take away God and you get whirl. God's absence gives Stone a metaphysical resonance beyond the conventional realism of his style and also sometimes tempts him into the tedious philosophizing of altered mental states, like Father Egan's drunken mysticism that keeps breaking the rhythm of A Flag for Sunrise's last hundred pages. Stone's weakness for his characters' ability to ingest huge quantities of drink and drugs and to turn the portentous, debonair phrase on the brink of disaster somewhat resembles Graham Greene's infatuation with holy sinners and glamorous doom.

The difference is that Stone doesn't despise innocence as Greene does: American innocence isn't Stone's whipping boy, it's his constant subject—an innocence gone “funny” in the sixties funhouse. He raises this theme in his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, when the alcoholic musician Rheinhardt declares at the climactic Patriotic Revival: “American innocence shall rise in mighty clouds of vapor to the scent of heaven and confound the nations!” As the drug-driven speech goes on, the vapor of innocence thickens into napalm and bigotry: our faith in ourselves as messengers of providence will destroy the world. But it would be a mistake to equate this with the facile black humor of Stone's sixties contemporaries. Stone's irony is merciless with the consequences of American innocence—in the South, in California, in Central America, above all, in Vietnam—yet unlike the novelists Bellow called the “wastelanders,” he is fundamentally earnest and capable of tragedy and pathos. Nothing moves him quite as much as the reach, hope, and folly that only innocence on the grand scale could produce. “We believed we knew more about great unpeopled spaces than any other European nation,” Holliwell intones during his drunken lecture. “We believed that no one wished and willed as hard as we, and that no one was so able to make wishes true. We believed we were more. More was our secret watchword.”

America is sick, but its sickness grows out of its greatness. Stone's nuns, drunks, soldiers, and intellectuals never fail to ruin themselves and those around them, but they do it on an impressive scale, with heart. They are true to the dreams of their youth, even though sooner or later the dreams turn into nightmare. Stone strips his people bare, but he does it with love.

This isn't just the vision of a Catholic more attracted to the fall than grace. It carries the odor of a particular period. I was only ten or eleven in the San Francisco Bay area of Dog Soldiers, yet the novel's most trivial details, the “leatherette black coats and pastel slouch hats” of drinkers in a dive bar, the hollow bits of hippie conversation, perfectly convey the mood of the moment when the sixties were ending and colorful San Francisco bled into seedy Oakland.

It was a period well suited to Stone's vision, for irony and apocalypse, grandeur and fuck-ups often seemed indistinguishable. Drugs provide an apt vehicle for this vision because they always lead to either absurdity or exaltation and sometimes to both: his drug scenes give Stone his bitterest pieces of social criticism and his most poetic evocations of the urge to find a level higher than “things.” One drug or another characterizes all his novels save the most recent, and the choice of drug mirrors the shifts in Stone's themes: marijuana suits the relatively innocent fantasies of the hipsters and hippies in A Hall of Mirrors; heroin suits the hallucinatory dangers that Dog Soldiers traffics from Vietnam to California; speed suits the angry betrayal and dispiritedness of the soldiers of fortune in A Flag for Sunrise.

The drug that controls Children of Light is cocaine. It is, of course, a fitting drug for a novel about movie people in the eighties. In an essay on cocaine Stone called it a “success” drug, bound up with selfishness, greed, and narcissism. It leaves little room for any goal higher than the “interested self.” It's impossible to imagine one of the coke-addled beautiful people in Children of Light experiencing the cosmic altruism of Hicks's trip across the desert flats at the end of Dog Soldiers. And this change in drug signals a shift in Stone's vision of the American sickness. His fourth and fifth novels—Children of Light and Outerbridge Reach—are populated less with seekers and ironists than with corrupt, venal, narrow-spirited salesmen, publicists, agents, entertainment dealers, Hollywood and corporate shills. “Unusual times demand unusual hustles” was Rheinhardt's motto in A Hall of Mirrors, but the hustles now are thoroughly ordinary and vicious. The vision here, curiously old-fashioned, is of a society without honor or heroism. Stone's tone through the better part of these two novels is humorless and severe and censorious. In Outerbridge Reach, Browne, the Vietnam veteran who has settled into a crushingly comfortable life working for a yacht brokerage, deplores the “snotty, weepy, fearful self, the master of most men. The contemporary God”—sounding very like Stone writing in his recent op-ed of “the general erosion of every imaginable standard beyond self-interest.”

In his two most recent novels Stone identifies America's true betrayal: we have lost our reach for “more”; our original “secret culture” is finally dead, and we have settled for mean and petty pursuits. There are no more apocalyptic fuck-ups, only the almighty dollar and the great I Am. The junkie carrying Vietnam's pain and the nun waiting for revolution to release her from herself have been replaced by the agent doing lunch, the documentary filmmaker out to screw his subject in every way.

I think it's unquestionable that these last two novels show a falling-off from Stone's first three. They are thinner in characterization and thought; the tension of their plots ebbs over the course of extremely short chapters that prevent the sort of richness in setting and scene and inner life of Stone's other novels. Their main characters sometimes disappear in a crowd of minor types whose names are hard to keep straight. It's useful to compare three key moments where a decision is made that will determine the fate of a novel's hero. The first is Converse's decision in Dog Soldiers to smuggle heroin, and it comes at the end of a long meditation about “moral objections” and the memory of helicopter gunships shooting North Vietnamese cargo elephants:

[A]s for dope, Converse thought, and addicts—if the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high.

So there, Converse thought, that's the way it's done. He had confronted a moral objection and overridden it. He could deal with these matters as well as anyone.

But the vague dissatisfaction remained and it was not loneliness or a moral objection; it was, of course, fear. Fear was extremely important to Converse; morally speaking it was the basis of his life. It was the medium through which he perceived his own soul, the formula through which he could confirm his own existence. I am afraid, Converse reasoned, therefore I am.

Here is Holliwell in A Flag for Sunrise:

He knew shortly that he would go to Tecan. There was every reason for it now. He could not face flying home as he was, to the safety of white winter, terrorized, more crippled than when he had come. He had business down there. On the coast near Puerto Alvarado were things to be seen that it was his business to see, his secret business, the business of his dry spirit. He refused to be frightened away.

And here is Browne in Outerbridge Reach:

Browne stayed seated at the table for a while, trying to ponder the results of Hylan's disappearance. All at once the idea came to him of volunteering to enter the race on his own. If he could not sail the boat Hylan was having made in Finland, he might sail the stock model on the floor in front of him. He was sure it was a good boat. He felt a surge of confidence in his own abilities as a sailor. Immediately he began composing, with a pencil on a sheet of lined yellow paper, a letter to Harry Thorne.

The lack of an edge, of emotional intensity or complexity, in the third passage is striking after its counterparts, and in context it's even more pronounced. It signals an attenuation in Stone's subject and language throughout Outerbridge Reach and—a little less so—Children of Light.

Yet, like all of Stone's novels, these finish with rocket bursts: Walker and Lee end up naked, high, and crazy in a pig farm during a Mexican rainstorm, before Lee drowns herself in the Pacific; Browne endures days of hallucination in his sailboat near the South Pole before his suicide in the Atlantic. Neither of these phantasmagoric ends seems driven necessarily by the story that leads to it. Browne in particular, a fairly straight-arrow soldier, husband, father, and salesman, can't bear the thematic and psychic weight Stone ballasts him with once he's at sea. But Stone requires destruction and high drama as much as Hemingway required anticlimax. In his first three novels the apocalypse is of a piece with the observed social world—because they come out of the crucible of the sixties. The last two novels are about a different kind of society. Stone's social criticism has changed with the years, but his essential vision hasn't: it couldn't, because his view of American life has never been based on analysis as much as on the uncalculated conviction of any great talent. Recently this has produced a mix of hallucination and spite that lacks the persuasive unity of the earlier novels. To his credit, Stone hasn't kept writing the same book again and again—he is too sensitive to America's condition. But nasty Hollywood games and suburban suffocation don't engage him like his earlier subjects. Stone's imagination is too visionary for the American nineties.

James Finn (essay date 5 November 1993)

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SOURCE: Finn, James. “The Moral Vision of Robert Stone: The Transcendent in the Muck of History.” Commonweal 120, no. 19 (5 November 1993): 9-14.

[In the following essay, Finn provides an overview of Stone's novels and examines the strengths and weaknesses of his writing style, social and political concerns, and underlying religious sentiment.]

Robert Stone is a highly ambitious author whose reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. (But what's a writer's heaven for?) He is an imposingly confident writer whose self-assessments, nevertheless, sometimes seem off the mark. However, on the basis of his most recent novel it is clear that he is still on a rising trajectory whose end is not yet in sight. Altogether, a most interesting case.

Stone's first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), gave notice that here was a new and original voice, marked by a distinctive sensibility. (The William Faulkner Foundation award for the best first novel of the year was the precursor of the many awards Stone's novels have received.) Between then and 1992, four other novels followed, each separated from its predecessor by a number of years and each adding, if unevenly, to Stone's stature and reputation. With this handful of novels Stone has succeeded in projecting very powerfully a vision of America, delineating his view of Americans, their present condition, and their cultural landscape. He belongs, it is clear, in the demanding tradition of those American writers who have attempted to define the contours and tap the pulse of this singular country.

The relation between the life and work of highly imaginative writers can vary remarkably. In some cases the relationship is sufficiently obscure to lend itself to highly speculative interpretation. In others, the relationship seems so clear as to be almost self-evident. Insofar as these represent polar positions, Stone is definitely closer to the second. Because Stone has been generous in disclosing major aspects of his life in interviews, articles, and talks, we can know some of what he himself thinks has helped shape his views and inform his imagination.

Stone's early years make the childhood endured by Charles Dickens appear almost normal. Born in Brooklyn in 1937, Stone was reared mostly in Manhattan by a schizophrenic mother whose husband effectively disappeared when Robert was an infant. Because she was in and out of hospitals, between the ages six and ten he was placed in an orphanage operated by the Marist brothers. After that he and his mother lived together in rooming houses and SROs (single room occupancy hotels) on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Occasionally they would travel to some place (New Mexico, Chicago) with the hope that things would be better, but invariably they landed back in New York. On one return trip, their funds were so low they slept out on a roof. Stone recalls this as a strange but not unhappy period of his life, certainly not one of deprivation. But since his mother, who served as his reference point to reality, often looked at things from an odd angle, he had a lot of sorting out to do.

The high school that Stone attended was also run by the Marists, who attempted to impart a strongly dogmatic view of Catholicism. After they and Stone developed a mutual dislike, Stone cut out, with the feeling, later revised, that he was, at sixteen, saying goodbye to religion and all that.

Although he attended New York University for about a year, he is essentially an autodidact with wide-ranging interests and, apparently, a capacious memory. A writing scholarship took him to California in the early 1960s, where he soon clued in with Ken Kesey, becoming one of the Merry Pranksters and an active participant in the new and heavy drug scene based on LSD and other “mind-expanding” drugs.

Stone traveled to Antarctica in 1958 and subsequent trips took him to Vietnam as a correspondent—another drug-filled scene—and to Central America. He has also spent time in academia as a writer-in-residence (“a kind of dropout's revenge”) and in Hollywood, where two of his books (A Hall of Mirrors and Dog Soldiers) were turned into major but unsatisfactory movies.

Many of these and other life experiences have found their way, transmuted, into Stone's fiction. A Hall of Mirrors, for example, draws heavily upon the days when he sold encyclopedias in small towns across Louisiana and worked as a census taker in the black slums of New Orleans. It is a large sprawling colorful narrative, packed with close observation and multiple incident. The people we encounter are mainly the loners, the drifters, the god-forsaken, strung-out losers who, during their bleak days on this earth, walk unsteadily along the edge of the abyss. Stone skillfully orchestrates their ups and downs, their meetings and mergings and partings even as he propels them to the phantasmagoric, apocalyptic scene that brings the story to its near conclusion. More remarkable than the structure of the book is Stone's language, already an admirably supple instrument that can pass readily from the low colloquial to elevated rhetoric, and that easily folds into the narrative quotations from or references to sources as diverse as Shakespeare, Donne, Hopkins, Dante and Yeats, Cromwell and La Boheme. Equally striking is Stone's ear, his dialogue ringing with complete conviction.

The narrative carries the reader from a low-keyed opening to its highly charged, fever-pitched ending, the tenor of which may be suggested by an extended quotation. Here is a leading character, speaking to the large crowd gathered for a great patriotic revival meeting.

“The American way is innocence,” Reinhardt announced. … “Americans,” he resumed, “our shoulders are broad and sweaty but our breath is sweet. When your American soldier fighting today drops a napalm bomb on a cluster of gibbering chinks, it's a bomb with a heart. In the heart of that bomb, mysteriously but truly present, is a fat old lady on her way to see the world's fair. This lady is as innocent as she is fat and motherly. This lady is our nation's strength. This lady's innocence if fully unleashed could defoliate every forest in the torrid zone. This lady is a whip to niggers! This lady is chinkbane. Conjure with this lady and mestizos, zambos, Croats, and all such persons simply disappear. Confronted with her, Australian abos turn to the wall and die. Latins choke on their arrogant smirks. Nips disembowel themselves, the teeming brains of gypsies turn to gum. This lady is Columbia my friends. Every time she tells her little daughter that Jesus drank carbonated grape juice—then, somewhere in the world a Jew raises quivering gray fingers to his weasely throat and falls dead.

“Patriots, there is danger. Listen to the nature of the menace. They're trying to take that fat old woman off her Greyhound Bus. … The lady's bus is approaching. The fiend stirs! O horrible! O, America—horrible.”

Before the novel ends, it has skewered—O horrible, Americans—northern liberals in the South, advertising, radio evangelists, corrupt politicians, strident anticommunism, ignorant patriotism, racism, conspiracy kooks, militarism, and the American dream. A powerful vision but not a pretty one. Stone devoted five years to the writing of his first novel and says he put into it “everything I had experienced, felt, or suspected.” This is easy to believe. As impressive as the book is, it incorporates simply too much, the incremental value of successive scenes and incidents often decreasing in effect as they mount in number.

Dog Soldiers (1974), Stone's second novel, equally large in ambition, is more controlled in execution. Its overall story line is cleaner, less cluttered. As a consequence, Stone's esthetic intent is more nearly congruent with his moral vision. With this book, his particular vision, which will also inform his later books, becomes clearer. In the opening paragraphs of A Hall of Mirrors we were briefly introduced to a young, naive, Midwestern Bible salesman, dressed in “a dark ministerial suit and an old man's gray fedora,” whose company has transported him to alien Southern states after filling his head with thoughts of good territories, commissions, high profits, and a memorized sales pitch. This note of religion tied to misplaced hope, false entrepreneurship, and cynicism recurs throughout the book.

The first few pages of Dog Soldiers introduces the reader to Converse, a “journalist of sorts,” in Saigon who falls into conversation with a middle-aged American lady. He learns that she has spent fourteen years in Nguc Linh Province (“We call it God's country. It's sort of a joke.”) as a missionary. Their talk is of religion, and her parting comment is an admonitory assertion: “Satan is very powerful here.” “Yes,” Converse responds. “He would be.” From there Converse goes to a drug scene. In uncertainty, unease, and distrust, and with a lack of experience, he makes a deal to help smuggle a cache of heroin into the States. The trail of the heroin leads to a mixed bag of people who are eager to get their hands on it and who show convincingly that they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to get their way. At a former love-and-peace compound set in high, forested mountains there is a final showdown, a drawn-out, violent, bloody confrontation, reminiscent to Converse of the war in Vietnam.

There are some obvious similarities with A Hall of Mirrors: indulgence in heavy drugs, a confusion of reality and hallucinations, almost derelict characters, fast-paced action, and a violent resolution. But the Vietnam War that was background in the first novel is here brought forward. This work might well have been subtitled “Bringing Vietnam Home.” Violence and drugs in Vietnam are directly related to drugs and violence in the States. Integral to the novel is the problem posed to Converse and others by the U.S. presence in Vietnam. “We didn't know who we were until we got here,” he says. “We thought we were something else.” The story of Converse and those whose lives he touches provides one response to the question of who “we” are.

As a correspondent, Converse deliberately writes about the conflict in a way that will allow his readers to infer moral objections to particular atrocities, even as he grows uncertain about his own response. Yet he muses: “Everyone must [feel these things] or the value of human life would decline. It was important that the value of human life not decline” The value of human life, tested in Vietnam, is tested again in the States. “You can figure,” Converse is told, “your troubles started over in Nam.”

Stone's characters, their lives frequently reduced to a desperate and elemental level, are driven to cope with basic questions of existence. These existential questions are, in Dog Soldiers, frequently placed in a religious context, where the concepts of good and evil are meaningful and where their possible incarnation in particular people is believable. But the answers remain ever elusive. Much of the undeniable strength of the novel lies in the skill with which Stone blends low life and high matters, and draws the reader into the deeply imagined space they occupy.

With these two novels Stone stamped his signature on his chosen narrative form and established what are now its recognizable characteristics. They are evident in A Flag for Sunrise (1981), which equals if it does not surpass its predecessor. It is set primarily in the Central American country of Tecan where a revolution is brewing. A large number of people with quite different backgrounds and interest are to be caught up in the threatening conflict: the missionaries, Father Egan, whose faith is moribund, and Sister Justin Feeney, who is nervously troubled but sympathetic to the revolution; the vile lieutenant Campos; the American anthropologist Frank Holliwell, a former CIA agent in Vietnam; the unstable, violent, sleazy addict Pablo Tabor; the renowned writer Oscar Ocampo, now sexually bent and an informer for the CIA; Xavier Godoy, a Tecanecan priest with revolutionary leanings; the Callahans, a restless, perverse American couple who smuggle dope; Tom Zecca of the U.S. Embassy in Tecan and his wife Marie; a mysterious Mr. Heath; Naftali, a rich suicidal Indian; and a number of subsidiary others.

Stone introduces these characters on different lines of action, one whole set making their entrance one quarter of the way into the novel. These lines intersect, however, in scenes marked by heavy booze and drugs, suicide, murder, conspiracy, treachery, torture, varied child mutilations, self-questioning, self-deception, and self-discernment. After this list, it may seem incongruous to add that there are also scenes of considerable comic effect. (The scene in which a drunken Holliwell delivers his scheduled Tecan speech to a gradually hostile audience is oddly reminiscent of the antic scene in Greene's The Third Man in which—because of a mix-up—an American writer of Westerns is pressed to give a lecture in Vienna to an audience that believes him to be a highly regarded contemporary writer.)

The Vietnam debacle is invoked as an augury of the role of the U.S. in the affairs of Central America and, particularly, the potential revolution in Tecan. A number of different views are noted and probed:

Oscar Ocampo: “We're all whores here. Because of you. I mean,” he explained, “because of the U.S.”

Marie Zecca: “It's not all one thing or the other, you know. … It's not us being the bad guys all the time. Only assholes think like that. Pious assholes.”

Holliwell: “Do you expect to conduct your career in one American-sponsored shithole after another, partying with their ruling class, advising their conscripts in counterinsurgency and overseeing their armaments, and not compromising your honor? Because that sounds very tricky to me.”

Sister Justin: “Everyone, every mother and child on the coast was in his [Campos's] hands, living and dying through his sufferance. The torture and murder of children was something more important than even the establishment of revolution, surely. But was it not all of a piece—Campos on the coast, the president in his mortar-proof palace in the capital, the American interests that kept everything in place?”

It is in this climate of uncertainty about and distrust of U.S. policies in Central America that the characters work out their destinies. For the novel is not an abstract political tract, but an incisive rendering of different kinds of people who are drawn into the vortex of the gathering political storm. Further, they—and the reader—are led to contemplate their fate in a context larger than the revolution. Faith, belief, and commitment are terms that apply to the revolution, but also to a realm that transcends quotidian life and politics. Again, a few quotations will indicate how different characters express such awareness, even if inchoately:

Father Egan and Sister Justin: “Interesting my orthodoxy should make any difference to you. Surely you don't believe?”

“I can't answer your question.”

“Well,” Egan said, “you're supposed to answer it every day.”

The inarticulate Pablo and a bartender: “What is the use of me?”

“Da use of you, mon? Same as everbody. Put one foot to front of de other. Match de dolluh wif de day.”

“That's all? … Don't you think everybody got some special purpose?”

Holliwell: “It would be strange to see such Catholics,” he thought. “It would be strange to see people who believed in things, and acted in the world according to what they believed. It would be different. Like old times.”

Campos and Egan: “I am not an animal,” Campos said. “I believe there is a spiritual force. I believe in life after death.”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

In context these exchanges resonate, they reflect back and forth on each other. So too, do reflections that touch the inner life, the core of the person. Pablo broods about Deedee Callahan: “What he wanted, he realized, was to fuck and to kill her. The realization made him even gloomier because he believed that such impulses were particular to him alone. It touched his self-regard.” And Holliwell, an honorable man, admires and is attracted to various aspects of Sister Justin: “… she was a challenge and a provocation to the likes of Holliwell. The impulse stripped down was to love her or destroy her. Stripped further it was towards both these ends, to subsume her in flesh and spirit. It was predatory.” These impulses both unite and separate Pablo and Holliwell, and the reader is left to parse these yearnings and to reflect on how they work themselves out in the ensuing action.

Taken together, these observations on the personal, the inner life, place in perspective the revolution, U.S. policy in Tecan, and those who are drawn into the clash between the two.

Stone is a risk-taker and it is in the nature of risk that one does not always succeed. With Children of Light (1986), Stone did not succeed, at least not completely. Based on his experience in Hollywood, his send-up of Tinseltown has strong scenes, comic scenes, near-tragic scenes, but they will fail to engage many readers. His previous novels open on a relatively quiet note and entice the reader into the disquieting world that is then disclosed. Children of Light immediately thrusts the reader into an uncongenial, druggy atmosphere, and the less he responds to it the less likely he is to become concerned about those who are at home in it, most particularly the addicted screenwriter and the schizophrenic actress around whom most of the plot revolves.

With Outerbridge Reach (1992), Stone made a departure of sorts. Owen Browne, a veteran of Vietnam combat and a devoted husband and father, is a relatively square citizen. We soon learn, however, that he is stirred by some “obscure guilt” and disturbed by private discomforts. An odd series of incidents present him with the challenge to sail, single-handed, in a round-the-world race. In spite of forebodings which he shares with his wife, Anne, he accepts the challenge. Enter Ron Strickland, cynical and corrupt, to whom, in a separate line of action, we have been introduced as he is completing a documentary film in Central America. Hired to make a documentary based on the round-the-world race, he enlists the help of Anne, whom he gradually seduces. In alternating scenes, we follow the fortunes of Browne on the water and of Strickland and Anne back home. As he realizes he cannot win, Browne is subjected to extreme pressures, physical, mental, and spiritual. He gradually realizes that his boat, for which he had written cheerleader advertising copy, is a piece of decomposing plastic. His only distractions from his increasingly desperate plight are his thoughts and a missionary radio station that dramatizes stories from the Bible. He is tempted to claim the race and the prize by deception.

“Another man might have done it—have taken the prize and spent the rest of his life in secret laughter. God, he thought, it's truth I love and always have. … What a misunderstanding it had all been. He could no more take a prize by subterfuge than he could sail to the white port of his dreams.

“So it had been in the war. Things had turned out strangely. The order of battle, the hamlet evaluation reports, the Rules of Engagement, were dreams. Truth had been a barely visible shimmer. …”

Anne's trials are, in their own way, almost as severe as she is forced to reevaluate her past, her present betrayal, and an uncertain future. The final scenes of the book, both on land and sea, are harrowing as Anne and Browne recognize and greet the fate they have helped prepare for themselves.

Stone has said that he writes good prose, and that he does. His language is a gift and an attainment, the glory and strength of his novels. It charges the story, propelling the reader into the most violent action even as it invites reflection on that action. It can draw on sensual imagery and evoke the most delicate or the most sinister atmosphere. (It is all the more disappointing to encounter the few faults that mar some passages. For example, Stone regularly confuses an adverbial form with the predicate adjective in such phrases as “the flowers smelled beautifully,” “the sex had been poorly,” and “he felt differently.” He misuses “fulsome” as it is frequently misused instead of using it correctly to mean excessively offensive. In context, “fulsome clouds” makes little sense. He is capable of describing a restaurant as being “mellifluent with Vivaldi,” which will not do, and of writing in a crucial passage that “Everything seemed obviated in its plainsong,” which is questionable at best.)

War and references to war are, it seems, an inevitable part of Stone's stories. He has seen and felt and imagined what war can do, and has reflected on what part it plays in the American experience. But the views he has expressed about this country, particularly in its foreign ventures, seem time-bound by the Vietnam experience and recent Central American conflicts. They seem highly familiar, even conventional. He says that he does not believe that the course the U.S. has trod is simply some horror story of racism and murder. Nevertheless, in a reference to Central America he can assert, “we have incurred a blood debt, and it is coming up for payment.” Accepting his premise for the nonce, it would be interesting to learn who or what country he thinks is going to attempt to collect on that debt. We live in a world, after all, in which even Vietnam is trying to entice U.S. interests to return. Of Ronald Reagan, Stone has said that only his charm is authentic. “Otherwise he's always been the agent of someone else's agenda.” This assertion is demonstrably false.

A legacy of the '60s in which he was shaping his political outlook, Stone's thoughts on the role of America abroad are notable neither for originality nor acuity, but only for his imaginative possession of them. His critical views of U.S. foreign policies are not outrageous or simple-minded as are those of Oliver Stone nor wooden and predictable as were those of Graham Greene, but they remain, in spite of his vigorous appropriation of them, a weak pillar in the architectonics of his work.

V. S. Pritchett has said of Stone that “he should stifle his tendency toward godly musings and carryings on and let his comic urge go where it will.” Pritchett is a wise and penetrating critic, but with the first part of his advice he has, I think, gone off the rails. One could have given the same advice to Dostoevsky, I believe, with as much effect. Stone has given a good deal of public testimony that he takes very seriously the question of God's presence—or absence—in the world. He frequently refers to the influence of his early Catholic schooling, has said that it's hard to ignore religion “when you mess with acid,” and he knows these concerns distinguish him from most other American novelists today. “There are no writers I'm aware of who are doing the same sort of thing I'm doing because I take seriously questions that the culture has largely obviated. In a sense, I'm a theologian. And so far as I know the only one.” The skepticism “that led me out of religious belief also leads me out of secular complacency.”

These concerns do not make him unique among American writers—as he seems to think—but they do place him in a small and special group. His most deeply moving scenes occur when, against a sense of the possibly transcendent, his characters act in such a way that it raises questions about their inner identity, their true self. (“What is the use of me?”) This has nothing to do with the “enrich your inner life, make money, and discover God” pitch, and everything to do with locating the self in the universe. It is a universe in which God may be absent but evil is almost palpable. “Satan is very powerful here.” Like François Mauriac, Stone could say of himself, “I am a metaphysician of the concrete.”

A moral vision as intense as Stone's can be communicated artistically only if it is fused with techniques equal to it. At his best, Stone achieves that fusion, technique and vision, style and substance, becoming one. He remains one of the few American novelists whose next work a serious reader can anticipate with high and confident expectations.

James D. Bloom (essay date fall 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6352

SOURCE: Bloom, James D. “Cultural Capital and Contrarian Investing: Robert Stone, Thom Jones, and Others.” Contemporary Literature 36, no. 3 (fall 1995): 490-507.

[In the following essay, Bloom discusses Stone's intertextual commentary on the uses and abuses of literary art in Outerbridge Reach, Children of Light, and A Flag for Sunrise. Bloom contends that Stone's fiction, like that of authors Thom Jones, Marilynne Robinson, and Don DeLillo, addresses the problematic legitimacy and interpretation of canonic writings and creative idols when appropriated by artists, critics, and filmmakers as a form of cultural capital.]

Robert Stone's 1986 novel Children of Light takes place mostly on a movie set—a Mexican location where a screen adaptation of Kate Chopin's The Awakening is in long-delayed production. Stone's narrative focuses on Gordon Walker, the screenwriter who adapted Chopin's novel and then waited a decade for production until “The book was discovered by academics and declared a feminist document” (11). The novel opens with Walker having just finished a summer stock gig playing King Lear. Making sure we recognize Walker—like characters and narrators in all of Stone's novels—as a votary of literature, Stone's narrator comments that Walker's Lear role left him “still up on Lear-ness, chockablock with cheerless dark and deadly mutters, little incantations from the text” (6). In a 1991 interview, Stone called the Lear passage that Walker here recalls—the “unaccommodated man” speech—“the absolute center of Shakespeare and of the English language. … the center of all English literature. … a great light … an electric discovery” (Interview). Between Stone's flipness as a narrator and his reverence as an interviewee lies the ground that Stone's recent and, in many obvious ways, self-consciously literary novels evoke and explore. Immersed in such canonic literariness, Walker arrives on the set well into the action of the novel and well into the shooting of his script. Approaching the location along a mountainous coast road, he stops his car on a promontory that puts him within binocular viewing distance of the filming of the end of Chopin's novel, where Chopin's heroine drowns herself off Louisiana's Grand Isle. Operating, as he does in all of his novels, as a limited omniscient narrator, Stone directs his protagonist's and his readers' attention not so much to what Walker sees but to what Walker wants to see. What he wants to see Stone names “poetry”:

He saw a woman in an old-fashioned gray bathing suit walking toward the water. …

… He saw her walk on, remove her bathing suit and stand naked and golden in the sun. He was seeing, he supposed, what he had come to see.

… tiny distant figures at the edge of an ocean, acting out a vision compounded of his obsessions and emotions. … He felt at the point of understanding the process in which his life was bound, as though the height on which he stood was the perspective he had always lacked. Will I understand it all now, he wondered, understand it with the eye, like a painting?

The sense of discovery, of imminent insight excited him. … that's poetry, he thought.


Readers of the traditional English-language canon will recognize how much Walker's expectation here rests on the promise of revelation or epiphany that has legitimated our most lasting poetry and prose fiction over the past two centuries. Joyce's “epiphany” or “sudden spiritual manifestation. … the most delicate and evanescent of moments” and Wordsworth's “spots of time” when “our minds are nourished and invisibly repaired” come to mind. Such “spots” also enable Wordsworth's privileged observers “to mount when high, more high.” This imagery reverberates in the very siting of Walker's sense of discovery, on an elevated prospect that—according to convention—makes unprecedented, privileged insight inevitable. Stone also prompts literary-minded readers to recognize the most venerable commonplace Wordsworth exploited. In “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” elevation and retrospect authorize the poet to claim “the power” to “see into the life of things.” Even the simile for revelation that Stone ascribes to Walker—“like a painting”—echoes the ideal of transcendent revelation that Wordsworth promoted a decade after “Tintern Abbey” in his “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle.” Here the poet works off a painting of an English seaside castle and muses on what he might have produced “if mine had been the Painter's hand, / To express what then I saw.” Wordsworth's desiderata include “the gleam, / The light that never was, on sea or land, / The consecration, and the Poet's dream.” But instead of “consecration” or revelation, Walker begins to suspect that “perhaps it was not poetry. … only movies” (129) and, in a turn more reminiscent of the self-suspecting Keats than the self-satisfying Wordsworth, acknowledges that “It had been just like a dream … the same disappearing resolution, the same awakening to the same old shit. … a moment's poetry, a moment's movies” (130).

Stone has devoted his three most recent novels—Outerbridge Reach (1992), Children of Light (1986), A Flag for Sunrise (1981)—to exploring this impasse, where poetry succumbs to the “same old shit,” where literary sensibility and judgment fail, where the question the actress for whom Walker adapts The Awakening asks—“is there a place for art?” (230)—prompts an assured “no.” But Stone's reputation as one of the most eminently literary novelists now working belies or at least complicates this answer.

My argument concerns efforts by Stone and by writers who share his agenda to address this question. Their work evokes conditions that make “no” seem like the ready answer, but also produces conditions that make “yes” seem like a possible answer. Stone's fiction and related work by Thom Jones, Marilynne Robinson, and Don DeLillo strive to make a place for the art we customarily call literature or “poetry.” Stone's last two novels also enact this struggle by evoking familiar aspects of the literary mind as it resists, when possible, and, more often, accommodates itself to industrialized culture, which conditions both the production and consumption of literature.

The donnée for Children of Light, the filming of The Awakening, links two familiar but seldom associated targets of jeremiadic commentary, two familiar forms of cultural production. The filming, Stone's narrator dryly reports, resulted from a meretricious alliance of Hollywood commerce and academic humanities, the institution supposedly charged with sustaining “poetry,” though often accused of trashing it in recent accounts. But the initial impetus for Walker's script involved the conviction of two artists, a writer and an actress:

Long ago, during their time together, Lu Anne had given him Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening. … a favorite of hers. He had written a script, and every day of its writing she had been with him or in his expectation, so that when the principal character of Edna Pontellier was defined in scene and dialogue, Lu Anne inhabited it utterly. In those days they had dreamed of doing it together but it had not turned out that way.

Time passed. The book was discovered by academics and declared a feminist document. Lu Anne had acquired a new agent, who was vigorous, female, and literate. About a year and a half before Walker had committed for the Seattle Lear, ten years after his last revision of the script and six since his last conversation with Lu Anne, a package had been put together. …

… One of the majors was induced to finance and distribute. It was all perceived as prestigious, timely and cheap.


The nouns “document” and “package” confound the canonic status of Chopin's 1899 novel by calling to mind two kinds of shopworn cultural criticism: highbrow attacks on commercial Hollywood moviemaking and reactionary censures of academic literary studies as trendy rather than timeless. An exchange between Walker and his (male) agent a few pages later illustrates the trouble with regarding The Awakening as a “package.” Stone here stresses the glibly, often comically corrupt director's “concern over the feminist perspective” in the novel and the way “He wanted a writing credit. Not for some broad—for him” (18). A recent interview with Marilynne Robinson adumbrates the problem with regarding Chopin's novel as a “document.” One of Stone's few peers among contemporary novelists for sheer literariness, Robinson calls familiar political readings of The Awakening a “misunderstanding.” She objects to “the idea that art should be something that either documents or illustrates thinking that is carried on by other people for other reasons at other levels” (244). “Other people” and “other levels” pit the novelist against perceived efforts in the academy and the mass marketplace (where “the majors” predominate) to exploit literary work and industrialize literariness.

Stone's brief mention of Lu Anne's agent hints, however, at the possibility of resisting this exploitation and challenging the package/document Hobson's choice that our culture-making institutions usually offer. This agent occupies both subversive and traditionalist positions. Mixing insider savvy with insurgent motives and armed only with vigor and literacy, she works from within a discredited Hollywood apparatus to rescue literary achievement and artistic will. She also works effectively in the wake of what Jay Clayton heralds as “the disappearance of the old Romantic notion of the masterpiece” and a renewed appreciation of “anonymity” as salutary cultural developments (30). Less sanguinely than Clayton, Stone's rendering of Hollywood acknowledges this condition that mass culture and literary production have come to share. In Children of Light this residual “Romantic notion” yields to the notion of literature as salvageable package, as compromised document, as stressful collaboration. Into the universe Stone's novel evokes, where exploitation and self-congratulation prevail, Stone introduces an “agent” who draws on two discredited culture-making institutions to produce—however much compromised—“a place for art,” an opportunity for “poetry.” Stone has his characters fail to make good on this opportunity over the course of the story. But Stone doesn't completely deny Walker—or himself—such an opportunity. Instead he allows precariously for the persistence of such opportunities inasmuch as Children of Light itself rehearses such an effort.

Stone's account of how Chopin's novel moved from academe to a major studio pays close attention to the means of cultural production, the manufacture of narratives and images. It also calls attention to the role personal agency and gender play in such production. Children of Light predictably prompted critics to add it to the canon of dark Hollywood classics including The Day of the Locust and The Last Tycoon (see Balliet 105; Rich 32; R. Solotaroff 121). But more quietly Stone complicates the relationship between Hollywood itself and the lasting literary production Hollywood exploits (Chopin's work) and provokes (West's and Fitzgerald's). This complication lies in Stone's reference to the role academic literary criticism played in bringing The Awakening to Hollywood. Stone pushes past the familiar “creative writing” party line, the self-congratulatory revivalism that reviles academic understandings of fiction and poetry as the work of “culture vultures” (see Atwood 44; Cheuse 499; Gossman 28). Beyond this easy opposition Stone engages theoretical and historical questions that usually occupy academic critics more deliberately than the novelists who honor this divide allow themselves to be occupied. Entering this fray from the academic side, Elaine Showalter recruits Stone for her feminist “sister's choice” canon, praising the theoretical suppleness of Stone's “dialog with Chopin” and his pioneering efforts to move The Awakening from the ghetto she calls “the academic canon” into the mainstream of literary practice, where novels actually get made, theory gets practiced, and, among the most compelling practitioners, practice gets theorized (84).1 Such efforts reverberate even more strikingly in the “game of relentless Shakespearianizing” Stone has his protagonists play throughout Children of Light (120), most notably in the encounter between Lear—Walker's defining role—and Rosalind in As You Like It, the high point of Lu Anne's acting career.

Stone's theoretical deliberateness becomes especially striking when we read Children of Light and Stone's 1992 novel Outerbridge Reach as part of a continuing critical project. In Outerbridge Reach Stone elaborates on the opportunity Children of Light left precariously open. The attention characters in both novels pay to canonic works and to extra-academic culture industries, to their own literary and artistic aspirations, to the pains and pleasures of performance all underscore Stone's engagement with the most vexing current theoretical question among literary academics: What makes literature literary? As Gordon Walker's failure to find or make poetry even at the most auspiciously Wordsworthian moment indicates, poetry synecdochically stands for literature and literariness in Stone's fiction. As a counterpoint to this will-to-poetry, Stone pits his well-read main characters against other readers, who find poetry all too easily. Stone stages this contest in both novels. Children of Light and Outerbridge Reach contain remarkably similar passages in which characters argue over the merits of poetry widely regarded as minor or vulgar. When Lu Anne in Children of Light finds herself repeating Longfellow's line “This is the forest primeval,” she turns to Walker and asks, “Gordon, do you know how long it took me to understand that Evangeline was not a good poem?” (196). (The host of the television quiz show Jeopardy provided an index of the compelling consensus Lu Anne escapes when at the end of 1994 he pronounced Evangeline “one of the great poems in American literature.”) Even though readers have seen her deranged for much of the novel, Lu Anne's literary and artistic conversations up to this point (77, 90-91, 120) have been cogent and erudite enough for readers to pause over her claim here to have reached a hard-earned understanding of how poetry works and what makes it “good.” Lu Anne's literary judgment seems consequently to carry enough authorial authority to challenge readers to consider their own valuations of Longfellow, their own criteria of poetic value.

This understanding turns on a more obscure poem and its recent oratorical history in Outerbridge Reach. Here an exchange over “High Flight,” John Gillespie Magee, Jr.'s inspirational Petrarchan sonnet on piloting his Spitfire in 1941 during the Battle of Britain, provides a similar occasion (241). During the 1980s, between the publications of Children of Light and Outerbridge Reach, this poem took on partisan political resonance as an affirmation of the Reaganism that Stone satirizes in Outerbridge Reach. Stone's critique also belongs to the broader Conradian preoccupation with empire and state power (documented by John McClure in Late Imperial Romance) that pervades Stone's writing.

Both “High Flight” and the exchange it prompts illustrate Stone's antagonism to and fascination with “the politicization of spirituality” (McClure 109). This politicization lies in the opening lines, “I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings,” and in the ensuing argument between two Navy fliers over Ronald Reagan's and speechwriter Peggy Noonan's use of these lines to mourn the space shuttle astronauts killed in a 1986 explosion (Noonan 9, 258-59). The narrator warns us that Lieutenant Conley, the younger pilot, “believed in inspirational moments” (240). But the other flier, a forty-something Annapolis English professor and former Vietnam POW named Buzz Ward, argues for resisting such moments: “The pilot in me rejoices. But the English teacher insists it's not a good poem” (241). The last word in this exchange goes to neither warrior. It goes to Anne Browne, a friend of Ward's and the wife of his Annapolis classmate Owen Browne, whose participation in an around-the-world sailing race provides the novel with its plot: “‘How can you arrogantly sit there,’ Anne asked, ‘with people so moved by a poem and insist it's no good? You really are an English teacher’” (241). With the term “English teacher,” Stone evokes the condition I want to describe provisionally as literariness, which contains, sympathetically acknowledges, and ultimately dismisses the claims of both the line fanciers and the inspiration seekers. Though this exchange seems pointedly to divide readers on the basis of what they read for, it negates such schematic divisions inasmuch as Stone identifies English professor Ward with both positions, appreciating yet suspecting—warily embracing—both kinds of response.

While some readers in the interpretive communities Stone depicts read for “inspirational moments,” others, like the Hollywood insiders who swap Shakespeare quotations at the end of Children of Light, cruise the canon for “great lines”:

“Sweet are the uses of adversity.” Jack asked, “That's As You Like It, right?”

“That's it,” she said. She put her handkerchief away. “Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

“Great line,” Jack Glenn said.


This “great line” perspective points to the most durable form of cultural capital the canon has to offer, its residue of quotability. Shakespeare, the superlative cultural capitalist, still claims the lion's share of this residue, as Gary Taylor argues:

Shakespeare was consciously a quotable writer, whose phrases were made to be memorable. He worked in a repertory system that stood on mutability and variation, with many new plays, frequent revivals, short runs and little rehearsal time. He wanted each overworked poor player to remember his sweet and honeyed sentences, so he made them as sticky as possible.


Taylor's snappy appraisal elaborates Herman Melville's adaptation of Robert Greene's famous image of Shakespeare as an “upstart crow,” Melville's own earthy reminder that Shakespeare was a modern entrepreneur, a junior partner in “the shrewd, thriving firm of Condell, Shakespeare, & Co.” (543). Taylor flatters the worldliness of professional readers—actors, English professors, novelists—and invites skepticism and even condescension toward centuries of venerating the Bard as a source of wisdom, inspiration, and consolation.

This permeable divide between inspiration seekers and eloquence aficionados extends beyond a writer's understanding of who he or she is writing for to the ways in which reading generates writing. Stone's 1981 novel, A Flag for Sunrise, set the stage for this contest by playing to the line relishers' “weakness for gangsters … who quote Shakespeare, Yeats and Oscar Wilde,” according to reviewer Michael Wood (34). In one such passage, Stone shows two perpetually drunk and stoned gunrunners bickering professorially over and mistakenly conflating two “great lines,” one from Hamlet and the other from Lear. Here, where Dirty Harry seems to meet David Lodge's Morris Zapp, Stone demonstrates how literary language is constructed. This exchange shows how, in John Guillory's account, literary language “forms at the interface between the language of preserved literary texts and the context-bound speech that continually escapes total regulation and hence changes” (67):

Callahan grinned with adolescent mischief and winked at his wife.

“If it be now, 'tis not to come,” he declared. “If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”

“Ripeness,” Deedee Callahan said.

“It's readiness, Dee.” …

“I like ripeness better,” Deedee said.

“You like it,” Callahan said, “because it's sexier.”


More pleasure-centered than Guillory's, Robert Alter's view of what makes language literary seems even more apt here: “literature is remarkable for its densely layered communication, its capacity to open up multifarious connections and multiple interpretations,” “encouraging … a balancing act between different possible construals … the high fun of the act of communication” (28, 30). The Callahans' prosier confederate, Negus, interrupts their highbrow banter to admonish them and Stone's readers against “fucking around for kicks.” A reviewer of the novel whose academic criticism has been preeminently alert to such moments of extemporizing attention to “sounds and movements in the English language that carr[y] with them traces of a … community of assumptions,” Richard Poirier, proposes a clarifying reading of this mock allusiveness (Renewal 119). Poirier reads this earnest, earthy interruption as Stone's communicating “an utterly cool preference for wit at the expense of argument” (“Intruders” 39). Poirier's opposing pair—wit and argument—seems to parallel the division between line lovers and inspiration seekers, the censorious distinction with which Professor Buzz Ward outrages Anne Browne.

Anne Browne and Lieutenant Conley and Negus represent the readers Lionel Trilling solicitously worried about a generation ago in his essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature.” He named them the true believers in “the Old Faith” who “take refuge first in misunderstood large phrases” and end up “in general incoherence” (26). Such readers achieve as compensations for reading neither the pleasures of wit and the frissons of form nor the reassurance of argument and the consolations of inspiration. In an inventory of Anne's “canon,” Stone evokes both the desire that the true believer's Spartan reading produces and the impoverishment it yields:

Girl we couldn't get much higher. Gonna set the night on fire.

Of course, they had no right to the songs. …

What did we know? she thought. The Notre Dame fight song. The words to “Dover Beach.” … Brideshead Revisited, for the first time since college. The New Jerusalem Bible with its Tolkien translation of Genesis. … Life and Death in Shanghai. Minna Hubbard's memoir of crossing Labrador. … [with an] adoring dedication to her lost Leonidas, the strenuously living, doomed, obedient Spartan.


Stone opens this catalogue of Anne's cultural capital with lines from the Doors song “Light My Fire,” a sharp contrast to the mostly literary or at least bookish items that follow. The inclusion of a Doors lyric seems at first a bit of casual atmospherics. But it resonates suggestively with Stone's critique of Hollywood in Children of Light and his work as a polemicist in the early 1990s. It also belongs to the perennial postsixties tension that John McClure traces through Stone's work, a “dialogic playing out of these two tensed elements of the sixties counterculture: the commitment to liberating political struggle and the commitment to the kind of mystical quests undertaken by one wing of the drug culture” (89). When Outerbridge Reach was published, twenty-two years after his death, Doors lead writer Jim Morrison had become the mythic paragon of this “culture.” Hence the strenuously conventional Anne's unease over her right to the Doors bears particular consideration, since the 1992 publication of the novel followed closely the release of a movie entitled The Doors, written and directed by Oliver Stone. Early in 1994, in a New York Review of Books essay, Robert Stone attacked Oliver Stone's mythography as the reigning symptom of Hollywood's corrupt history-making. Robert Stone damned Oliver Stone as “a professional in the traditional Hollywood sense of the word,” like the moviemakers in Children of Light, “completely accepting of every traditional method of keeping the message uncontaminated by irony and complexity.” Along with Oliver Stone's JFK and his Vietnam trilogy, The Doors proved for Robert Stone that the “moviemaker was setting out to dramatize nothing less than the history of the second half of America's twentieth century”:

Those who did their best to be crazy in the sixties can find their fondest illusions confirmed in The Doors. … According to the film, the band and Jim Morrison were just as terrific, funny, trippy, and delightful as they imagined. Not only that, but they had their serious side; they read Blake and understood every word far better than their teachers and were really in touch with Native American symbols and traditions in this mystic way. Now, in The Doors, denizens of this period have their own official period movies, accepting the sixties entirely on its own terms, exactly as it would like to be remembered. … beautiful baloney … good show business.


Oliver Stone's fault, for Robert Stone, lies in his inflation of Doors lore into overvalued cultural capital, in the director's meretricious appeal to such impulses as Anne Browne seems susceptible to here, impulses that Anne must gratify elsewhere or not at all (since Stone set Outerbridge Reach in 1987, four years before release of The Doors).

Both the appeal of the Doors to Anne Browne and many others and the discrediting implications of their legacy that concern Stone reverberate in Thom Jones's 1993 story sequence The Pugilist at Rest, which Stone honors in selecting the title story for The Best American Short Stories, 1992. Jones seems as attuned as Oliver Stone to the idolatry that has surrounded the Doors since Jim Morrison's death in 1971 and features their songs and their enduring youth-culture cachet throughout the book, but at the same time he evokes the aspects of their legacy that the Hollywood version downplayed.

The preferred narrator throughout The Pugilist at Rest speaks in the first person and, according to one reviewer, keeps revealing to the reader some “ambiguous moral lesion” and the tension between “a licensed id and a fragile ego” (T. Solotaroff 256). In one story, “Break on Through,” which takes its title from a Doors song, the narrator reminisces about the reconnaissance platoon he served with in Vietnam. The platoon nicknamed itself after the same Doors song. The narrator focuses on a psychopath, a latecomer to the platoon, in ways that seem calculated to horrify. But he closes the story by mourning his comrade's death along with that of Jim Morrison, which he judges more memorable than JFK's death:

A few months after Break on Through rotated back to Pendleton, Baggit made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. He had barricaded himself for fourteen hours in a Salinas, California, beauty parlor with his estranged old lady before he shot her and shot himself. When the police got inside and found the bodies, a bag of heroin, narcotics paraphernalia, and a blood-stained Medal of Honor, Jim Morrison of the Doors was singing “The End.” … It was July 9, 1971, the day James Douglas Morrison's death had been revealed to the world and all you could hear on the radio waves were the Doors.


This narrator's “right” to the Doors, claimed with the mixture of his deadpan take on sordid self-destruction and his excessive formality in fully naming the lead Door, calls attention to his failings as a commentator and to the very value of the right he asserts, the very value of the Doors as his cultural capital.

Though it takes its title, “Rocket Man,” from an Elton John song, the last story in The Pugilist at Rest even more pointedly associates idolizing the Doors with a suspect, perhaps even mind-closing enthusiasm. Jones's critique comes across more clearly here because he works through a deliberating, adult, omniscient narrator, who recounts a rising young light-heavyweight's successful effort, apparently one of several, to move his guru trainer from his can-and-bottle-strewn trailer to a nearby hospital detox ward. One of the disciple's stratagems entails softening up his mentor with nostalgia, a memory of how they met, of how the young champ got his start: “The first time I saw you, I was walking home from school and you were in here punching the bag. You were playing the Doors, so I figured you had to be cool. … I had me a hero” (219-20). This reminiscence turns to self-congratulatory rhapsody when he declares his love of boxing and his independence from reality: “Hey, man, I'm like Peter Pan, I don't ever want to go back to reality” (220). This proclamation renders the older fighter unconscious and, in the narrator's words, leaves the Doors-loving young champ feeling “like a fool when he realized that his soliloquy would go unacknowledged.” Thom Jones covers the ground between Anne Browne's reluctant disclaimer of her right to a Doors song and her creator's severe disparagement of the Doors' legacy, especially in its Hollywood incarnation.

The acerbity with which the narrator inventories Anne's cultural capital, a Stone hallmark, reflects what Anne is up against in trying to educate herself away from susceptibility to packaged culture in general, “high” or “low.” Intimations of this struggle surface several chapters after this discordant inventory when Anne visits her husband's employer's Park Avenue apartment, with its “pale Chinese vases full of fresh flowers and a Raphael Soyer ballerina above the mantelpiece” (289). Stone's description becomes even denser with Veblenesque markers and archaeologically layered with cultural capital:

The apartment had been decorated by Thorne's late wife. It was his pied-à-terre … for evenings at the opera and the theater. …

“It's beautiful,” she said.

Harry seemed to be assessing the sincerity of her opinion. His eyes were bright. At first he had appeared cheerful but she shortly saw he was upset.

“The man I bought this place from,” Harry declared, “was well known. He believed in maxims.”


“This place was hung with maxims. Proverbs. Fables. Little tales of wisdom. Framed. Out of books. Out of Bartlett's. About the only book he owned.”

“I see.”

“Once I got a look at his corporation's prospectus. Each section began with a maxim. That was the mark of the guy.”

She laughed.


Anne's reactions constitute a critique of all this purchased culture and its authority. Her responses to Harry Thorne—feigning sincerity, upsetting and questioning the language of her VIP host, and ambiguously laughing—signal Anne's and the narrator's shared recognition of the value imputed to Thorne's impeccable taste and his predecessor's eccentric and eccentrically used cultural capital. Anne's comments and gestures mix accommodation and defiance. She evades while acknowledging an imperative to buy into the two tenants' valuations of their possessions. Anne's evasive acknowledgment leaves open the question of whether she laughs with Thorne at his predecessor's “great lines” or at Thorne's pride in his more tasteful acquisitions and interests and his condescension toward his eloquence-worshiping predecessor.

With its attention to Bartlett's and “maxims,” this passage underscores Stone's broader agenda. His animus toward the cultural acquisitiveness he evokes includes verbal masterworks, here the equivalent of more three-dimensional objets d'art. Poirier, a master in mapping “dramatized” failures in “the struggle for verbal consciousness” at moments of “cultural crises” (Poetry 50, 82), views this animus as part of an encompassing understanding of current literary history; hence he describes A Flag for Sunrise as a book resistant to traditional comforts, even the comfort of traditional eloquence, and concludes that Stone is a writer for whom “literature … no longer informs life and does not even provide, as it did for earlier writers, a resource for wry comments on contemporary decline” (“Intruders” 39). Both A Flag for Sunrise and Children of Light move Stone's craft and his readers to the point where such compensations are discredited and such resources are suspect, while Outerbridge Reach takes this impasse as its point of departure. Stone assigns the bulk of the “true believer” role to the failed global circumnavigator Owen Browne, a flack for a multinational yacht manufacturer, whose voyage becomes an occasion to explore the possibilities of constructing literature and recognizable literariness without relying on these resources. Numerous passages in the novel associate Browne with familiar notions of what it means to be literary. Colleagues characterize him variously as “grossly poetic” (11), as the “chief literary figure” in his office (38), as “a fucking wordsmith” (277), and as “speculating on weighty matters. The Big Picture” (397). Stone's narrator catalogues and describes the selection of books and tapes Browne sails with as “highbrow uplift. … Your basic Great Books for that desert island” (192). Such characterizations set Browne up as the consummate literary true believer, an earnest aesthete with an ear for the “great line,” who, two-thirds of the way into his story, expressly renounces reading (283) in favor of his own thoughts and both the consolations and provocations of evangelical radio broadcasts.

Stone's plot pits Browne against Ron Strickland, a documentary filmmaker commissioned by Browne's employers to record Browne's voyage, and a successful rival for Anne Browne's affections. Stone presents Strickland—practitioner of a decidedly nonliterary art, by traditional standards—as a literary figure when late in the novel a television executive describes him as a latter-day Keats, an artist who aspires relentlessly to deny himself the consolations of transcendence or sentimentality (325-26). As literary discussions among Stone's characters demonstrate, Stone, like Jones and Robinson, stresses this rigor as an aspiration rather than as an actually attainable condition.

At least one reviewer of Outerbridge Reach noted the temptation to identify Strickland with Stone on the basis of both their similar aesthetics and their identical initials (Edmundson 43). This conjectural correspondence not only allows for some latitude in reading Outerbridge Reach as a manifesto; it also confronts literary-minded readers—like Buzz Ward—with the failure or limits of the sort of hybrid, multimedia, hip yet rigorous art Strickland practices and represents. In a rigorously self-denying closing plot turn, Stone finally denies Strickland his working material. His film and tape footage, his production notes, his copies of Browne's logs, even his parking space have been stolen, and he's suffered a savage beating. The triumphant perpetrators, Stone suggests, are agents of true belief—true belief in so-called family values, the sort of “good housekeeping” Marilynne Robinson disparages in Housekeeping and in corporate beneficence. These agents sought to present Owen Browne as a hero and an upright citizen, an officer and a gentleman rather than an eccentric, a liar, and a capricious suicide. The fundamentalist reading habits that vexed Trilling, and around which I've been building my argument, can help explain Stone's challenge to the mass production and consumption of values. Stone's critique aligns the consumers of such products with readers who approach literature as true believers. This critique belongs to a broader movement in contemporary fiction. In passing, I've allied Stone with Marilynne Robinson and Thom Jones, producers of much smaller oeuvres, in their contending with industrialized fundamentalism and the annexation of literary production to this industrialization and to the managerial counterrevolution Stone challenges in Outerbridge Reach.

Among novelists whose output and longevity resemble Stone's, Don DeLillo stands out, in part because he expressly claims Stone as a comrade in “conscience” and craft in a recent Paris Review interview (290). Trilling's mantle of fundamentalism more literally fits the antagonists in DeLillo's most recent novel, Mao II, than in Stone's recent novels. Even more attuned to convergences between aesthetics and topical politics, Mao II shows a successful, long inactive novelist named Gray first overwhelmed and then roused to futile action by true believers. Such believers include a partly deprogrammed Moonie and an assistant who turns Gray himself into a cult object, just as the Andy Warhol silkscreen that gives the novel its title may mock or reinforce the iconization of the legendary Chinese revolutionary. When Gray sets out to take on another set of true believers, an Islamic militia in Beirut, DeLillo perhaps too pointedly gives Gray's crusade a decidedly literary dimension. The object of his quest is a hostage poet for whom Gray will offer to swap—to sacrifice—himself. The effort DeLillo depicts follows and puts to the test the program for staging the move of an artist from private to public life—for “Extending oneself into the public realm … to deal with the absence of action”—that Stone recently described in a forum on American fiction (Boyers 65). Both Mao II and Outerbridge Reach promote the legitimation of literature as resistant or at least antagonistic to true belief. Not surprisingly, both books came out in the wake of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, whose shadow hovers conspicuously over DeLillo's novel, though perhaps more ominously and insidiously over Stone's, where the promoters and pursuers of true belief talk and dress like us aspiring resisters, study in the same schools, listen to the same songs, watch the same movies, read the same books and newspapers. Rushdie's post-fatwa credo, a 1990 lecture entitled “Is Nothing Sacred?” spells out the desideratum that Mao II and Outerbridge Reach promote, the sense of what literature, particularly the novel, should do in the face of true belief and the politics of jihad: offer low-tech resistance to external control and produce opportunities to “hear voices talking about everything in every possible way” (107, 111). The difficulty in such resistance lies in the recognition of the allures of true belief and the mass-produced images and narratives that sustain it.


  1. A movie version of The Awakening was released in 1992. Its retitling as Grand Isle recalls the only scene actually shot in the course of Children of Light, which might lend some credence to an argument that Stone's 1986 novel had a revisionist influence on the 1992 adapters.

Works Cited

Alter, Robert. The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. New York: Simon, 1989.

Atwood, Margaret. “Silencing the Scream.” Profession 94 (1994): 44-47.

Balliet, Whitney. “Books: Good Ears.” Rev. of Children of Light, by Robert Stone. New Yorker 2 June 1986: 105-7.

Boyers, Robert, Moderator. “Talking about American Fiction.” Panel discussion with Marilynne Robinson, Russell Banks, Robert Stone, and David Ruff. Salmagundi 93 (1992): 61-77.

Cheuse, Alan. “Writing It Down for James: Some Thoughts on Reading towards the Millennium.” Antioch Review 51 (1993): 487-502.

Clayton, Jay. The Pleasures of Babel: Contemporary American Literature and Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

DeLillo, Don. “The Art of Fiction CXXXV.” Interview. With Adam Begley. Paris Review 128 (1993): 275-306.

———. Mao II. New York: Viking-Penguin, 1991.

Edmundson, Mark. “America at Sea.” Rev. of Outerbridge Reach, by Robert Stone. New Republic 20 Apr. 1992: 42-45.

Grand Isle. Dir. Mary Lambert. Prod. Kelly McGillis. TNT (Turner Home Entertainment), 1992.

Gossman, Lionel. “History and the Study of Literature.” Profession 94 (1994): 26-33.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Jeopardy. ABC. WPVI, Philadelphia. Hosted by Alex Trebek. 7 Dec. 1994.

Jones, Thom. The Pugilist at Rest: Stories. Boston: Little, 1993.

McClure, John A. Late Imperial Romance. New York: Verso, 1994.

Melville, Herman. “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” 1850. Moby-Dick. Ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. New York: Norton, 1967. 535-51.

Noonan, Peggy. What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era. New York: Random, 1990.

Poirier, Richard. “Intruders.” Rev. of A Flag for Sunrise, by Robert Stone. New York Review of Books 3 Dec. 1981: 37-39.

———. Poetry and Pragmatism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

———. The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections. New York: Random, 1987.

Rich, Frank. “The Screenwriter's Revenge.” Rev. of Children of Light, by Robert Stone. New Republic 28 Apr. 1986: 32-34.

Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. 1980. New York: Farrar, 1981.

———. “An Interview with Marilynne Robinson.” With Thomas Schaub. Contemporary Literature 35 (1994): 231-51.

Rushdie, Salman. “Is Nothing Sacred?” Granta 31 (1990): 97-111.

Showalter, Elaine. Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing. Clarendon lectures 1989. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

Solotaroff, Robert. Robert Stone. Twayne United States Authors Ser. 632. New York: Twayne, 1994.

Solotaroff, Ted. “Semper Fi, Nietzsche.” Rev. of The Pugilist at Rest, by Thom Jones. Nation 6 Sept. 1993: 254-57.

Stone, Robert. Children of Light. 1986. New York: Vintage, 1992.

———. A Flag for Sunrise. 1981. New York: Vintage, 1992.

———. Interview. Talking Sense. With Steve Benson and Robert Solotaroff. KUOM Radio, Minneapolis. 1 May 1991.

———. “Oliver Stone's USA.” New York Review of Books 17 Feb. 1994: 22-23.

———. Outerbridge Reach. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Stone, Robert, and Katrina Kenison, eds. The Best American Short Stories, 1992. Boston: Houghton, 1992.

Taylor, Gary. “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” New York Times Book Review 22 July 1990: 1, 28.

Trilling, Lionel. “On the Teaching of Modern Literature.” Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning. New York: Viking, 1965. 3-30.

Wood, Michael. “A Novel of Lost Americans.” Rev. of A Flag for Sunrise, by Robert Stone. New York Times Book Review 18 Oct. 1981: 1, 34.

Robert Stone, David Pink, and Chuck Lewis (interview date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: Stone, Robert, David Pink, and Chuck Lewis. “An Interview with Robert Stone.” Salmagundi 108 (fall 1995): 117-39.

[In the following interview, Stone discusses the creation and characters of Outerbridge Reach, his approach to writing, his moral, political, and artistic concerns, American poetry, the formal education of writers, and the difficulty of the writing life.]

We met with Robert Stone a couple of years ago at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was the last city in his national tour for Outerbridge Reach. He emerged from the lobby elevator wearing dark aviator glasses, a light dress shirt, gray slacks, and tennis shoes. We sat in a dark, quiet corner of the empty hotel lounge, set up our recorders, and told him a little about ourselves and our interest in his work. To break the ice we offered him one of the exotic sodas we'd brought along with us from the Jamaican deli down the block (he chose the grapefruit). At first we thought he might be either tired or wary—it was hard to tell because of the dark glasses—but we were both struck by how focused and considered his responses were. Stone seemed to warm up to us, and we counted it as a success that, in time, the sunglasses came off.

[Pink and Lewis]: How hard is it for you to have one of your characters die?

[Stone]: Very difficult. It's hard emotionally and psychologically. It really takes a lot out of me.

Arthur Miller said that “a little death helps,” meaning that the audience won't be ‘satisfied’ or won't really get the writer's message if it doesn't involve that kind of intensity. Do you see it that same way?

No. I don't know. Often I wonder if there isn't a way to get my characters back, to save them. But often when I try thinking events through in that way, I realize that the character is truly cornered, and no matter how much I might want him to have an insight and settle for his own imperfections in the world, what happens to him just seems to be inevitable, no matter how much I'd like things to be different for him. Sometimes I start with knowing what I think will happen to a character, and grow increasingly despairing when I realize that what I thought will happen will indeed happen. Events, in a novel, should seem to have a certain inevitability after the fact.

That's something that someone might say about the ‘Stonian’ universe, that no one gets out alive. It's like life.

Yeah, it's like life. I mean, you don't get out alive. I really don't see a lot of people getting a long-term upper hand. I see a lot of people who are really coping very bravely and somewhat often successfully with life, but I'm really not seeing any Happy Endings, capital “H,” capital “E.” Most of the people I know do their best, and they sort of come to an accommodation and they work out their lives but they have lots of trouble. People have a lot of trouble. I don't feel particularly depressed or despairing, but philosophically I'm sort of on the pessimistic side, meaning that I think it's a lot tougher to behave well than most people think, and life at the best of times is often lonely and dangerous, and we're just out here in this phenomenology without much of a context that we can be sure of. These are all difficulties. Although I don't see much opportunity for human nature changing, that doesn't mean that I think life is shit or that I'm consumed with despair.

In Outerbridge Reach you veer away from the violence and drug-taking that marked your previous territory. Does that describe your own evolution as an artist—deciding to go somewhere else—or does that say something about the contemporary landscape, in terms of the moral corrosiveness working its way up?

It seems as if every age has its own difficulties. Browne, in Outerbridge Reach, has to discover his own affinity with truth. When he says, “the truth is my bride,” he really is alien to deception, though he has been in a world of casual deception all of his life. One thing I've been thinking a lot about—and I don't mean to make banal political points all the time because I think that this book is political only in a very broad way as a kind of social comment—but I really find it chilling when a President, for example, says, “I am the education President,” or “I am the environmental President,” or “I am the health President.” There's the sense that his words mean absolutely nothing. This is the kind of preppy or otherwise empty babble that the doctor mumbles to you when the situation is dire—“you're going to be OK, blah, blah, blah”—that kind of thing. It is utter babble, the opposite of what is really true. So the President's speech consists of “Blah, blah, whatever you want to hear. Blah, blah, blah, whatever I'm supposed to say.” And he might as well just about be saying, “Blah, blah, blah, whatever my speech writer writes tomorrow for me to say. Blah, blah, blah, I'm saying it.” That's the level on which these leaders of the free world typically operate, and that's absolutely chilling. So Browne is in this world of meaningless words, where all meanings are the reverse of what is declared. And nobody cares, no one pays attention because everybody knows that everyone lies. Strickland comes in to this in a way to catch out Browne at his pretensions. Strickland ends up being the only one in the novel who really understands what has happened.

What is that like for you as an artist, trying to say something about our times by rendering a new landscape? Thorne, for example, seems to be a new kind of a character for you.

Yes, he is a somewhat different character for me.

Did he evolve for you as a character? Did he start out as kind of a ballbusting corporate type and move into somebody who became more sympathetic?

Yes, I think he did change. I wasn't sure what role to have him play, but he ends up being a figure of some rectitude. I wouldn't say that he started out as a worse kind of person, but he did certainly change over time.

You became more interested in him?

I became more interested in him. His was a point of view that I wanted in the novel. I even tell the story from his point of view at times, the only departure from that of the three main characters.

In a 1982 interview you quote the reply Malraux received from a priest to whom he put the question: Considering that you have heard thousands of confessions, what have you learned about humanity? The Priest says, “We're all a lot worse than we seem, and we all remain children.” Both Browne and Strickland seem manifestations of what Malraux's priest says about the human condition. Do you see them in that way?

There's a way in which they both carry their childhoods around with them, as is the case with most of us. But they become doppelgangers for each other. They end up in the same vortex. Strickland begins to see that his situation is more and more like Browne's, especially when he comes to completely understand what Browne set out to do. Progressively, in spite of his arguing against Browne, Strickland begins to see the ways in which they are alike; for example, they're both trying to bring something off on a large scale. Strickland, who's not a nice guy, develops a great deal of empathy for Browne by the end.

That's interesting, because Strickland at one point says that he doesn't care about anyone or anything except the truth, as it is filtered through his perception. On that count, he seems quite different from the majority of your characters. The rest seem to have much more in common with, say, former President George Bush, empty forms in search of their substance. Do you like or admire Strickland?

I don't like him, but I think that for a reader he has a couple of appealing characteristics. For one thing he's entertaining. He's funny, he's a ballbuster, he's amusing. In terms of liking him, I hope that he compels from the reader a certain limited sympathy based on his being a real artist, one who has the imagination and the perception to involve himself in self-suffering, and to make something concrete out of that suffering. His dynamic is perception; he sees, he understands—a lot. The reader should recognize that in Strickland, but not like him and not necessarily admire him. But the reader should be entertained by him; one of his functions is to switch the sensibility, to provide a certain salt and bitter perspective to the story. He's necessary to make the story harder—otherwise, the story would have been quite a bit softer, potentially bordering on the sentimental. In order to get what is poignant and sad—the true sentiment of the story—I need to undercut it with a hard, jaundiced point of view just to make the balance come out right. So Strickland is absolutely necessary to the story.

Along those same lines, Browne seems a bit of a new character for you in that he doesn't intentionally screw up his perceptions with drugs or alcohol. Was that a conscious move on your part?

Browne is not a guy who takes drugs, and he doesn't much drink; it would be out of character for him to do any of those things. He's a guy at a yacht brokerage who went to Annapolis, he's just not a guy who smokes dope or drinks a lot. It just went with the story. It wasn't a matter of making a decision whether or not this guy should be smoking dope all the time, he just wasn't going to be doing that.

Perhaps the question would be better framed against Children of Light. In that novel it seems that everybody is stumbling through life with their perceptions altered and a bit addled by drugs. Did you decide on some level that the next novel would involve a central character like Browne, someone who is the kind of guy who would go to Annapolis, who is preppy, and yet has the same difficulty in coming to terms with his life and the world as do those characters in your other novels, the ones who do take drugs and drink too much?

Yeah, at a sales conference for the book I joked that Browne was my contribution to the war on drugs, that my characters would engage in less substance abuse. But it really comes down to my having carried this situation where a guy fakes his position in a race—something that really happened in the 60's—for 25 years. So when I set out to do that story it was going to be involve somebody who sailed; it was just going to be set in a different world. I wasn't interested in making the character anything like the guy who really did it, who was in fact kind of a shady, ambiguous, talkative bullshitter. I wasn't going to make Browne an operator or any kind of hipster at all. I wanted to make him a guy who has tried to play the game, and who in a way is let down by it—by the ironies of the game. Such a person is not outside the compass of my sympathy. Browne became a different character from many of the ones I've written about because he came with the story; he just wasn't going to do any of those things.

Would you speak about your experiences as a writer of both long and short fiction, in particular how you manage yourself over the long haul of the novel, both emotionally and physically?

There were times when I was writing this book when I felt like I had somehow gotten myself into some terrible trouble. I would wake up in the morning with that feeling. I can't remember quite what it was, but it was a feeling that I was in some real trouble that I had to somehow get myself out of. It was hard. I mean I really felt that if I had blown it, if I reached a point where I was unable to go on and I couldn't think of what would happen next or the whole process blew up on me, then I would have been left high and dry. This is the hardest book I've ever done, not only because it was emotionally draining sometimes, but because it was hard to figure out what the hell was going to happen, what the diagram was, what the next scene should be. It took a lot of rewriting. I remember after having made final corrections on the galleys, my wife Janice and I were driving them to my publisher, and she said that she hated to see it all settled, with everybody's fate sealed. We got very involved in it emotionally.

Is that fear of being left high and dry something that you have to come to terms with?

Yes. If you're trying to do something that's of some consequence, you're trying to make something, you always run the risk of failing, and the risk of failing is frightening. Here I have this book that I decide that I want to do, of some ambition and scope, and it always seemed to me that the whole thing might just blow up on me, that I might just fail. This is an anxiety. Any artist depends, to a very large extent, on confidence. Some days you're more confident than others. You face days when you sit there and you say to yourself, I can't do this, nobody is going to buy this stuff, nobody's going to believe in these people, nobody's going to be interested in this world; you just completely lose confidence.

How about the other end, the euphoric end of the rollercoaster?

And then there is the euphoric end where you think, Wow! this is good, this is great! (laughter). It's always sort of a long delay. One of the troubles with writing is that you do this all by yourself. You have these tremendous mood swings from despair to euphoria. It's one of the reasons writers drink, because you've got to bring yourself down. You can finish your day and you're completely manic, or completely depressed. And where do you go? You don't get on a train and leave and go home. You don't change your scene. You don't stop working.

What do you do in the afternoons to come down? Do you walk your dogs?

Yeah, I used to do that, when I was living more in the country. What I mostly do is read. I haven't gotten much exercise since I've been traveling, but I try to do that. Sometimes I go and swim. Sometimes I go jump around at the “Y.” Sometimes aerobics. That's a pretty good way of doing it. And I like to walk in the woods. And sort of mess around in the water—although I don't have a boat right now. But down in the Keys, I just go swimming.

Your mentioning your wife reminds me of a remark by Michael Herr calling your wife the “patron saint of writers' wives.”

Yeah, I got shit about that.

Yeah, I imagine so, but I also think for a lot of writers it's a frequent question because there is that sense of partnership in general and its relationship to different kinds of work. Could you elaborate on that?

Well, she's working for me now as an editorial assistant. She used to be a children's protection service worker. She was spending her whole day working with abused kids, which was shattering for her. In a way, we were both doing stuff that was pretty difficult to talk about. I was sort of writing and she was having to confront people who were doing these things to their kids. Her work was very tough—one of those “somebody's got to do it” kind of things—a real burnout job. But now that she's working for me, she really helps me out a lot. I really trust her sensibility. She's my first reader. I hadn't really done a whole lot of the book before she read any of it. It's really useful to have somebody whose opinion you respect whom you can talk to about what works and what doesn't.

But finally you have to make the decisions yourself, which is what art is all about, a series of decisions. That is one of the scary things about it. Nobody likes making decisions, at least I don't. All art—all writing—involves deciding to do one thing rather than another in order to create a certain thing. If you're wrong about it or you make a mistake—the wrong mistake—you can ruin the whole thing. It's very tension-inducing. But, you know, it's very rewarding too. Nothing is free, but I mean there is an “up” side.

You're making all those decisions—all those lefts and rights all through the novel. Is that one of the problems of working on the novel, the consequences of those decisions, the way they stack up? Is there a difference between early decisions and later decisions? Do you worry about the early ones more?

It's hard if you've done a hundred pages in the wrong direction. And that's happened to me before. It's really tough to make that decision and say, “Okay, this is just wrong and I have to go back there and do it over.” Sometimes you can undo things. You can't undo central things from which everything else proceeds, but there are certain things, there is a degree of arbitrariness. It's really surprising sometimes how much you can cut and paste and shift in a novel. But decisions always.

To return to your characters and their use of alcohol and drugs, at the same time that they're seeking an understanding of themselves and the world, they're using drugs of various kinds. Is there a connection?

Well, people are often after transcendence, and people who get intoxicated are in pursuit of something better than what they have, they're attempting to change their reality, their perception. They're after something, they're reacting to a sense of dissatisfaction with the world and with the way things are. And they want to liberate their sensibilities, but then they are at the mercy of the forces they've liberated.

Your novels are a kind of moral fiction, and yet very few of the characters tell us how to live sanely—unless it's a part of your purposes to teach or at least gesture toward how to do that by negative example.

Well, there's more to it than that. Essentially, I'm telling stories, and you can't be too didactic. All you're trying to do is to get people to pay attention. I'm certainly not the kind of writer who has a moral, as it were. It's just a process of reflection on the human condition, how you start something in motion … Positive and negative have no meaning except by contrasts. I don't think anybody's ever written a good book of much interest with characters you're supposed to emulate. That's Horatio Alger. I'm not trying to teach, I'm essentially trying to tell stories that encourage people to reflect, basically because they enjoy it.

So you don't see yourself as a moralist?

What I am essentially—foremost—is an entertainer. What I do has to be entertaining. If it's not entertainment, regardless of how high-minded it may be, it's not going to work. Entertainment can be serious. The instinct toward entertainment—the instinct toward play—is a very central and important thing in human life. So what I do has to entertain, and I try to tell good stories.

You're saying that you're offering entertainment, but your sense of story and play and their relationship to human life is much more serious than a Horatio Alger fantasy. For example, we've discussed the connection between chemical use and transcendence. That's what I admire in your work, you frequently explore that connection in the most excruciating ways, and play out its difficulties. I admire you for it, and yet I wondered if with Anne you saw a chance for something different—when I got done I thought, shit, hers is one story which isn't one of those macho adventure trips some readers see in your other stories. She's a character who could have taken the same chemical-fueled journey towards transcendence—but without the dislocation and isolation of leaving home. That would have been a much quieter, internal kind of story. It seems like you've been after that issue, that it's of concern to you, and I'm wondering if you'll ever take it on head on. Or whether you don't really want to go into that box.

Which issue do you mean?

She seems to be the only character who goes into—alcoholism.

Oh, I see.

And then it appears at the end that she's going to get it together.

Yeah, she's going to sail around the world, and she's going to do it successfully. She's going to be in ten years an extremely interesting person. I mean, having survived all this and having sailed around the world.

In a good boat!

Presumably the boat she's going to get will hold up (laughter). She's going to get a better boat.

I hope you'll be in a good mood.

(Laughter) Well, I'm not going to do it, it's not going to be written. But that's what I see happening. In ten years from now, Anne is going to be a very interesting person. Whatever her life is going to be then, she's going to be able to cope. She's going to be a little on the hard side—a little on the tough side—after all, she's going to survive. She's going to win over adversity. But I don't necessarily want to explore substance abuse as the theme. I've done a great deal of that and I don't think it's endlessly interesting. I'm really more interested in other things. But I think it will remain a feature to some extent, because that's a world I knew a lot about.

Your stories employ the notion of the “quest” frequently, with a lot of mobility and adventure and going out into the world. Would you ever want to write a book that “stays at home”? Does that interest you?

I don't think I would do that, no, in the normal course of things. I like the quest stories. I'm not inclined toward stories where everybody stays home, which is not to say you can't stay home and have a quest, but for my own purposes, for my own plots, I really prefer stories where there are adventures of some kind, where people move, where people have encounters.

The theme of American empire, for instance, in A Flag for Sunrise, is focused on “down there.” Is Outerbridge Reach an attempt to look at ourselves “here” and to take a more domestic view?

Well, you could say that, in terms of a look at late twentieth-century America, but it's only political in the larger sense. This country is very resilient. It can endure a great deal. Americans tend to be apocalyptic—when things go badly, we tend to think, Christ, everything's falling apart. Look at France and Germany, look at what they've been through. It's unbelievable that those two countries could survive, given their history of the past seventy-five years. It's pretty spectacular. Look at Germany now. They've survived a lot more than we've had to.

Current events sometimes make me think again of A Hall of Mirrors. Racial violence is still with us, along with other bad problems.

Yeah. Things have not changed. In some ways the state of various black communities throughout the country has not improved. And as the immigration increases from Asia and Latin America, American blacks in a certain way will be even more diminished. I've been spending most of my time in New York, and there you can see how the Asians have been hustling to get their business together and make a living and so forth. And the blacks don't like it very much. With the new wave of immigrants, the government is if anything even less concerned with the condition of blacks. It doesn't bode well for that community. I don't know what's going to happen.

I want to jump to the question of writers and their connection to various institutions. Specifically, what do you think about writing programs and workshops—what can be good about them, what might not be so good?

Well, it's a tough question. Everyone feels uncertain about it. I don't think it ever hurt anyone. But you really can't teach people to write, I think everybody recognizes that. But you can encourage. One thing about a writing program is that, as a student, people will take your writing seriously, there is an atmosphere in which you can talk about your writing and get your writing done. What I try to do in my courses is talk about rhetoric, or to use Poe's phrase, “the philosophy of composition.” But one thing I cannot do is “instruct”—there is no technology. You can only talk about principles. You can do that. There is such a thing as rhetoric, you can talk about rhetoric and it really works. But you can't instruct someone to be a writer. You can train some kind of sensibility or ethic, or encourage people to train themselves, but it's an autonomous operation. There's not too much you can instruct people about. You can talk about writing and maybe that will result in some sort of useful experience.

For instance?

I think the most effective lesson I ever had in writing was when I got my feelings hurt. Nobody likes to do that, at least very few people, and I'm certainly not one to spend two or three days in a workshop that is going to make me feel bad, but you know the old story about Benvenuto Cellini walking down the street with his father as a little boy. They see a salamander and his father whacks him and the boy asks his father, “What did you do that for?” and his father says, “Because now you'll remember that you saw a salamander” (laughter). And all the lessons I learned, all the stuff I was doing wrong, that I got nailed on, I never did again. It always resulted in my feeling embarrassed, of being humiliated, of looking dumb, and those are the most useful lessons I learned. But not too many people are willing to do that. In a way, the less considerate teacher is the teacher who makes it easy, who goes into the classroom and wants to be a good guy and everybody has this vaguely agreeable time and nothing happens. In a way, it's much tougher to say, look, you're doing this all wrong, wise up. And then people say, “What a prick!” But that's more considerate, that's really the more dedicated teacher.

Do you get something out of teaching? Obviously you don't need to for financial reasons anymore.

Yeah, teaching clears my mind so that I can find out about what I think. I talk about a whole lot of things.

What was your experience like, going from working in New York to attending Stanford as a Wallace Stegner Fellow?

The life I lived in New York was miles away from the world of books and publishers and teachers. I'd never really seen this very comfortable middle-class life that I saw around the Stanford campus and the suburbs of San Francisco. It was really unlike anything I'd ever seen before. In those days, you realize, I was married, I had a small child, and we had to work, you had to work hard. We had no resources we could turn to, we had no help from family. We were living in New York at the time on the Lower East Side doing jobs we didn't like that we had to do. And to get out to California where there was this tremendous leeway—where people were really having fun. We had gotten married very young, as in those days people like us did, and so we had very little youthful, college-age fun. My wife was holding a job, I'm trying to write, and we were taking care of the kid. And then we go out to California and there's this sybaritic pleasure and fun. It was wonderful to be out there, just terrific. I remember it as everything turning from black and white into technicolor. It was lavish and extremely comfortable. In the early sixties in California there was really a sense of paradise.

So it was as if the gates had opened and you went through?

I felt that something very good had happened to me. I really needed a lot of help to get that first book done. I needed some support from the world and the world does not usually give you support. And here I had moved out to California and had a stipend from the fellowship. What happened then was that Houghton Mifflin was scouting writing programs looking for new writers. Wallace Stegner was asked who was working on a book that should be looked at, and he said, “Why don't you check out Stone's book,” and so I ended up with a publisher. Inside of those two years I went from nominal graduate student at Stanford to a published author—life changed a lot.

It's almost a cliché today about how difficult it is to get published if you're a serious writer. Do you think the publishing scene was just as tough then?

Oh, I think it was pretty nearly as tough. I still think it's the case where if somebody has something really strong, it's going to get published. It may take a little longer, but if somebody has some real knockout stuff, it'll get found. The thing is, readers of serious fiction are on the margin, and the serious novel is where poetry was a long time ago. A book needs to sell 100,000 copies now, that's standard, and 40,000 copies for a serious novel is considered very good. Also, they expanded the hardcover book into the paperback market, so you get these remaindered trasho super-romances that occupy a lot of the retail energy, especially in the chains. And also the purchase of publishers by large corporations—especially foreign corporations—means they have no stake or interest in American fiction. Foreign owners can come in and buy publishing houses and they look entirely at the numbers. Some German publisher figures, “Fuck the Americans, Americans don't care about literature anyway, they have no culture. So, you know, screw them and their fiction. How much do we make?”

Do you think it's a part of the “dumbing down” of America?

(laughter) Yeah, there is a touch of that. Popular culture has not gotten any more acute. They even want to do away with PBS. Like whoever it was from the Heritage Foundation who said that Sesame Street was not a better show than Underdog or the Jetsons.

Your mentioning poetry earlier interests me. Somebody said once that poetry is like when you're first dating and prose is for when you get married. Do you write poetry much now?

I don't write poetry so much. I rarely sit down and write a poem. I wrote a lot of poetry when I was first beginning, and in a fit or something I destroyed it all. However, I've managed to bring it back and use it in some form or another in my prose. A lot of the prose I write is imagistic and poetic in nature. There's a lot of poetry in my prose. So I don't isolate the poetry, I tend to use it as blank verse in my prose.

Obviously you appreciate poetry a great deal, you quote it in your work, and I think in Children of Light you even write one part where you're rhyming every line, almost as if to say, “Hey, you're reading poetry and you don't even know it right now, fellah.” I wonder if you have any kind of comment about the way poetry is disappearing from the scene.

I think it's very bad. For example, the way the New York Times Book Review is not reviewing poetry very much at all these days. I think that's shameful. They really should be reviewing it more. I think a place has simply got to be made for American poetry. It has to be subsidized—by the publisher or by the government or somebody. We've got to have it, we absolutely got to have it. We cannot exist without poetry. It's not an acceptable situation to stand by and watch all commercial viability of poetry disappear. It's not that everybody will be able to support themselves solely with their poetry, but you have to have some support for it. Somebody's got to buy it, it requires patronage.

Are there contemporary poets you like to read?

Yeah, James Tate. I like Tate's poetry. I like Galway Kinnell, who is a quite different kind of poet. I like some of [James] Merrill's poems too. Those are three. Of course they're very well known and everybody who reads reads them.

Have you thought about playing with fictional forms more, maybe pushing that envelope even further so that it becomes more like poetry or more metafictional or experimental?

Yes, I did that in a way in my first novel, it was full of stuff like that. I did it less in some of the others, although a little more in Outerbridge Reach. I may very well do that in the future.

Now that you're this successful as a novelist, it seems as if you might be more free to take risks—

Take some chances, yeah.

What do you imagine those risks being?

Well, what happens is, you get held to the standard of your best work. And it's not fun to receive a review that begins, “What a disappointment.” But you have to be willing to face that. You can't set out to just make critics happy, then you're wasting your time. You have to take some risks. Writers who get good reviews get reinforced, and you get to think you're cute, you think you can do no wrong and you can indulge all your hobbyhorses and all your notions. This is one of the things that to some extent happened to Vonnegut, whose whimsy got a little bit labored because that was what he was valued for. You have to watch out for what people say you do well, because then you become less self-critical.

What do you think those areas are for you—what do you need to keep an eye out for?

Well, I think it's necessary that I not have too many drug-addled scenes where people's cerebrations are triggered by drugs—not to avoid it altogether but just not to rely on it as a way of getting into a liberating sensibility. I don't know, the thing is, the nature of risk is that your potential bad stuff is very close to your good stuff—it's just like your good stuff except that it doesn't work. It's kind of an ineffable thing to talk about. How could what I do be made not to work? (laughter) You'd have to see it on the page, you'd have to say, “Well, this is obviously Stone, but it doesn't work,” and then you'd know what it was that I can do wrong.

Would you describe your ideal Stone reader?

Somebody who really has a lot of resemblances psychologically to me. Somebody with a sense of humor. Somebody who takes pleasure in words. Somebody who knows something about the secrets of the heart. That's about it. I've always felt very warmly about my readers, I still do. There's this small band of pilgrims out there—there are more of them now, but I'm always moved when I see people who have read the early stuff and come to the readings.

A lot of people bring up Melville when they discuss your work. Besides the obvious parallels of the sea, I'm interested in how the hallucinatory eeriness in Outerbridge Reach resembles Moby Dick. In D. H. Lawrence's essay on Melville, for instance, he talks about the “sheer physical, vibrational sensitiveness, like a marvelous wireless station. … the extreme transitions of the isolated, far-driven soul. … All this practicality in the service of a mad mad chase.” Were you going after some of that?

I can't really say. There are themes in Melville I have no hesitation addressing, because they're part of the American tradition, particularly the marine literature, so it's quite natural to invoke them. But in terms of style and language, there's no conscious reference to Melville, although I do quote, as in that hallucinatory sequence towards the end of the novel in which Browne talks about coming back from the Japan ground, which is where the Pequod is chasing Moby Dick.

You've said somewhere that you're going to work on a book of short stories. Is that right?

That's one of the things I'm thinking of doing. I have a contract, but I could go ahead and do a novel first, that would be okay.

So it wasn't necessarily a plan of yours to provide a release or relief from novels for awhile?

I may do that. I haven't really made up my mind. I have five published stories, but that's not enough for a collection. If I do three or four more, and I have eight or nine, that would be enough, and I'd publish them.

You work in a lot of different forms, which I find interesting. There are the novels, essays, short stories, and travel pieces. Clearly you could stay with the novel, so what do you get from those other kinds of writing?

I like the essay because it gives me the chance to be directly political, to talk about politics, to write about different cities, which I like. And to hold forth. For instance, Havana or the 1988 Republican convention—I just like to comment that way, comment directly.

Does it help with your fiction?

I don't know, not necessarily.

More of a vacation from fiction?


Here's a classic question: Young writers are always looking for advice. Have any you want to give?

I think you have to keep doing it. The hardest thing is to keep writing. Many people write for a while, but they usually stop. It's hard to think of what advice to give to young writers, except to stay with it—and to read, to keep reading, to read your favorites. Everybody has their masters and that's who you read. I think it's good to open oneself to experiences, to travel, to see the different levels of life, and to keep reading and to keep writing. However you make time for it, it's hard.

Concerning getting published, many young writers are worried or disgruntled enough to believe that it's a stacked deck or a rigged game, that once a week a bulldozer goes through the Paris Review offices and pushes all the manuscripts into the dumpster, and that if you don't have the kind of experience you had, where a writer of the stature of Wallace Stegner recommends you, that it's almost impossible.

Some places are really great. The New Yorker, for example, under Shawn, and it continues. It's a wonderful place for unsolicited manuscripts. They read them and they publish over-the-transom stuff all the time. They will really give a story a reading regardless of who sent it in or where it comes from—they're really good that way. And there are other places like that. Connections are always nice, and there's the matter of luck, but it's not strictly true that you always have to know somebody. On the other hand, The New Yorker gets literally thousands of stories every month, but they read them, they really do read them. They're very considerate to writers, at least they used to be. I hope they stay that way.

What do you do after you've put out a book like this and finished a tour? Do you just get away from it all for a while?

Yeah, I want to go to the beach (laughter). You know, drink beer all day and do absolutely nothing.

Maybe the final question: To bring up the ghost of Hemingway, that poor soul, he said that explaining his own work only served to put out of work the professional explainers, and yet you don't seem to mind talking about your own work.

No. What does it say in the Declaration of Independence—“the proper respect for the opinions of mankind”? No, I don't mind trying to talk about it.

Robert S. Fredrickson (essay date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Fredrickson, Robert S. “Robert Stone's Decadent Leftists.” Papers on Language and Literature 32, no. 3 (summer 1996): 315-34.

[In the following essay, Fredrickson examines Stone's presentation of cynical, disillusioned left-wing sympathizers and amoral leftist revolutionaries in his novels, particularly Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise.]

That “the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity”1—Yeats's conclusion early in this century—continues to apply, although now the best are bigger wimps, and the worst are more murderous. To Robert Stone, the disintegration of a viable left apparently figures in this decline. Standing at the center of nearly every Stone novel is a marginalized character who may once have identified with the left but then lost faith, turned cynical, yet remains conversant with left-wing issues. These characters are political junkies, often literally, who have become dysfunctional, perhaps because Stone places them in an intellectual and spiritual climate that undermines the foundations of identity—belief in history, belief in the self, belief in coherent morality—on which virtuous political action might be postulated.

Stone, obviously a student of modern political movements, peppers his novels with allusions to the left, some things easily recognized: the civil rights movement, the Spanish Civil War, the McCarthy era, the words of the Internationale, Paul Robeson, Fidelistas, Trots, and Maoists; others more obscure: Lovestonites and Stakhanovites, Sidney Hillman and Daniel De Leon. He and his characters must believe this history worth knowing. Sometimes the left of times past inspires; usually the left of the present wallows in ambiguity. Occasionally Stone treats an old-school Marxist with seeming admiration, for example, a revolutionary named La Torre (A Flag for Sunrise), who despises those he sees “as living without working,” and is “‘the personification of every Marxian insight.’”2 But such appreciation is qualified, since La Torre is so true as to be a “vulgarization.”

Finally indeed, all present-day leftists are “vulgarizations of history,” since “‘life, unlike sound philosophy, is vulgar’” (207). Past and present popular causes, the Spanish civil war or Central American uprisings, remain impure compounds, embracing in their revolutionary movement bourgeois elements along with religious fanatics who aim to install the just rule of the Lord. For Stone ideology is always effaced by living history. In fact, Stone says he cares little for ideologues, regarding them as “poison toad(s),” who invoke a “verbal machine.” He bases his politics instead on the only morality there is, “me and the universe,”3 a doctrine of personal responsibility separate from causes. But the individual protagonist in this duo, for example, Holliwell in A Flag for Sunrise, proves irresponsible, lacking a sufficient sense of identity to be viable.

I became nervously aware of Stone's fallen leftists while teaching Dog Soldiers to Reagan-Bush era conservatives. Would it be just what they expected and justify their Republican smugness? In this novel we find a child of the old left and a disillusioned liberal, who, having rejected left-wing moral earnestness, decide the most “real” thing they could do is run heroin back from Vietnam. Have we not seen this repeatedly in his other novels? They are replete with characters that John Leonard describes in The Nation as “self-marginalized, bystanding know it alls.”4 In A Hall of Mirrors, Rheinhardt, an alcoholic refugee from New York's bohemian left, becomes a right-wing radio announcer in New Orleans whose evangelistic, bigoted fulminations cause a race riot. In A Flag for Sunrise, Holliwell, another heavy drinker, an anthropologist who sees the world from the left yet makes his career out of collaborating with the right—earlier in Vietnam and now in Central America—betrays the nun he has deflowered and simultaneously a revolution in a country resembling Nicaragua. He escapes to sea at the end where he stabs to death—perhaps gratuitously—the hapless Pablo. But in Holliwell's post modern universe, where the sense of words eludes our grasp and identity effaces itself, murder looms as the “fundamental act of communication” (244). With characters such as these, it would be easy for my students to join ranks with one Holliwell critic, a smiling young woman who hears his drunken extemporizing before an embassy crowd in Latin America, and asks him whether his “stylized despair” is not really an “excuse for immorality” (112). Conceivably, as a more disputatious member of that audience asserts, they could regard his “facile nihilism” as a “screen for communistic theory” (110). Stone's fallen leftists might steer my students to Newt Gingrich-like sentiments; imagine the Op-Ed piece: “Soft-Headed Morals of Left-Liberal Elite Lead from Doing Good to Doing Drugs.” The case is reinforced by Children of Light and Outerbridge Reach which also depict one-time left-wing artists who go rotten, debauching on drugs and alcohol. Indeed Stone lets one wallow with these lost souls long enough to share their dread of being outside history (or of history itself having died), and their horror at a Godless universe, because like history, He has also died. Asked whether there is room for God is in his nihilistic vision, Holliwell quips, “There's always a place for God señora. There is some question as to whether He's in it” (111).

God may not be there, but Satan is. Stone indulges in a perverse gnosticism wherein the only transcendent awareness possible comes through a knowledge of evil.5 Stone becomes the novelist of the Demiurge, an explorer of evil's origins. While virtue seems regarded skeptically as square, naive, and ineffectual, evil still holds supernatural force. The Devil continues to fly in this cosmology. A missionary lady in Dog Soldiers, characterizing Vietnam, describes Stone's world when she says, “Satan is very powerful here.”6 He waits for Stone's decadent leftists.

Significantly, Vietnam is for Converse and Holliwell, along with many others in Stone's work, the touchstone experience, a haunting nightmare one cannot leave behind.7 The memory floods Holliwell's mind continually—the characteristic Vietnam flash—“a mixture of nostalgia and dread” (163). As wars go, there was something seductive about it for those on the left and on the right: “Vietnam had been a popular war among his radical friends. … Popular wars, thrilling as they might be to radicals were quite as shitty as everything else but like certain thrilling, unperfected operas—like everything else, in fact—they had their moments. People's moments did not last long” (408). Vietnam had provided many of them with a kind of “moral fascination” (160). Hence, life afterwards seems lackluster, no longer momentous. Vietnam had been both intellectually intense and sensuously poignant. Holliwell summarizes its bewildering intellectual impact: “A great deal of profoundly fractured cerebration had gone down in Vietnam. People had been by turns Fascist mystics, Communist revolutionaries and junkies; at certain times people had managed to be all three at once” (28). Ideologies confounded, the war's impact lingers in the senses: “Live burials beside slow rivers. A pile of ears for a pile of arms. The crisps of North Vietnamese drivers chained to their burned trucks” (299). Vietnam was a powerful hallucinogen—the bad trip from which no one returns. The most disturbing episodes of Dog Soldiers are scenes from Vietnam early in the novel, the war's depravity capsulized in this snippet of a Marine's conversation: “What I think about … is catching a sapper girl and fucking her to death. I'm a vicious freak” (46). In Vietnam predatory sex and murder, rape and racism, are the same. What follows in that novel is Vietnam coming home to America. Both Stone's left-wingers and right-wingers share Vietnam as a life-changing event, as if it were the war and its moral confusion which obscured any real differences between them. Vietnam summarized a generation's confusion, marking the end of a racist, imperialist era on one hand, and the breakdown of moral order on the other.

Stone's warped and war-wounded figures—the reader may blush to admit—remain the only sure access to the novels in which they appear and force an uncomfortable identification. Converse, the almost affectless, amoral protagonist of Dog Soldiers remains as close as the reader will come in this book to an ordinary human voice, to a kind of recognizable sensibility. Not that Converse has Stone's sensibility or mine, but the brooding voices of Converse, Holliwell, and Strickland resemble their author in having his education and some of his history. It is a hip, educated voice (Stone never went to college, while many of his protagonists seem to have taken an interdisciplinary route wherein one explores the relations among political theory, theology and anthropology), and a left-wing voice, since it buys no conservative pieties about American life, yet it is also an unsanctimonious and politically incorrect voice. Converse cannot even assert basic principles, for example, that it's important “that the value of human life not decline” (40). Instead he parrots this line like a lesson which no longer makes sense. He believes only in “the moral necessity of his annihilation” (185) and cannot identify with those who “acted on coherent ethical apprehensions that seemed real to them” (260). A reified man, an object out of place, he has sensibility enough to realize how he—160 pounds of pink sweating flesh—is vulnerable. Similarly Holliwell, a man “without beliefs, without hope” (26), provides nonetheless access to A Flag for Sunrise. He is embarrassingly provocative when he drunkenly extemporizes before a stunned group of diplomats and intellectuals in Central America, saying: “Mickey Mouse will see you dead” (108). Yet as a man of temperament—an artist possessing a negative capability—he is able to hold onto a world without meaning through the intensity of his sense perceptions. Later, as if describing the role he plays in the novel, he says, “The things people do don't add up to an edifying story. There aren't any morals to this confusion we're living in. I mean, you can make yourself believe any sort of fable about it. They're all bullshit” (387). No one speaks more authoritatively in this book, however. Although Stone never gives readers characters to admire, the reader may empathize as, maimed like Ahab, they quarrel with a universe which shows only the blank face of meaninglessness.

Stone's decadent leftists may represent a new sort of protagonist in the sense that Dreiser's Carrie Meeber, Wright's Bigger Thomas, or Flaubert's Emma Bovary represent a departure from past types of human beings found in fiction. Perhaps they are most like Camus's protagonist in The Stranger, but Stone's existential characters pursue actively their peculiar dread, even if nothing is expected to come of it. There's a sort of negative quest motif—the trip gone bad. There is no good reason for Converse to be in Vietnam, or for Holliwell to be in Central America. In Outerbridge Reach, Browne—albeit in no way a leftist—gives up on the trip, a round the world sailing race, but stays on the sea until his suicide, hearing along the way the voices of the void. One takes these voyages for self discovery, encounters the self as void, uncovering the gap between one's fictions and reality. En route identity dissolves. Converse's belief in his necessary annihilation is complemented by Holliwell's difficulty in believing his identity to be anything more than “a series of spasms, flashes” (245). In their besotted world, consciousness itself is a matter of only momentary illumination. They take a Melvillean voyage into knowledge, pushing off from an inner island of safety into a sea of awareness of their own capacity for evil, a place from which Ishmael says “thou canst never return.”8 But worse, since this vulnerability is due to an inner emptiness, an absence of both identity and conviction, making Converse and Holliwell easy victims of cynicism, resignation and despair. Stone creates no Ahabs.

These spasms and flashes in Dog Soldiers include both Converse and Marge, his wife, the pair a sort of mockery of the 1970's-chic “open marriage.” They represent Stone at his slimy best in characterization. Since Stone is so careful to specify Marge's left-wing family credentials, and sends Converse to Vietnam as a liberal journalist on a quest, this book reads as an object lesson about the swamp into which left-liberal thinking leads. Converse had gone to Vietnam to write a book, but as he fell into anomie it became obvious there would never be one. Instead he sends back stories where—as a matter of marketing—“he was always careful to assume a standpoint from which moral objections could be inferred” (40). As one who is quite cynically PC, he is like the film maker, Strickland, in Outerbridge Reach, who makes documentaries with the obligatory left-liberal coloration. While publications in Europe buy Converse's stories, he believes nothing of what he writes. He had seen the horror of war during an excursion into Cambodia, and had pretended to weep “tears of outraged human sensibility” (31), but his tears were really those of sheer terror. He realized that the world “was capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death” (185). Thus physical vulnerability becomes his only identity; he is a timorous version of the Mailer or Hemingway man, rewriting Descartes's “I think, therefore I am” to read “I am afraid … therefore I am” (42). So after being in Vietnam for 18 months, he discovers there would be no book and no play and consequently takes up dope dealing because, “It seemed necessary there be something” (25). The absurdity of history, the sheer mindless excess of the whole murderous endeavor—exemplified by slaughter of elephants from the air—leads him to conclude: “And as for dope … if the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high” (42). So Converse gets involved in moving an expensive package of pure heroin back to the U.S., and finds himself wallowing in a morass of evil way over his head. “I've waited all my life to fuck up like this,” he says (126). Yet he believes this heroin caper to be “the first real thing I ever did in my life” (57). As “a flabby, pretending weak-eyed devil” (the phrase is from Conrad's Heart of Darkness and is quoted as an epigraph to the book), Converse becomes a spineless Ishmael, who—having looked too long into the face of fire—surrenders to forces beyond his own flabby decadence. What in his liberal intellectual background ever prepared him for slogging through this evil swamp where criminals and drug enforcement agents are the same people, where visionaries are vicious, where torture is the norm, and murder has become casual and common?

Marge's left-wing credentials are inherited. Back East she has extended family who are old-timey Hudson River Bolsheviks; they go to National Guardian parties which, Marge says, really take her back, what with “their folk singers and the tame spades” (3). She mocks the old left, among them her father, Elmer Bender. He is a long time communist who now edits “a weekly tabloid with a heavy emphasis on sex” (23) which he sends, without proletarian guilt, to a non-union press to be printed. Of a similar genre, “Marge's mother had been a left-wing Irish vegetarian, a suicide with her lover during the McCarthy era. … Marge was very like her” (24). Marge is also attracted to the drug deal. “Not since she was much younger had she felt so satisfying a commitment as she felt to the caper and to the dope” (74). She is an addict; drugs have come to substitute for political passions in her life. Often the women in Stone novels seem wounded, desiring something only drugs or alcohol can satiate. Marge had once been a 60's activist, but now it is eight years since her participation in the Vietnam day march in Berkeley. At present her only “righteous satisfaction” (71) rises from the dope mounting in her blood. Marge's father is legitimately critical of her generation's use of drugs which he says condition the mind for fascism, but Marge does not listen, perhaps because she believes his mind conditioned for fascism also. (In Stone's work fascism is the catch-all enemy that lurks in all causes.) Marge has turned against all those who have apparently found answers in some system of thought. She tells the guru, Dieter, a has-been mystic who nurses his alcoholism with homemade wine, that she wants God to drop the bomb on all of us. Because Dieter clings to a faded version of hippy idealism, she lambastes him, “You're like my father—he's communist … So many people have it all figured out and they're all full of shit. It's sad.” Dieter retorts, calling her attitude “cheap junkie pessimism” (229), which it is, but like Miniver Cheevey, he keeps on drinking.

Alongside Converse and Marge, the decadent leftists, there is Hicks, the depraved cultural revolutionary, a samurai Rambo, seemingly a man imprinted with an extra Y chromosome. In her stoned incompetence, Marge turns to Hicks for drugs, sex, and the semblance of wisdom. Readers, however, tend to agree with Converse who concludes that Hicks is neither sane nor very smart. Hicks carries the three kilos of heroin from Vietnam across the Pacific for Converse, guarding it as if it were the sacred chalice. Not a junkie himself, nor in this caper for the money, he attaches a holy obligation to this bag of scag. He's an uneducated hip mystic—a devotee of Eastern consciousness—yet like Converse he has seemingly little sense of the value of human life. Hicks has a sort of tough-bar sophistication; he knows the variety of thugs found in sleazier parts of town and can fight his way out of difficult situations. Hicks is someone “not opposed in principle to beating up on crazy people” (86). In a California motel, Hicks emerges from the bathroom with a pistol in each hand, startling his guests—a sort of movie cowboy. (Nick Nolte played him in a movie entitled Who'll Stop the Rain made from the book.) Later he deliberately overdoses a naive, unhip couple, leaving them for dead. Presumably their liberal cant made them deserving victims. Before meeting Converse, the only books that Hicks had ever finished were The Martian Chronicles and I, the Jury. Although he went on to Nietzsche—dabbling in it for 20 years—he demonstrates how much a little Nietzsche is a dangerous thing. Hicks is a pseudo intellectual, a self-styled mystic, multicultural only because he had an Asian wife once. Perhaps Hicks had been genuine in the past, in some hippy golden moment. He is described as someone for whom there had been no distinction “between thought and action” (269), an idea which seems positively dangerous considering the quality of his thoughts. Unlike Converse or Marge, there was no family tradition of politics, no intellectual soil, however meager, to nourish him. Seemingly the man in charge, more savvy than Converse, he leaves a sickening trail of corpses behind him.

A Flag for Sunrise provides a panoply of men and women on the left who have lost their way. Sister Justin, “the earnest nun” (5) has lost faith, and now wants nostalgically some sense of political purpose. She remembers the civil rights movement in Mississippi, where she spent a night in jail, and reads To the Finland Station. She is ready to die uselessly—which she does—for the cause. Father Egan, “the voice of the Christian humanist in a vicious world” (15-16) is ready for alcohol rehab. He works to convert evil—to substitute his voice for an evil one—and fails. Evil remains intractable. A central American anthropologist, Oscar Ocampo, has abandoned career and politics to take up with a pretty boy, and now—subject to blackmail in this macho Latino culture—is ready to serve as a tool for the right. He “used to be a Marxist-Leninist, but now he's a hippie,” (79) says his lover. Yet it is Holliwell who is the most curious and represents Stone's most extensive development of the phenomenon.

To understand Holliwell, it is worth retracing the reader's introduction to him. His storyline comes second in the novel, after the incredible introductory episode where Campos uncovers in his freezer for Father Egan a Canadian girl he has killed, forces Egan to hear his confession, and then leaves the priest to dispose of the body at sea. The reader encounters Holliwell in midwinter, mid-Atlantic suburbia where one morning he drinks one and then another Bloody Mary for breakfast before driving to New York on the first leg of a journey to Compostella (a mythical central American country) where he has been invited as an anthropologist to lecture. En route he hears on a country-western radio station a shamefully sentimental story of a high school football player who plays an inspired second half because he had learned during half-time of his blind father's death and realized suddenly: “It's the first time he's seen me play.” Holliwell, fatherless, is overcome and pulls to the edge of the road, sobbing. “So much for morning drinking” (17). The exposition continues in a Brooklyn bar where he drinks through lunch with Nolan, a friend from high school who works now for the CIA. Nolan wants Holliwell to spy on a Catholic mission in Compostella's neighbor, Tecan. Holliwell refuses, but the reader learns he had done such work earlier in Vietnam, a practice anthropologists condemn. After lunch he checks into a Manhattan hotel, sends out for a bottle of scotch, jokes over the phone with his wife about going to Eighth Avenue for some $20 fellatio, and reminisces about a New York Jew who taught him the Internationale and might be his actual father. In his old age, this man became racist, despising the black youths of his neighborhood. The reader returns to Holliwell later at the Miami Airport where he is still inebriated. He embarks for Compostella where subsequently he presents an extemporaneous, drunken lecture before an outraged audience, a performance which provokes telephoned death threats.

What does this exposition show? That Holliwell, while cynical, can also be sentimental, that drinking softens him up, that he has a moral sensibility but it has been compromised, that he opposes the moral posture of the CIA and its lackeys, and that he is lonely. It is also a travel narrative, turning on the vulnerabilities of the wanderer, in particular, the drunken wanderer. Each landscape, from the winter marshes of Delaware to Manhattan towers, from the Miami Airport, with its third world connections, to a first world hotel in a third world country, is rendered with all the curious detail of travel writing. Step by step the reader follows an exposed, besotted man who faces death threats with the only armor he can find, the bottle. He chooses the discomforts of travel, as if needing an objective correlative of his inner state. Although it may leave a hangover, his identitylessness seems daring, as if he were celebrating the bizarre sort of freedom Derrida describes.

In Dog Soldiers, Stone makes a connection between Converse's vulnerability—his personal fears—and his politics; he is simply too frightened to be viable. In A Flag for Sunrise, Stone takes us into the intersection of the individual and the political, demonstrating how Holliwell's personal sense of absence debilitates him. He joins Converse, Marge, and Hicks, a whole world of characters who have something missing, a private emptiness. Unlike Sister Justin, who appears to Holliwell to be at home in the world, he lives in a state of existential dread; he pretends he knows too much, sees too deeply to be like some people who act on conviction. This sense of dread is the common factor among Robert Stone's decadent leftists. Like Converse, who chose Vietnam and the dangers of running dope, Holliwell chooses dread and danger, as if he deserved it. They deliberately push off from the green and docile security of what Ishmael calls an “insular Tahiti” to explore the ambiguous darkness lurking off shore. For example, Holliwell literally leaves the shore to dive off a coral reef where earlier, unbeknownst to him, the Canadian girl's body had been buried at sea. The body never appears, but Holliwell senses something down there—“a terror had struck the sea, an invisible shadow, a silence within a silence” (227). The moment haunts him. It is an epiphany which stands at the center of the novel. Whatever is out there seems to be evil, or the evidence of evil. But what has he actually perceived? Is it out there or in him? As Naftali tells Pablo, “There are reefs outside, Pablo. And reefs inside—within the brain of the diver” (256). Holliwell never knows what to do with such knowledge. Perhaps he longs for a palpable exterior evil in order to assuage his sense of meaninglessness. Then there would at least be an opposition.

So among these ambiguities, the haunting possibility of a malevolent force striking terror in the sea is evidently more comforting than the suggestion that there is nothing there at all. After murdering Pablo, Holliwell, sunk deeper in his despair, faces the ultimate fear, that evil is nonexistent. “He, Holliwell, was things. There was nothing better. The absence of evil was the greatest horror” (437). To Holliwell what terrifies is that there is no history, no evil, simply the blank thingness of the universe. “We look at us. The thing looks at itself” (439).

Still, for the reader, Holliwell seems mistaken about evil's absence. The stench of evil is too sensible a presence here and in other Stone fiction; it is the fragrance which draws one to him. Before such evil, however, the decadent leftist falters; he fails to acknowledge it, fails to distinguish it from goodness, fails to deal with it. Stone defines this failure in part as a problem of the ambiguity of circumstances. For example, when Sister Justin succumbs to Campos's blows, we feel evil as something palpable. Seemingly Campos knows it too, but he is able to rationalize that she must be the evil: “‘She herself didn't know how evil she was’” (433). He projects surely; Campos is guilty enough again to seek confession, just as he had after murdering the Canadian girl. Yet Stone questions her action as well, since her “articulate delusions” gave birth to a “terrible beauty” wherein peasant bodies are piled, “swelling in the sun” (414). There are other evil forces, for example the child murderer, Weitling, who is so ghastly that even depraved and fatuous Pablo is repulsed by him. Egan works to grant penance to the unrepentant youth, as if his impotent religion could surmount Weitling's derangement. As an ironic consequence, he enables Weitling to continue. Since Weitling is a serial killer of children, he may be the evil we seek, but then again his conduct appears to be a matter of brain chemicals and not the Demiurge. Another exemplar of malevolence is Pablo, the “vicious and stupid” man (253) who perhaps merits being Holliwell's ultimate victim. Around him, Holliwell feels cornered by “his own personal devil” (421). Indeed next to Pablo, the professorial Holliwell seems a solid citizen. One morning, surging on speed, Pablo takes his dogs for a walk on the beach when—his mind's eye “flashing him shit—death's heads, swastikas, the ace of spades” (64)—he shoots them. Are these flashes Satanic or simply benzedrine? In this ensemble, there are also gun-running mercenaries, the Callahans, Pablo's ill-fated victims, who seem as cold and valueless as any villains in modern fiction. Few mourn their deaths, since it is hard to regard them as human. Both Pablo and Mrs. Callahan, like insects who eat their sexual partners, thrive on sex with a person who will imminently die by their hand.

With all these, Stone's apparent theme goes beyond the failure of left-wing humanism to an indictment of the currently fashionable left-wing rejection of humanism. In the face of real evil, how can anyone who treats language as absence and identity as a sentimental myth recognize evil's potence and familiarity? With the definition of evil, and simultaneously the definition of humanity, obscured, moral distinctions can no longer be drawn. In addition to this betrayal of the intellectuals—and who knows, maybe the same forces which invented deconstruction created Holliwell—the historical causes of this moral failure are many: the failure of ideological systems, the erosion of sustaining culture by consumerism, and the ethical chaos of the Vietnam era.

Thus Holliwell's own loss of humanity leaves us with an ambiguous perspective on the novel's other characters. As one of the novel's centers of consciousness, his ruminations fail to provide the reader with a focused point of view. He may disapprove of the CIA's mission, or the role played by U.S. Diplomats in “American sponsored” shitholes of buttressing the ruling class and training counterinsurgency forces, but he has no solution but to “cauterize” his pain with drink. Thus he becomes part of the problem. As Justin describes his perspective, “despair and giving up are like liquor” to him (388). Qualitatively there may be little difference between Stone's decadent leftists and the worst slime. Just as Rudolph Hoess and Buddy and Olga reside in the same world, Converse and double-dealing drug agents share a moral universe. Like Pablo who wants to fuck a woman and then kill her, Holliwell makes love to Justin and subsequently betrays her. While Pablo is an idiot who believes his murder spree is fated, a fulfilling of divine will, Holliwell is brilliant, and his murder spree—the betrayal of Justin, the stabbing of Pablo—is merely a matter of survival. Were Stone identifiably a left-wing artist, he might portray all of his villains as utterly other, as he seems to do with Campos, the fascist, or with the Callahans, the mercenaries, but many of his characters wriggle outside of any left to right moral positioning and appear decadent in ways indistinguishable from Holliwell. For example, the Englishman, Heath, whose interest in banana republics is imperialist, has a sophistication which resembles Holliwell's. He also can identify the moral shortcomings of others, but he comes down firmly on the pro-American, anti-democratic side, or, so to speak, on the side of Campos.

As someone hopeless and faithless, Holliwell is impotent against those who seem more depraved than he. He betrays Justin's confidence because, like Converse, he finds it “strange to see people who believed in things and acted according to what they believed” (101). A self described liberal, he regards Marxism as “a naive invocation of a verbal machine” (110), the very words that Stone has used, yet there appears to be no system of values to put in its place. While believing it wrong for anthropologists to gather intelligence for the CIA, he abstained when his professional organization voted to condemn the practice because he felt compromised by his work in Vietnam. Would not Holliwell always be already compromised? Characteristically, while he is against America's role in Central America, he foils the revolution designed to put an end to it, remaining a passive agent of those forces which have held him in tow. Certainly he admires Justin's commitment to the revolution: “He had been awed and moved at the measure of her courage and her delusion” (408); nevertheless, he implicates her.

He summarizes his own activities as “the business of his dry spirit” (140). Alienated from his family, which from a distance appears solid enough, a loving wife and two daughters, Holliwell's anthropological research is, nevertheless, about families. His acknowledged business in life “was to husband and father, to teach, even to inspire, and to endure. These things were not trivial” (245). Still he collapses before despair and becomes incapable of sustained relations with others. He has been only an observer, spending his life

hovering insect-like about the edge of some complex ancient society which he could never hope to really penetrate. That was his relationship with the world. And he himself—more and more losing touch with the family he had made, a bastard of no family origin, no blood or folk. A man from another planet forever inquiring of helpful strangers the nature of their bonds with one another.


Nevertheless, Holliwell's observations are often brilliant. For example, he has insight enough to indict Uncle Sam for his shameless marketing of American popular culture (Mickey Mouse seeing us dead); that is, America's hawking of consumer trash which supplants indigenous cultures. “Our popular culture is machine made and it's for sale to anyone who can raise the cash and the requisite number of semi-literate consumers” (108). We recognize here that another cause of Holliwell's seeming lack—his missing something—is a particularly American malady; as a substitute for a deeper, richer culture, America buys and sells mass-produced, cheaply made consumer trash. To Holliwell and Stone, whatever might be good about our culture (our “secret culture,” 110) cannot be exported.

On the subject of history, another of Stone's thematic concerns, Holliwell is particularly professorial. He tells Justin, “God doesn't work through history … That's a delusion of the Western mind” (387). Justin responds that his idea is too abstract to follow. Yet actually it is Holliwell who rejects all abstract notions of how history works. Caught between Christian eschatology and the Marxist belief in an inevitable proletarian revolution, Holliwell regards history as purposeless. Stone's decadent protagonists see neither place nor purpose for themselves in history. Thus Holliwell's conclusion, “A man has nothing to fear … who understands history” (439) affirms that the absence of meaning in history takes us beyond hope, and thus beyond fear.9 Yet this very nothing may be a void that provokes fear. While Holliwell may feel at home at the conclusion, his resignation is anything but mellow.

Holliwell is a compellingly disillusioned cynic whose sloganeering captivates, as if the art of language might soften the pain of his attachment to despair, or as if clarity could provide an antidote, yet his words are but another opiate. After knifing Pablo and throwing him over-board, he speaks of “the Abridgment of Hope.” When about to be saved, he tells his rescuers, “The eye you see it with … is the one that sees you back,”10 a sentence with a variety of meanings which for some, but not Holliwell, provides divine insight. Finally, Holliwell concludes, “He had gone after life again and they had shown him life and made him eat it” (425), as if life were excrement. Holliwell speaks cleverly even when he cannot see clearly.

Yet perhaps Stone would rather nurture a revelation than a revolution. The discredited leftist perspective is ultimately supplanted by the mystical visions of others. Stone hints at religious insight. Father Egan conjures up the lotus within the flower, the soul within the body, an immanent principle of virtue which speaks to us. In her moment of death, Justin feels the divine in the brief interlude between shocks: “then something began to come. … stronger than the strong, stronger than love.” The “trickster” Christ gives her the last word, which she thrusts at her murderer, a final divine joke: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (416).

Ultimately we must conclude that while Holliwell may be central to this story—the decadent leftist with which Stone is characteristically concerned—he is not the only option. Justin dies tragically but ecstatically, believing she serves a greater good. Other revolutionary figures seem to know and to act in ways beyond Holliwell's desperation. Ortega, the proposed leader for after the revolution (Is he Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega?) is also a cynic, knowing that they will “dispense life to some and death to others in the name of a form of humanity which for all we know may never exist” (210), yet he works to bring justice to his “accursed suffering country.” “Hombre,” Ortega said, “there is no Jesus Christ. There is no philosophy in a shack or in the gutter. There is not yet even such a thing as the People. There are only poor creatures like you and me, my comrade—and we propose to bring these things about. We propose unto death” (210). Here is a cause worth dying for.

Left alone with Holliwell at the end, it is impossible to recommend his well constructed cynicism and despair. He is a cowardly, unfit survivor. The conclusion offers none of Melville's consolations, neither Ahab's nobility in fighting Job-like against meaninglessness nor Ishmael's cautious recognition that while there is a “wisdom that is woe, there is a woe that is madness.”11 We seem to be left only with the madness. Evil appears real and powerful in these books, yet it also eludes us. It is everywhere and impossible to pin down. How really can Holliwell go on? Wallowing in such evil would be salutary only if he were ultimately to transcend it.

The book takes us to the heart of an American dilemma. In the end it is not about latino revolutionaries but about Americans. Stone's American left-wing figures are aware, articulate, marginalized, and unhappy. In America after Vietnam, positive political action seems impossible, an attitude now reinforced by post modern, post structuralist intellectual fashion. The intellectual left has undermined any notion of viable being or positive action. For Stone, two mechanical, murderous forces—armies that clash by night—exist, one unconscious and inhumane—the right, and the other all too highly conscious yet no longer able to assert its humanity—the left. Americans like Marge, Converse, and Holliwell, act in futility, as if meaningful political action were an impossibility.


  1. William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” (11.7-8). Yeats, however, saw the problem from the right, the best being those who represent tradition, while the left was being taken over by extremists. For Stone, it is the left which has lost conviction.

  2. A Flag for Sunrise (New York, Knopf, 1981), 207. Subsequent page numbers will be given in parentheses.

  3. Robert Stone, “Me and the Universe,” TriQuarterly, 65 (Winter 1986), 229-234. Elsewhere Stone reacts strongly to “nineteenth century prescriptions” such as Marxism being applied to the twentieth century (“East-West Relation,” Harper's 279 [Nov. 1989]: 64). He dislikes the ultimatums of ideologues who call for “socialism or death,” wondering over gentler alternatives “Why not socialism or less socialism?” (“Havana Then and Now,” Harper's 284 [Mar. 1992]: 45).

  4. John Leonard, “Leviathan,” Nation (April 13, 1992): 489. Leonard, reviewing Outerbridge Reach in this article, identifies better than any other Stone critic his characteristic concerns.

  5. See Robert Solotaroff, Robert Stone (New York: Twayne, 1995) for lengthy discussion of Stone's gnosticism. The absence of God and the presence of some “malign deity,” (65) characterize a world where political people are atheists in terms of God, but capable of believing in a seemingly supernatural evil force.

  6. Dog Soldiers (New York: Ballantine, 1973), 9. Subsequent quotations will be given with the page number in parentheses.

  7. See Frank Shelton, “Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers: Vietnam Comes Home to America,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 24:2 (Winter 1983): 74-81 for a different treatment of the Vietnam theme.

  8. Herman Melville, Moby Dick (New York: Bobbs, 1964): 364. On the last page of Chapter 58, “Brit,” Ishmael warns us that there are grave dangers in acquiring knowledge of that undersea world of cannibalism which surrounds one's insular Tahiti of selfhood. The problem of knowledge in Stone's work and in Moby Dick is that certain horrors of existence seem to be more than the human spirit can bear.

  9. Stone provides a variety of other theories of history. For Latin American revolutionaries history is personified as a “cold bitch” (210), but she is real; for Bob Cole, a journalist seeking to report the truth who is tried and killed as a spy, history is the arena in which truth and justice will be revealed; for Naftali, history is an enigmatic force that “will turn you around every time” (253).

  10. Among possible readings for this line are Father Egan's transcendentalist idea that the soul's eye and God's eye are one and the same, Pablo's insane projection of his demented vision as being a divine vision, and Holliwell's empty sense that there is nothing out there, that the eye looking outward and the eye looking at us represent the same blankness. In Holliwell's case, there may also be the sense of the eye being a mirror which reflects his narcissistic preoccupations.

  11. Ishmael reaches this conclusion after discovering the dangers of knowledge (543).

Works Cited

Leonard, John. “Leviathan.” Nation 254 (1992): 489+.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Bobbs, 1964.

Solotaroff, Robert. Robert Stone. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Stone, Robert. Children of Light. New York: Knopf, 1986.

———. Dog Soldiers. New York: Ballantine, 1973.

———. “East-West Relation.” Harper's 279 Nov. 1989: 63+.

———. A Flag for Sunrise. New York: Knopf, 1981.

———. Hall of Mirrors. New York: Viking, 1987.

———. “Havana Then and Now.” Harper's 284 Mar. 1992: 35+.

———. “Me and the Universe.” TriQuarterly 65 (1986): 229-234.

———. Outerbridge Reach. New York: Ticknor, 1992.

Shelton, Frank. “Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers: Vietnam Comes Home to America.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 24.2 (1983): 74-81.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1956, 184.

Erin McGraw (review date winter 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1678

SOURCE: McGraw, Erin. “Larger Concerns.” Georgia Review 51, no. 4 (winter 1997): 782-92.

[In the following excerpt, McGraw lauds Bear and His Daughter, contending that Stone writes concisely and powerfully in stories containing familiar themes from his novels such as morality and motivation.]

Successful fiction achieves several balancing acts, including the balance of action against reflection, desire against restraint, simplicity against complexity. The last of these may be the trickiest, since it's easy for a writer who is working to shape and streamline a story to streamline the story's implications, too, and thereby to exclude larger issues of philosophical or moral concern. So, even while simplifying the story's action, a good writer must also complicate the characters' motives—aims often difficult to balance and sustain.

Few writers in this century have been more aware than was Flannery O'Connor of the need to meet these opposing demands, and few have worked so ruthlessly to bring forward every dimension of their characters. In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” O'Connor remarks with typical trenchancy that “the kind of vision the fiction writer needs to have, or to develop, in order to increase the meaning of his story is … the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation.” Fiction written with the kind of vision O'Connor calls for will invite readers not only to be caught up in action or intrigued by character but also to ponder several of the more interesting facets of human experience—psychological, philosophical, political, practical. The most consistently engaging of these dimensions, I believe, is the one that allows us to view characters in a large context and to make judgments about their actions: the realm of morality.

By referring to the “morality” of short fiction, I don't mean to conjure those stories that present readers with a clear and unambiguous moral or that conform to a narrow, rigid checklist: downtrodden characters shown to be gallant, anger or resentment shown to be cleansing, and so forth. Such an approach, all too common, grinds art into mush. It's hardly surprising that some readers are sick of books that use fiction as an illustration for preconceived opinions and abjure the whole notion of a moral subtext, feeling that any moral awareness on the part of the author turns fiction into a dreary cautionary tale.

But art that truly balances aesthetics and morality can never be reduced to simplistic lessons, and whether we care for the moral dimension of literature or not, it cannot be shut away. Even in fiction as avowedly transgressive as Flaubert's (in which art is held as the antidote to tedious, soul-squashing propriety), or as gleefully subversive as Thom Jones's (in which drugged, drunken characters hurtle through a universe where the lines separating humans from other animals become perilously faint), implied questions wind around the action: What is the significance of all of this? Why is the author bothering to write it, and why should I bother to read it? Work that responds honorably to these questions doesn't produce fiction that is pat or trite but rather blows apart such preconceived categories.

The best stories look not so much for answers as for exploration of human dilemmas. In fact, such stories require readers to put off their hunger for answers, insisting that we first look hard at the fictional situation and come to see its full depths. Chekhov, that most clearsighted and patient of artists, produced work that was profoundly moral by this definition. …

Robert Stone is known as a big writer, drawn to subjects of enduring consequence: humanity's flawed nature, the passionate attractiveness of self-destruction, the tininess of human endeavor in the face of an indifferent universe. His five novels have given him room to explore his material in great and sometimes painful depth, and his work has always carried tremendous gravity—even if some of his characters have been so delusional or drugged out they seemed on the verge of shattering across the page.

So, Bear and His Daughter: Stories presents more than usual interest to readers curious to study how Stone approaches a tighter, shorter format, and whether the violent urgency that has characterized his novels has to be tamed to fit the more restrictive form. But this new collection is in no way a lesser, scaled-down version of Stone's novels. If anything, it's even more powerful than the earlier books; in the best stories, “Miserere” and “Under the Pitons” and the brilliant “Helping,” Stone distills the strength of his novels and presents material with what feels like controlled fury. Although the stories have been written across thirty years, they are surprisingly unified in their vision and perspective. The effect of reading them is similar to that of having a bright light explode in one's face.

Many of Stone's familiar subjects are here—addiction, crime, characters living on the edge of society. But however marginalized they have become, these characters are active in their lives, striking out against the situations that have isolated them. In “Under the Pitons” a man abandoned at sea struggles for hours in a hopeless effort to save a woman he might love. In “Miserere” a Catholic convert demands that her priest bless and perform a Catholic burial for aborted fetuses she has brought to him, triumphantly reminding him that God's law is higher than human law—and certainly higher than the priest's own squeamishness. And in “Helping,” an alcoholic who has been sober for fifteen months begins to drink again, demolishing in a single action the wall of desperate, willed decency he had erected, so that by the end he is facing down his priggish neighbor with a shotgun. The actions in these stories are violent, sometimes almost berserk, but they are persuasive; Stone has a gift for finding the moments that define characters in their despair and rage.

Rigorous honesty of emotion is crucial in this work; without it the drama would dissolve into melodrama, with characters adopting grand postures for the pleasure of adopting grand postures. Indeed, many characters here (usually in the grip of drugs or alcohol) do start declaiming like bad actors, caught in the self-indulgence created by addiction. Elliot, the protagonist of “Helping,” reflects on this after he tries, and fails, to shoot a pheasant.

Lowering the gun, he remembered the deer shells he had loaded. A hit with the concentrated shot would have pulverized the bird, and he was glad he had missed. He wished no harm to any creature. Then he thought of himself wishing no harm to any creature and began to feel fond and sorry for himself. As soon as he grew aware of the emotion he was indulging, he suppressed it. Pissing and moaning, mourning and weeping, that was the nature of the drug.

The passage, written with extraordinary authority, works fiercely through several emotions—Elliot's rational awareness of his action, his drunk and approving judgment of himself, and his swift second judgment filled with weary self-loathing. The very speed Stone uses to chart Elliot's sliding reactions suggests a kind of ruthless impatience, a desire to strip away all these transitory, insignificant human responses in order to hit some kind of bedrock understanding about the man's nature—about all of our sorry natures.

As reflected by Stone's fiction, we are unfortunate creations: vain, careless, the catalysts of one another's downfalls. But the element that makes Stone's work so gripping is that his characters' choices never feel predetermined. Indeed, a spectrum of options yawns before them, including more ruinous ones than many readers could stand to contemplate—the poet who seeks consolation in his daughter's bed in “Bear and His Daughter,” the small-time hoods who set a boat adrift while its crew members are taking a swim in “Under the Pitons.” But the possibility always exists in these stories for survival of body and spirit, survival in the face of the odds. Mary Urquhart, the central character of “Miserere,” might well have been shattered by the drowning deaths of her husband and children, whose cries for help she didn't hear through her drunken haze. But with a fierce spirit that resembles Elliot's in “Helping,” she willfully rebuilds her life, finding angry, ugly penance in bringing the unborn fetuses to a priest for blessing and burial. When Frank Hooke, the priest who has been uneasily cooperating with her, finally refuses, she turns on him:

“How contemptible and dishonest of you to pretend an attack of conscience,” she told Hooke quietly. “It's respectability you're after. And to talk about what God wants?” She seemed to be politely repressing a fit of genuine mirth. “When you're afraid to go out and look at his living image? Those things in the car, Frank, that poor little you are afraid to see. That's man, guy, those little forked purple beauties. That's God's image, don't you know that? That's what you're scared of.”

He took his glasses off and blinked helplessly.

“Your grief …” he began. …

Mary Urquhart pushed herself upright. “Ah,” she said with a flutter of gracious laughter, “the well-worn subject of my grief.”

Refusing to accept his clumsy attempt at consolation, she continues to chide and castigate him until he, less strong than she, finally begins to weep. “‘Oh Frank, you lamb,’ she says then, resting her hand on his shoulder, ‘What did your poor mama tell you? Did she say that a world with God was easier than one without him?’”

This last question goes to the heart of Robert Stone's art. The possibility for goodness and psychological resolution exists in his world, but such resolution is never easy, as nothing about our lives is easy, and requires movement at several levels. This view of human potential holds little comfort, but it's exhilarating, and the experience of reading these stories feels as revivifying as an immersion in icy water. Stone, who rejects simple answers and comfortable belief, has written a book whose morality shows itself through the freedom he gives his characters to face a blank universe and find in it what they will.

Richard Eder (review date 6 April 1997)

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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Seasick.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 April 1997): 2.

[In the following review, Eder claims that the character and plot development in Bear and His Daughter is uneven and faults Stone for failing to compel readers to care about the protagonists.]

Like the protagonist of his last novel, Outerbridge Reach, the principal characters in Robert Stone's short-story collection [Bear and His Daughter.] are single-hand sailors on a course to disaster.

It is not because the gales and currents of their existence are too powerful. Stone's blighted heroic vision proposes extreme hardship as the measure of a sound life. Rather, it is because the sheets and timbers of their craft are unsound, owing to the sleaze and lack of standards in the world that fitted them out.

This, at least, is how they see it. With a couple of exceptions, one brilliant, they see it bleary-eyed, pouring themselves a fourth double Scotch or scrabbling in a packet of methamphetamine crystals.

They are Hemingway heroes or heroines (the women in these stories are as macho as the men) on skid row. Their universal tragedy shrinks to the size of a half-pint bottle or a glass in an envelope. They are Ancient Mariners, whose urgent tale is followed by a mumbled plea for a handout.

They are asking us for pity and terror, as in the tragic formula, but the measure of pity they evoke tends to be coupled, in the end, not so much with terror as with the creeps.

A story, of course, is not only its end. Stone's writing is powerful, and the reader is compelled a considerable way, sometimes thrillingly, by the harsh splendors with which he arrays his stricken heroes. Mostly they collapse—the “who?” that a vivid portrait summons up drops to a “who cares?”—but not always.

“Miserere” is a rending morality tale: a series of deepening shocks leading to a revelation that is as indelible as it is upsetting. A cultivated woman, Mary Urquhart, has plummeted from her genteel security after an ice skating accident in which her husband and two little children drowned.

Sinking into alcoholism, she had recovered with the help of a sympathetic and sophisticated Catholic priest. Her conversion was total; she dedicates herself to reading to immigrant children in a rough New Jersey slum, where she learns the street walk and calls everyone “guy.” This sensitive Blake-quoting woman also finds herself devising a grotesque anti-abortion project.

Helped by a devout working-class woman with political and perhaps mob connections, she arranges to receive aborted fetuses from a local hospital. She takes them to her priest for conditional baptism; he, intimidated by her fierce extremity in asserting his church's anti-abortion stance, complies unhappily. His growing horror erupts in a final, awful confrontation.

“Take up your cross, guy,” she rages at this frail man, undone by a doctrinal logic whose consequences he shuns and she proclaims.

It is more than a dialectical battle, of course. In a brilliant passage, Stone writes of the memory that has made Mary both half-mad and fearfully lucid:

“She was there when the thing they had been was raised, a blue cluster wrapped in happy seasonal colors, woolly reindeer hats and scarves and mittens, all grasping and limbs intertwined, and it looked, she thought, like a rat king, the tangle of rats trapped together in their own naked tails and flushed from an abandoned hull to float drowned. …”

Stone has juxtaposed the elements of this detonating story—bereaved mother and anti-abortion fighter, dead fetuses and the rat-like look of drowned children, gentle priest and hard doctrine—with an element of stage management.

But it can be judged more easily than it can be withstood.

Elsewhere the force of his saeve indignatio—his Swift-like anger—tends to misfire. There is more gunpowder than projectile in it. An exception is “Under the Pitons,” which gets us to the sailing background he understands so well and writes about with such grace.

It is a grim story, in a way—four amateur drug smugglers accumulate a murderous tension aboard a ketch in the Caribbean—but it is lightened by their comic if fatal ineptitude. It is also redeemed by the oddly moving love and belief that flare up between two of the burned-out characters.

The other stories are darker and tend to collapse on themselves. In “Helping,” a Vietnam veteran who has stopped drinking with the help of his shakily hopeful wife falls spectacularly off the wagon when a client—the veteran is a social worker—recounts nightmares that match his own, despite never having been to Vietnam.

The drinking spree that follows, acutely plumbed for the pain it inflicts on himself and others, remains a tempest in a whiskey bottle. It has pathos but not the tragic stature it strains for.

“Porque No Tiene, Porque Le Falta” is about four American refugees from the '60s living a druggy, boozy life in Mexico. None of the violent undertones, lusts or fantasies, filtered through a chemical and alcoholic haze, have much projective energy.

It is like wandering into a party where everyone is high and no one is interesting.

In most of the stories, the characters oscillate between bravura, superiority and self-pity. The author's attitude toward them can be hard to fathom. At times, it is as if he were updating the lines of Yale's arrogant and bathetic drinking song: “We're poor little sheep who have lost our way.”

The line between what the author thinks of his characters and what they think of themselves is at its thinnest in the title story. It is about the boozy wanderings of Smart, an aging poet, toward a grim rendezvous with his daughter at the national park where she is a ranger. Smart, whose poetry is big and vital, has gone out of favor even in the Soviet Union, where he had been revered.

Contemporary flatness, triviality and the fact that nobody gets his poetic allusions have undermined him. So have drink and drugs. So has his incestuous relationship with his daughter who, just as he does, loves nature and primal legends.

Their reunion will be fatal; after which the daughter's lover; a calm young Indian, pronounces their epitaph: “Two poets.”

That, apparently, is Stone's judgment too, but he weakens it by printing swatches of Smart's poetry. It is not good.

Thomas R. Edwards (review date 9 October 1997)

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SOURCE: Edwards, Thomas R. “Desperate Characters.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 15 (9 October 1997): 36-8.

[In the following review, Edwards provides an overview of Stone's fiction and offers a positive assessment of Bear and His Daughter.]

Of the novelists who came into their own in the eventful, scary Sixties. Robert Stone remains one of the most serious and truthful. At first the violent worlds he described may have seemed marginal and extreme, but time would show how close they were to the American grain. Bear and His Daughter is his first collection of stories, and their dates are not given. The dust jacket says they were written “between 1969 and the present,” and they help us understand better a powerful writer whose career deserves more attention than it has got.

Stone's novels are much more than close hand, tough social reportage. He seems from the start to have been devising forms of modern tragedy, books in which the given order of things, natural or divine, is radically contradicted by human willfulness or confusion. Since modern experience lends itself so little to the testing of human greatness of classical and Renaissance tragedy. Stone's had to be a mixed version, one in which public disturbances comparable to those that undo the mighty in Sophocles, Shakespeare, or Racine enmesh relatively ordinary people. Allowing for such reduction of scale, however, the last three decades have in fact offered some fine material for such an intention.

His first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), explored a New Orleans infested by political and religious extremists of the right and by more appealing but doomed victims of cultural malaise—nomadic boozers and druggers, sexually abused women, decent but clueless do-gooders. The book seemed somewhat uneven, as if the author was unsure whether impassive realism or fantastic satire was called for, but it was clearly promising work. That promise was brilliantly fulfilled in Dog Soldiers (1974), which made Stone's reputation and won a National Book Award. Here, in a post-Vietnam America conceived as a nightmarish extension of the war in Asia, the more alarming elements of government and law enforcement battled to the death with counterculture criminals in the wastelands of the Southwest for the spoils of heroin trafficking. Such a conjunction was, of course, somewhat more surprising then than now.

The novels that followed treated failures of order and of the self in other troubled places. They had larger casts of characters, their actions were more intricate, and they made more concessions to readers not well acquainted with the undersides of American life. A Flag for Sunrise (1981) may have been too panoramic in conception, but its pictures of a Central America wracked by the contentions of oppressive rulers, reckless rebels, the Church, the CIA, and various home-grown and imported crooks was chilling enough even for someone who hadn't yet heard much about Sandinistas, contras, and the like.

Where Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise owed something to Conrad and Greene, Children of Light (1986) drew on the “Hollywood novel” as Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, and too many others practiced it. Stone, who favors steamy fictional locales, set the book not in Hollywood itself but in Baja California, where a schizoid movie star and her sometime lover, a script doctor and occasional actor, enact a fatal folie à deux while on location for a movie of Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Shifting the geographical and social scenery, in Outerbridge Reach (1992) Stone followed the struggle of an uptight ex-naval officer, turned ship-broker during the Reagan years, to win (or seem to win) a single-handed sailing race around the world, while back in Connecticut his corporate sponsors go under and his wife drifts into drink and adultery with a cynical filmmaker.

The main characters in these books have much in common. Most are well educated and somewhat literary, heavy drinkers or drug users or both, attached uncertainly (if at all) to lovers, friends, or family. Many have had Catholic upbringings, and though their faith is gone, its forms and conditions still trouble their spirits. Those who haven't dropped out of conventional society, as politicians and TV represent it, go through their lives without enthusiasm or conviction. They have a bad time of it in a world they are rightly frightened by yet most of them accept or even seek high risks, and before the end they witness, cause, or suffer violent deaths.

They are not, in short, mere victims of history. In Dog Soldiers, Converse, the drug-running journalist, thinks, “I am afraid, therefore I am,” and fear is the moral basis of all these desperate souls. Their world gives them plenty to be afraid of—being cheated or framed or killed, overdosing or running out of dope, betraying those they want to love, just going crazy—but essentially their fear is theological. Their memories and even the names and places all around them are heavy with traces of a Judeo-Christian divinity that has gone away, God only knows where. The final battle in Dog Soldiers (is “Dog” here an impious anagram?) occurs at “El Incarnaçion [sic] del Verbo,” an abandoned Jesuit chapel in the Arizona desert now the home of a hippie mushroom cult. A Flag for Sunrise centers on a Central American mission where the liberation theology espoused by an alcoholic old priest and an idealistic young nun has stirred the wrath of the civil powers and the Vatican. (Sister Justin, named for a famous martyr, is tortured to death by the police.) In Children of Light the actress and the writer approach their dooms at a Mexican “shrine” (now a pigpen) called Monte Carmel, named for the place where Elijah destroyed the false prophets of Baal. Owen Browne, the failed circumnavigator in Outerbridge Reach, drowns himself near the island of Ascension.

These are not merely idle atmospheric details. Stone's is a world of Faustian struggle. Either there is no God, in which case everything is possible or permitted; or, all contrary indications notwithstanding, there is one, although we may know him only through his punishment of our sins, which Stone's characters seem almost to commit as bids for his attention. Either way we are ultimately out of luck if our purposes are at all serious. Father Egan, the Canadian whisky-priest in A Flag for Sunrise, invokes Marlowe's Doctor Faustus when describing homicidal maniacs who think they're doing God's will:

What they see is real enough, it's so overwhelming it must seem like God to them. You can't look on what they see and not run mad. … They've been elected. Priests, because they've seen it, poor bastards. That's what Satan is, Pablo. Satan is the way things are. Remember Mephistopheles, eh? “Why this is hell nor are we out of it.”

And the allusion completes itself at the book's end, when Holliwell, an anthropologist with CIA connections, having killed the young psychopath to whom Egan misquoted Mephistopheles, himself misquotes Faustus's despairing final speech—“See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament! / One drop of blood will save me”—even while recalling that “in Vietnam he had recited the lines in company to amuse and they became a little sunset superstition, a formula in time of stress, never remotely a prayer.”

In the stories in Bear and His Daughter people are cut off from their capacity to pray, while the habitual vestiges of belief remain. In the slightest (and earliest?) of them, “Aquarius Obscured,” a porpoise in a San Francisco aquarium seems to offer spiritual freedom through “the peace of primordial consciousness” to an unhappy topless dancer who, though high on speed and anxious to find a “resolving presence” in the universe, rejects this one as suspiciously Nazi-like. The tone hovers between whimsicality and concern, and remarks like “The scene was crumbling. Strong men were folding like stage flats” suggest that the author was saying farewell to his own involvement in the Sixties with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, for whom instability of tone was also a problem.

The other stories are better, though some sound like sketches for or revisions of scenes in the novels. We hear about drugs and crime among gringo counterculturalists in Mexico (“Porque No Tiene, Porque Le Falta”), the perils of dope smuggling in the Caribbean (“Under the Pitons”), eruptions of violence by an alcoholic social worker (“Helping”) and by a photojournalist who grew up unhappily in a Catholic orphanage (“Absence of Mercy”). The two best stories seem from topical evidence also the most recent, and they show Stone's talents at their strongest even as they suggest that the short story may not be the ideal vehicle for them.

“Miserere” opens quietly, as Mary Urquhart, a librarian in a shabby New Jersey city, reads C. S. Lewis's Prince Caspian to some attentive black and Hispanic children. Mary, once a drinker, has found stability in her conversion to Catholicism. She wishes grace to the local homeless and prays for the souls of slain Asian gas station attendants. It emerges that she has been widowed for thirteen years, that she once lived outside Boston with her three children and her husband, like herself a cultivated Southerner, that she is fond of mystical poets like Vaughan, Crashaw, and Blake. More troublingly, she and an asthmatic spinster friend are surreptitiously obtaining aborted fetuses from a medical waste company, so that these may be blessed and decently interred by her priest.

But Father Hooke is getting cold feet. A clerical liberal with pro-choice leanings, he worries that they are violating both conscience and Church teachings. Mary accuses him of caring only about respectability, and as their quarrel heats up—she calls him a “nice little happy homosexual nonentity” and he calls her “a cruel bitch”—her terrible history emerges. One winter's night some years ago in Massachusetts, while literally skating on thin ice, her husband and children drowned, after clinging together for hours in the water within earshot of people who ignored or misunderstood their cries.

Neither Mary's memory of the catastrophe nor Stone's rendering of it flinches from its horror:

She was there when the thing they had been was raised, a blue cluster wrapped in happy seasonal colors, woolly reindeer hats and scarves and mittens, all grasping and limbs intertwined, and it looked, she thought, like a rat king, the tangle of rats trapped together in their own naked tails and flushed from an abandoned hull to float drowned, a raft of solid rat on the swells of the lower Cape Fear River. The dead snarls on their faces, the wild eyes, a paradigm she had once seen as a child she saw again in the model of her family.

There are moments this dreadful in Stone's novels, but in the larger form they feel more complex. There the shock is in effect cradled, qualified by the threads of plot and association that tie it to other events and moods. But at this point “Miserere” has only four pages to go, and the detail threatens to overwhelm its context. In making us acknowledge how awful life can be, the story almost makes us forget that it is a story; to be artistically valuable, emotions as intense as this may need more breathing room than short forms can spare.

“Miserere” however, does more than powerfully shock. Mary is not just a victim of almost inconceivable disaster, she's also “a sick and crazy woman,” a fanatic quite indifferent to what is merely human—“You were my only friend,” poor Hooke blurts out. She's also a realist, well aware that the institution she's found refuge in embraces not just well-meaning softies like Hooke but true monsters like the reactionary Slav Monsignor Danilo, who (for a fee) gladly blesses the fetuses and in whom she recognizes “the reeking model of every Jew-baiting, clerical fascist murderer who ever took orders east of the Danube.”

At the end Mary is left with a vision of God that would ruin most believers:

Finally, she was alone with the ancient Thing before whose will she still stood amazed, whose shadow and line and light they all were: the bad priest and the questionable young man and Camille Innaurato, she herself and the unleavened flesh fouling the floor. Adoring, defiant, in the crack-house flicker of that hideous, consecrated half-darkness, she offered It Its due, by old command.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,

Have mercy on us.

This should be enough complexity for anyone, but such fierce, stubborn belief may be beyond the capacity of most victims of life; and it seems telling, if perhaps coincidental, that the next words in the book—the title of the next story—are “Absence of Mercy.”

The last and longest story, “Bear and His Daughter,” is another shocker about family disaster. Will Smart is a poet in his sixties, a relic of Movement days who still drinks too much and retains his vast capacity for drugs. But the years wear upon him even so—his sexual powers are intermittent, he has a bad heart, and (worst of all) “the end of the Cold War had undermined his status in the United States, his credentials as a rebel.” He still commands good fees for poetry readings, but the invitations come less often.

After getting kicked out of a Tahoe casino for winning too easily at craps, Smart heads for Idaho, to perform at a state college where the students are handsome morons and the faculty “incompetent and corrupt”—“enraged ex-nuns, paroled terrorists of the left and right, senile former state legislators.” He means also to visit his daughter Rowan, a striking love-child he once fathered with a radical terrorist on the lam in Mendocino. Rowan, now thirty-one, has gone to college, written poems herself, and done some graduate work. She's into magic, the occult, and Native American lore, and she works as a park ranger at something like Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Rowan is bright, tough, flippant; she drinks too much and abuses methedrine, despite the efforts of her Shoshone lover and fellow ranger, John Hears the Sun Come Up, to keep her sober. Both father and child show vestigial traces of natural piety. He is trying to reconstruct the text of a poem he once wrote in Alaska but later lost, about salmon spawning in the Tanana River. He recalls fragments like “Life's champions / Let them teem and die. / To survive and teem and die is glory. / God's will be done,” though he now thinks it might “be well to take the God part out.” Rowan feels a skeptical veneration for “the Temple,” a small cavern at the monument which she shows to tourists. In its “sacerdotal spookiness” it resembles a place of sacrifice, and she likes to tell the visitors—with made-up embellishments—native legends of the ritual killing of Caddoan maidens by the men of the Bear Clan.

We gradually learn the ominous pertinence of such legends to the story of Rowan and her father, whom she calls “Bear.” The neglected bastard daughter has always tried to compete with his legitimate children for his interest and love; she imitates his writing, his excesses, his contrariness. When he comes to Idaho she entices him into drinking too much wine and taking speed, and a terrible secret emerges. Years before, father and daughter had a brief, drunken sexual encounter, and Rowan, now gone over the top, tries to lure him into repeating it. When he ashamedly refuses, she blows his brains out and then kills herself, in the Temple. John Hears the Sun Come Up is left to find them and the lost poem, which she had secretly preserved; and he, like a Greek chorus or some noble survivor in Shakespeare, stoically concludes that not all is wasted—they and their poems will live on forever “out there in the ghost world.”

Stone has never been an ingratiating writer, solicitous of our comfort and diversion, and in these two harrowing stories, as in the novels, he looks so hard for, and at, truly appalling moments as to risk suspicion that it's become as much a habit as an artistic necessity. But the suspicion is unworthy. Pity and fear still are necessities of tragedy, and the horrors in Stone's fiction are, after all, conveyed toughly, inventively, sometimes even wittily. His darkness of disposition doesn't obscure the fun of hearing the edgy, manic repartee of his desperate inebriates, or the sinister doublespeak of the fallen world they and we live in. At one point a stern woman casino guard “asks” Smart,

Are you not all right, sir? Because if you're not all right, sir, we'll have to put you in custody of the police and they can see you get whatever attention you might require, if you feel you require attention. That would just be a matter of your own protection, if you required custody. Do you think you require custody, sir? For your own protection?

Letting “attention,” “protection,” and “custody” mean the same thing seems as hellish as anything Mephistopheles said to Faustus, but while such a voice doesn't make life any less terrible, it may make reading about it more enlivening.

“Miserere” and “Bear and His Daughter” have close imaginative ties, down to their elegiac echoings of Blake's “To the Evening Star,” one of Mary Urquhart's favorite poems: “Near Walden Pond, no less, the west wind slept on the lake, eyes glimmered in the silver dusk, a dusk at morning. She had lost all her pretty ones” (“Miserere”), and “Her eyes would, like her father's, look out from lost blue places. High lakes at certain times of afternoon, the evening sky, the cornflower, the shad violet” (“Bear and His Daughter”). In both stories the tragic situation shrinks to a relatively domestic, familial space; in “Bear” the presiding literary revenant is not Faustus, losing the world and his immortal soul, but Lear, losing his royal lendings and then his only true child. Yet, for most of us, King Lear is far more fearsome than Doctor Faustus, and, in these two wonderful stories about horror as an excess of love, Stone's tragic sense not only persists but, in its move toward the private and everyday now that public life has grown a little quieter, continues to develop very impressively.

William H. Pritchard (review date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Actual Fiction.” Hudson Review 50, no. 4 (winter 1998): 656-64.

[In the following excerpt, Pritchard praises the descriptive passages and dark humor in Bear and His Daughter, contending that Stone is a competent short story writer but that his abilities are more suited to longer narratives.]

It was an extraordinary spring for fiction, as if all the established novelists, especially in this country, agreed to hand in their latest work by way of attesting to continuing vitality. Among others, Mailer, Bellow, Roth, and Pynchon—to name four senior citizens of the group—showed up at the fiction bazaar. (Only Updike decided to wait until fall.) Roth's American Pastoral seems to me major work, the premiere book of the year; Mailer has taken his lumps; and Pynchon, for reasons partly incomprehensible, spent a few weeks on the best-seller list. Whatever happened to all those symposia of dire predictions on the Future of the Novel? Vanished, along with worries about a Failure of Nerve, or Our Country and Our Culture. An occasional voice raises itself to deplore the “conservative” tenure of contemporary fiction, and for those in sympathy with the complaint they can turn again to the arty English cutup, Jeanette Winterson, whose sixth novel makes a fuss about how hard it is to tell a narrative (“That's how it was/is. The story falters, The firm surface gives way”). But most novelists at this century's end are getting on with the job, some of them in distinctly attractive ways. Here follow a few samples, in some cases commented on so briefly as scarcely to constitute a “review.” …

Whenever on the down side, in need of a stronger tonic than Paul Theroux, I pick up Robert Stone's fiction [Bear and His Daughter] and soon manage to feel better about things. A flip remark, yes, but the assurance, in reading anything by this superbly gifted writer, that things are going to go, in one way or another, terribly wrong, is a mooring to hold onto. Four of the stories in this his first collection of short fiction, I was familiar with; the other three, including the title story, are new. He's not, as is Updike and was Flannery O'Connor, to the manner of the short flight born, and even the two best in this collection—“Absence of Mercy” and “Helping”—could have found their place in a longer narrative. “Absence of Mercy” in its details is the most autobiographical thing Stone has written, inasmuch as the early life of the protagonist—offspring of a disturbed, single-parent mother, time spent in an orphanage, teen escapades of drinking and fighting in New York City, service in the navy—corresponds to fact, more or less. “Absence of Mercy” is about a Hemingwayish encounter with fear in the self (Stone on the jacket now looks like Papa H.), a violent physical struggle in the 72nd Street IRT underground with a man who is the perfection of vile humanity. The hero, for all his righteous and even successful attempt to protect a woman from the ugly attentions of this man, ends by himself fleeing with fantasies of police in pursuit: “scattering pensioners and pigeons in Verdi Square, he kept on, faster and faster, increasing speed with every block,” as he wonders “just how far he would run and where it was that he thought to go.”

A number of the stories have as their central figures men and women strung out on pills and other heavy substances. As an old-fashioned guy I felt closer to Elliott, in “Helping,” who falls off the wagon, as gripping an account of such an event as I've read. Elliott has a job counseling veterans suffering from psychological disorders; like other Stone heroes, he has spent a time in Vietnam, is married to Grace (the right name), childless, an unnamed sorrow behind their marriage. She is an idealistic social worker whose spiritual intensities pain Elliot. He has been in A.A. for fifteen months, but after a depressing interview at the counseling center with a sufferer named Blankenship, who hasn't been in Vietnam but dreams of the place, Elliott finds himself on his way to the Midway Tavern and realizes that “he has contrived to promise himself a drink.” The rather stilted diction is characteristic of much of Stone's slightly askew grammatical perceptions, as is the painful, gallows humor of the moment when he climbs on the barstool to be served by a bartender-club fighter from Pittsfield:

Jackie G. greeted him as though he had been in the previous evening: “Say, babe?”

“How do,” Elliott said.

A couple of the men at the bar eyed his shirt and tie. Confronted with the bartender, he felt impelled to explain his presence. “Just thought I'd stop by,” he told Jackie G. “Just thought I'd have one. Saw the light. The snow …” He chuckled expansively.

“Good move,” the bartender said. “Scotch?”

“Double,” Elliott said.

When he shoved two dollars forward along the bar, Jackie G. pushed one of the bills back to him. “Happy hour, babe.”

“Ah,” Elliott said. He watched Jackie pour the double. “Not a moment too soon.”

The expansive chuckle here, the bartender's “Good move,” the final, perfectly grisly remark, can't be bettered. Elliott goes home, continues drinking, has a confrontation with his wife, fields a hostile phone call from a man intent on harassing her, sits up all night watching the snow fall, rifle cocked on his knee waiting for the caller to appear; eventually he takes an early morning walk in the freezing winter light, and meets his All-American neighbor, whom he loathes. The story ends in perfect irresolution, a memorable testimony to what this marvelous writer can do in a form that's not quite his own.

Keith Miller (review date 23 January 1998)

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SOURCE: Miller, Keith. “Messed-Up but Macho.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4947 (23 January 1998): 21.

[In the following review, Miller praises Bear and His Daughter, asserting that Stone is a careful, polished writer who deserves to be read.]

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. The insight would come as no surprise to the characters in Bear and His Daughter. Their mistrust and hostility towards life is deep-rooted and pathological, but almost invariably justified by events. The seven laconic tales of betrayal, psychosis and loss collected here evoke a chilly, fragmented, unhopeful culture on the brink of collapse. Fortunately for us, they are also witty, compassionate, impeccably constructed and, for the most part, an astringent pleasure to read.

Robert Stone began writing in the late 1960s, and many of his characters are manifestly casualties of that period. Their problems are those of middle age—failure of purpose, entrenchment in habit, bereavement, physical decline—coupled with a teeth-grinding hangover from the glory days of the counter-culture. To evade the face in the mirror, they avail themselves of methedrine and gun-play, as well as more time-honoured and respectable strategies like sarcasm and alcohol. Conversely, “Miserere,” one of the most brilliant stories here, proposes conservatism as the result of an inner scarring. A widowed librarian embraces abstinence and pro-life activism as a means of dramatizing her rage and grief. In general, however, the stories are ambiguous politically. The world is everywhere seen to be a terminally messed-up place, but Stone is equivocal as to whether the blame is due to human weakness and devilment, or to the butterfly of hippie radicalism's having been broken on the wheel of the State. The characters reflect the same ambiguity; it is considerably easier to imagine how they look than how they vote. Most of them inhabit a kind of afterlife, in any case, so in a way the question is unconstructive.

One character, the “Bear” of the title, is a stalled poet whose work is likened, by the intriguingly named John Hears The Sun Come Up, to that of Robert Frost (“his favourite white poet”). Stone is by no means a pastoral writer—his landscapes furnish the stories with menace, ennui and sadness no less than lyrical nourishment—but, in the same story, the obligatory world-weary sheriff inveighs against the defilement of rural America: “I got little Mormon farm boys giving each other hand signs like they're Crips and Bloods.” This sense of modern changefulness as a cancer on America's body beautiful has been wheeled out by macho conservatives since before John Ford and Frank Capra started making movies, and its presence tends to locate Stone in their camp. But elsewhere any hint of this-land-is your-land romanticism is unbalanced, not only by touches of Flannery O'Connoresque Gothic, but also by the quality of Stone's writing. In “Miserere,” he describes a blasted urban terrain with observant tenderness, even if his purpose is to express his character's exultation in the sorrows of the world. In another story, Mexico is used, as in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, as a playground for the dark secret self—that of America no less than those of the four deranged stoners depicted.

Generally it is the demands of individual characters which dictate Stone's treatment of external details. The stories may hint at a political or physical landscape, but for the most part the author stays obsessively close to his players, and his plotting is focused to the point of claustrophobia. In “Aquarius Obscured,” a cornered woman takes her daughter, and some drugs, to the aquarium. The bulk of the story is a crazed dialogue between her and a dolphin. The animal evolves from New Age guru to apocalyptic prophet to fascist demagogue in a few pages. Stone captures the bizarre plausibility of the woman's skewed perceptions. Generally the dialogue is expertly pitched between sardonic humour and fearful disenchantment.

Most of these stories have previously been published in magazines. The knowledge that Esquire once saw fit to grace its pages with “Under the Pitons,” a pacey, melancholic tale of a drug deal coming apart, may have some readers stampeding to the nearest bookshop; but it will warn others that, while the story has a consummate technical polish, it is in the end a genre piece, suitable to be read by young men on commuter trains. Stone is too good a writer to be recruited to escapist adventurism, and even “Under the Pitons” gestures towards complexity; but his gruff scepticism and testosterone-soaked prose can at times brand him as less than he is. There is a danger that this book will be read lazily; that Stone's care and respect when drawing female characters, his use of nuance and ambiguity, will prove less interesting to readers than the somewhat unsubtle bouillabaisse of Faulkner and Hemingway, seasoned with a splash of post-Vietnam trauma, which he at first seems to offer.

It is perhaps in order to assert that there is more to Stone than meets the eye that the PR puff which accompanies this book invokes the magical adjective “Carveresque”. The term is promiscuously used nowadays, and is certainly misleading in Stone's case. Both writers may read tersely, and both take drinking and desperation as leitmotifs; but Stone's work aims for a broader range of rhetorical effects, and achieves less in the way of metaphysical transcendence, than the grim sage of Clatskanie. Nevertheless, his absorbing, meticulously crafted stories, with their grizzled humanity and uncomfortable humour, deserve to be read.

Cressida Connolly (review date 7 February 1998)

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SOURCE: Connolly, Cressida. “An Explosion of Truth.” Spectator 280, no. 8844 (7 February 1998): 36.

[In the following review, Connolly offers a positive assessment of Bear and His Daughter, noting the critical trend to compare Stone's writing to that of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver.]

This is not a book [Bear and His Daughter] for the squeamish. There are only seven short stories in the collection, but these few tales describe an array of horrors worthy of Greek tragedy: incest, adultery and patricide all put in an appearance. One story features aborted foetuses. Elsewhere, small children perish by falling through thin ice on a skating expedition; a toddler whines in a grubby cot, unheeded by her drug-addicted parents; people drown. Even landscape is merciless, whether it's the suffocating ‘smell of thick-fleshed green things’ in a jungle, or the bleak Reno highway where ‘a sad wind blew across the creosote plain’. There is no such thing as home, here: the only refuge these characters know is the bottle.

You'd have to be a damn good writer to justify such material, and Robert Stone is. Well known in his native America—he is writer in residence at Yale and a stalwart of the New Yorker establishment—his five novels are all but unobtainable here. A new novel, Damascus Gate, is forthcoming in the States and if Bloomsbury are sensible they will snap it up. Richard Ford and Don DeLillo have attracted British readers: Stone deserves to be next in line for promotion.

The biographical note supplied here is scant, but from his subjects it would be fair to surmise that he served in Vietnam and has since been on first-name terms with the proprietor of the local liquor store. Not that he glamorises drinking, quite the reverse. Five of the stories here could be said to be about drink and drugs, but no one's having any fun with either. His depiction of alcoholism is so ghastly that it's almost medicinal—literary Antabuse. ‘Helping,’ the much anthologised anatomy of a marriage in the process of being destroyed by drink, could be a set text for recovering addicts. It is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without the melodrama; every step of the downward spiral is detailed, like a profane contemporary Stations of the Cross.

Stone has been compared to Raymond Carver (the late patron saint of American short stories, as V. S. Pritchett is ours), and their mutual preoccupation with drink and its fallout inevitably links the two. But Stone's vision is darker than Carver's, his settings are less suburban and his stories are very much longer. If Carver was a Scott Fitzgerald from the wrong side of the tracks, rueful, bittersweet, compassionate, Stone has something of the unrelenting machismo of Hemingway.

The Hemingway legacy is a mixed blessing. On the plus side are the lean elegance of the prose and the desperate valour the characters attempt when they find themselves—unwittingly and usually intoxicated—in boats and jeeps and gambling dens and bars, up a volcano in Mexico, or armed with a rifle in a forest of snow. On the minus side, though, are a surfeit of technical seafaring terminology (which mars only one story, admittedly) and the kind of macho talk which consists of such sentences as, ‘Hey, man, are you shittin' me?’ People in these pages say ‘whoa’ a lot. There are passages where the dialogue is almost too authentic: occasionally—where the characters have all been drinking, smoking dope and taking speed or cocaine—it becomes indecipherable.

But such flaws are very minor when set against Stone's considerable talent. It is rare to find so unflinching an observer of the seamier side of life, or such accuracy. The abrupt changes of mood and tempo which characterise insobriety—the alternate flashes of sourness and gaiety, the twitches of false insight and self-pity—have never been so vividly drawn as they are here. The title story and ‘Helping’ are both outstanding. They don't make comfortable reading, but then neither does Crime and Punishment. Sometimes reading fiction has less to do with pleasure than with discovering a truth; William Trevor has said that a successful story should be an explosion of truth. Love it or hate it, that is what Robert Stone offers.

James Hynes (review date 3 May 1998)

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SOURCE: Hynes, James. “A Lost Soul in Israel.” Washington Post Book World (3 May 1998): 1, 10.

[In the following review, Hynes contends that Damascus Gate is ambitious, powerful, and “Dickensian” in its scope.]

Robert Stone's reputation as a political novelist is something of an oversimplification. The practice of politics in his novels is almost always desperate, bloody and futile. And there has been a strong spiritual undercurrent to Stone's work; his first three novels each open with a scene between a lost soul of one sort or another and a Christian missionary. Almost all of his books conclude with a major character in a desolate place, stripped of all illusions under a merciless sky—the Nietzschean mercenary Hicks in Dog Soldiers, the morally compromised anthropologist Holliwell in A Flag for Sunrise, the crazed sailor Browne in Outerbridge Reach. Much of the action in his work might be described as characters searching for a meaning larger than political commitment, circling blindly around an aching hole where God ought to be.

The template for all such stories, of course, is the Bible, in which various prophets and indeed whole peoples have their souls laid bare in the desert. So perhaps it should not be so surprising that Stone's new novel, Damascus Gate, is set in Jerusalem and Gaza in 1992, during the fifth year of the intifada, the perfect place and time for inextricably combining politics and spirituality. The story centers on Christopher Lucas, an American journalist, the son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, and a quintessential Stone protagonist, possessed of “self-doubt, impatience, bad judgment, a sumptuary nature, a bald spot.” “I'm a religion major,” is Lucas's partially smartass response to the often-asked question, Are you a Jew?

On the prowl for a story, he decides to write about the Jerusalem Syndrome, a condition peculiar to devout foreigners in Jerusalem who believe they have a special mission, often a messianic one, from God. With the help of an Israeli psychiatrist, Lucas finds himself at the fringes of an apocalyptic cult led by a wealthy, deranged Louisianan named Adam de Kuff and his chief apostle and sometime Mephistopheles, Raziel Melker, a drug-addicted jazz musician and the son of an American senator. In following the cult's byzantine progress through the alliances and misalliances of Jerusalem's various religious communities—between fundamentalist Christians and Israeli settlers, between Israeli intelligence and Hamas—Lucas falls in love with one of the cult's devotees, Sonia Barnes, a Sufi jazz singer and relief worker who is the daughter of an African-American father and a Jewish mother, both communists. Eventually all of these characters—some willingly, some unknowingly—find themselves involved in a plot by right-wing Israelis to detonate a bomb under the Moslem mosque on the Temple Mount; the plot is led by Janusz Zimmer, a formerly Communist Polish journalist whose motives are not clear until the very end of the book.

This summary is only the bare bones of a plot of Dickensian complexity and coincidence. Damascus Gate is packed with a small army of secondary characters, violent incident, and, above all, brilliant talk, mostly about religion. There is very little exposition or scene-setting; this is not the sort of novel where the reader is provided with painstaking descriptions of geography and characters who patiently explain two thousand years of religious conflict. Right from the first pages, the experience is more like baptism by immersion, as Stone vividly evokes the deep religious passions and often murderous cultural complexity of contemporary Jerusalem. Readers may at first find this a bit dizzying, and the huge cast of characters hard to follow, but Stone's prose is taut and clean, and the narrative energy never flags. A great deal that is oblique or confusing is made completely clear in a masterfully orchestrated conclusion that features a riot, catacombs, and gunplay.

Damascus Gate is an astonishing performance, for a number of reasons. For one, at a stage in his career when many novelists are content to coast or indulge themselves, Stone has successfully carried off a wildly ambitious epic novel on a devilishly complicated subject. For another, there isn't the overwhelming sense of doom and grim futility that hangs over the conclusions of his earlier work, and for the first time a Stone protagonist does not utterly discredit and humiliate himself in the final pages. And finally, this is Stone's funniest book; while his characters have always been known for their gallows wit, this time the humor is built into the story itself, particularly into a climactic sequence that is as madcap as it is thrilling.

Yet for all that is new about this novel, it is just another leg of a spiritual journey that began with the opening pages of Stone's first book, A Hall of Mirrors, 30 years ago, a search for what he calls in the final pages of his latest novel “God in His absconding.” From the opening epigraph by Melville through the glimpse of a character reading Elaine Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels to its final invocation of God's “promised return, pretended return, promised messengers,” Damascus Gate is a stunning novel by a great American author, written with the energy and commitment of a first novelist but with all the skill and experience of a veteran. It brings to fruition 30 years of passionate inquiry into religion and politics, while finding the irony and black comedy in both.

Todd Gitlin (review date 11 May 1998)

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SOURCE: Gitlin, Todd. “Crazy in Jerusalem.” Nation 266, no. 17 (11 May 1998): 50-2.

[In the following review, Gitlin argues that Damascus Gate is “overlong and overstuffed” with characters and subplots.]

It would be much too simple to say that a lot of Robert Stone's characters are stoned. Drugs are only their turnstiles. They get stoned, also, on going places they don't belong but can't stay away from. In six novels now, one of the major oeuvres in American letters of the past three decades, Stone is obsessed with the spiritual desperadoes, the overreachers, the uneasy riders, those who are tempted to go too far out—to madness, riches, prizes, revolution, whatever they find out too late they can't get. These zealots are seekers at the end of their dope, stoned on freedom, jumping at chances to squander everything dear in exchange for something ineffable, searching for some transcendence that will leave unbelievers sprawling in the dust. The resulting tragedies take place in a Stone Country consisting exclusively of edges—New Orleans, Vietnam, California, Central America, Mexico's West Coast, the open Atlantic. All but the last (from Outerbridge Reach) are furiously hot places, Boschian infernos where only outsiders dwell, and then only on the sufferance of the demons who diddle and drive them. The guilty and the innocent are lashed together, having been parachuted into a moral wilderness, left to deal obscurely in blasted landscapes under skies so big and empty they drive the weak to kill. It is as if Graham Greene were on street drugs, graced with a lyrical gift and a genius for dry anticlimax all at once. Stone is an ecstatic of disillusion.

There are inescapable whiffs of Conrad, too, where the goers-for-broke collide with the hangers-back, the once-tempted who are now (they hope) resistant to falling. But in Stone, when a Marlow watches aghast (and rapt) as a Kurtz slips over the edge, it has been a very long time since Marlow thought he was innocent. Zealots who have forgotten how to doubt know how to sink their claws into doubters who are not immune to zeal. The doubters are searching also, but for something they half-suspect they would not even recognize if it fell on them in the street. The doubters are half in love with easeless apocalypse. But for the grace of God, they would be seekers themselves. Indeed, they are often ex-seekers. Now they are wry devotees of ambiguity. The ex-, in Stone, are always asking Why.

In Damascus Gate, Stone's principal doubter is a jaded journalist, Christopher Lucas, author of a book on the U.S. invasion of Grenada, “an American and hence the slave of possibility.” Lucas, half-Jewish, half- (and ex-) Catholic, all Stone, was a religion major (wonderful touch!), and though it is his custom to stand “off to one side,” he is prone to feeling “pursued by unreasonable yearnings.” When the book begins, he's procrastinating on a Conde Nast travel piece, hoping instead to line up more demanding work, something that would expose “depravity and duplicity on both sides of supposedly uncompromising sacred struggles. He found such stories reassuring, an affirmation of the universal human spirit. Lucas desperately preferred almost anything to blood and soil, ancient loyalty, timeless creeds.” Enter Sonia Barnes, red-diaper baby, half-African-American, half-Jew, ex-Communist, ex-Quaker activist, ex-resident in Cuba, now a Sufi and a jazz singer. (“Something cool,” is the first lyric Lucas hears her sing. “I'd like to order something cool.”) Like Lucas, but from the other side, Sonia “required the proximity of faith.” They are bound to fall for each other, though violins do not play. Lucas's opposite number is Janusz Zimmer, Polish journalist, also an ex-Communist, working the Gaza Strip beat. Zimmer had also been a visitor to Grenada, “just before” and “soon after” the invasion. Zimmer is so dry he could draw water out of the Negev. At one point Lucas observes that Zimmer “was being contemptuous, but could not be sure.” Enter also Nuala Rice, an Irishwoman with strong Palestinian sympathies whose International Children's Foundation, working in Gaza, has also engaged Sonia's labors.

Lucas determines to collaborate on a book about people who suffer, and exult, from the Jerusalem Syndrome, the belief (once they set foot in the Holy Land) that they are authentic prophets or messiahs reborn. (“So you're another guy after religious nuts?” Sonia asks him. “That's old, man.” “I'm not a put-down artist,” Lucas assures her, “and I don't go for the obvious.”) Lucas's partner in writing is Dr. Pinchas Obermann, a shrink specializing in zealots, including, once, Willie Ludlum, based on the real-life Australian shepherd who torched the Al Aksa mosque in the belief that Jesus would come back faster if the former Mount Moriah were religiously cleansed of Islamic shrines. Such fancies persist, extremity of vision being the commonplace of the Jerusalem Syndrome project. One place that will attract Lucas's attention is the fundamentalist House of the Galilean, where millennial Christian fantasies dovetail with terrorist designs. He will intersect with Raziel Melker, son of a Congressman, musician, ex-yeshiva student, ex-Jew for Jesus, ex-Zen monk, an off-again-on-again junkie turned cabalist who “always wanted more. To be apostate and messiah and Mingus too.” Raziel, whose well-placed parents have sent him to Jerusalem to chill out, has attached himself to Adam De Kuff, an elderly, maladroit Christian convert whom he meets in the waiting room of their common shrink, Dr. Obermann. De Kuff, bipolar, given to long silences, is a reluctant messiah, but becomes convinced he is the real thing, bringing the news that all the false messiahs were distractions and that he is destined to lead. By the nose is how some of his followers lead him.

In Jerusalem, loose people converge like misshapen iron filings drawn to the same magnet, as at a reggae bar full of “Viking quasi-maidens, Ethiopians with Malcolm X hats, Romanian pickpockets and American Juniors Abroad in kibbutznik hats. Each boogied according to his covenant.” Stone's Jerusalem is home to the deranged and to “competing moralizers,” where the zealots are drunk on portents, and so of course they migrate to the Place of Places, where the sky is a “rich, indifferent blue, the first and holiest of unresponding skies,” “every sultry breeze [is] infested with prayer” and 64every crossroads labor[s] under its own curse.” Messianic promises are even more common than apostasy. Even a group of Japanese pilgrims reminds Lucas of Nagasaki, once “the most Christian of Japan's cities,” where “all through the war, the Japanese had thought the Americans spared it air raids for that reason.” The very stones seem ready to rapture into the heavens, and crazies migrate to stare wild-eyed into the butt-end of history, or explode somebody else's Holy of Holies to bring on the end-time:

Each year, it seemed, the equinoctial moon inspired stranger and stranger doings, usually vaguely Pentecostal in spirit, the spontaneous outpourings of many lands. Once, to be a Protestant had meant to be a decent Yankee schoolmarm or kindly clerical milord. No longer. There had commenced a regular Easter Parade, replete with odd headgear. Anglophone crazies bearing monster sandwich boards screeched empty-eyed into megaphones. Entire platoons of costumed Latin Cristos, dripping blood both real and simulated, appeared on the Via Dolorosa, while their wives and girlfriends sang in tongues or went into convulsions.

Even in the more secular Tel Aviv, conspiracies abound. The very cafes are thick with them. In the midst of the general mishegoss, the crazies have as many reasons as they have covenants. A minor-league gambler (a card-counter at blackjack) turns out to be a numerologist obsessed with variations on the number 36, and casts a spell “which he had had frequent occasions to use against various officials and auditors in the Southern District of New York.” One fanatic sect-founder is a Jewish junior-college political science professor and football coach “who had grown up in an anti-Semitic New England town and lived a secular life. … He had come to the Apocalypse through his readings of Scripture, the agrarian pessimism of Wendell Berry and the predestinarian poetry of Larry Woiwode. The history of Israel, he felt, provided evidence of divine election and the human depravity from which only God's choice could rescue humankind.” He is, one rightly suspects, destined to play a role in the plot more comic than tragic, though barely.

If the tangle of Stone's major characters sounds intricate, it is, and then some. This is Stone's longest novel, and it is overlong and overstuffed, the action often oddly slack. Shake the likes of his whole sick crew and bake them in the Middle East oven, send them on criminal missions into the Gaza Strip, expose them to angry Palestinians and millenarian settlers, and Damascus Gate ought to be superb. It has Stone's characteristic lizard eye for human tension and pretension. It has the morally pained point of view, than which nothing could be more apposite for Israel and Palestine. But the intricacy comes at a steep price. Stone's largest population of characters is too dense, too much a cobbler of bad apples. The plots are so thickly knitted together with counterplots, the intelligence agents with counterintelligence, it gets hard to keep them alive in the mind. As character after character maneuvers, masks slip away and reversals come too frequently. Perhaps because there is so much plotting—in both senses—at work, the mild acid of Stone's prose is at times weaker than usual. Forward motion stalls. Stone's characteristic grace notes are here, but muted, perhaps in the interest of motion that proves difficult to sustain. For all the quasi-biblical raptures, lightning does not strike.

There is nothing nearly as vivid as the desperate snowy zonk-out of Outerbridge Reach, comparable in its intensity to the transports of Hans Castorp in the great “Snow” chapter of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. Here, Stone's passionate intensities clog up.

Still, Stone's fascination with moral collisions and pirouettes shines through Damascus Gate, and the rewards, sentence by sentence, are frequent. His newfound Balzacian relish for multifarious character extends this time even to women. Most gratifying, more strongly than in previous novels, there's a comic aspect that gets as close to redemption as Stone will allow. As demented Jewish settlers and Palestinian villagers “entertain each other,” so do Stone's crazies. In Damascus Gate, Stone Country has the unexpected virtue of finding in Israel/Palestine the shtick each party sorely needs. All seekers of Revelation and jihad will be equally offended—no small tribute.

Richard Eder (review date 17 May 1998)

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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Millennium's Pursuit.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (17 May 1998): 2.

[In the following review, Eder commends the action, plot, and suspense in Damascus Gate but notes weaknesses in Stone's presentation of the novel's religious zealots.]

In Jerusalem's uniqueness—its beauty, the tremors it raises in visitors of whatever faith or faithlessness and the nakedness of light and profile that mock its labyrinthine complexities—architecture is war by other means. Every stone is a metaphor in three millennial stories or, by now, as stories breed and divide, in rival versions of each of them: Jewish quarrels over the Sabbath, the Wailing Wall and who is a Jew, Christian sects disputing bits of the Holy Sepulchre roof, factional splits among the Palestinians.

The grandly suggestive conflictiveness of the place provides stretching room for Robert Stone, a writer whose power and whose urge to tackle large questions have sometimes forced their settings. In Damascus Gate, he has devised a dazzling assortment of conspiracies set Chinese box-like, one inside—or sometimes alongside—the other. Some are political, for large visionary or narrow tactical purposes. Others are religious, drawing on an assortment of fanaticisms.

Using or being used are a militant Jewish settlers' underground, an ultra-Orthodox American rabbi, an American Christian fundamentalist group, an elderly would-be messiah, an armed Palestinian resistance cell and several mutually deniable levels of Israeli intelligence. For a dizzying variety of reasons, most of the conspiracies aim at blowing up—or seeming to blow up—that part of the sacred Muslim Haram that stands over remnants of the Jewish Second Temple.

The settlers' group aims at provoking the Palestinians into full-scale revolt and subsequent elimination by the Israeli armed forces. The rabbi and his followers want to destroy the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem to make way for the building of the Third Temple. The American fundamentalists give discreet assistance, seeing the Third Temple as part of an apocalyptic process leading to the Second Coming and the conversion of the Jews.

The would-be messiah, a wealthy American musician, mixes mysticism and madness; he is manipulated by a former hippie with a drug habit, rich American parents and existential unease. As for Israeli intelligence, it has contacts with all of the above, as well as with the Palestinian underground group that it allows to operate for reasons of its own.

Into these conspiratorial schemes and passions, Stone introduces Lucas, a freelance journalist seeking stories to write and answers to his spiritual—restlessness. He gets involved with the plots and plotters but less as actor than as witness and commentator. He is a latter-day American innocent abroad; another is Sonia, an African American singer with whom he falls in love. Sonia has been in Cuba and Somalia; she is an activist seeking illumination. She joins up for a while with De Kuff, the messianic visionary, and Razz, his handler, but extricates herself. Both she and Lucas brush up against what Stone calls the Jerusalem Syndrome, without quite catching it.

Syndrome is the author's name for the passions that have sporadically seized individuals and groups in Jerusalem over the centuries. He includes national and ethnic fanaticisms, along with the prophetic visionaries imbued with cabalistic, gnostic and other doctrines that sprang up in opposition to more orthodox Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachings. In Stone's vision, Jerusalem is a zone of ineradicable plague; people come from all over the world to catch it.

The swelling crowd that hears De Kuff preaching at the Bethesda Pool are mostly young foreigners; the disciples who follow him include “veterans of alien abductions, reincarnated priests of Isis.” The local mental hospital, explains the delightfully sane and cynical psychiatrist Dr. Obermann to Lucas, harbors “a Noah, a Samson, several John the Baptists and Jesuses returned and disappointed at their long-awaited receptions.”

The notion is suggestive though superficial; it does not stand up as anything like a large definition of what Jerusalem is. But it is wonderfully effective as an energy both to propel Stone's story and to provide him a means of dramatizing the web of conspiracy and illusion that entangles anyone who seeks in a month, a year or a lifetime to penetrate what has been knotting itself up over 2,000 years.

Stone is a master of complexity and confusion. With all its characters, factions, plots, each with its own layers of concealment, it takes a while for Damascus Gate to set its stories in motion. Once it does, though, it is unsparingly exciting. We are never sure where we are as we follow Lucas through his chain of misunderstandings and misadventures.

It does not slow us down, quite the contrary. Stone tilts the ground on which we stand; helplessly we trot forward so as not to topple. After the Gaza Strip has been set ablaze, riots have swept Jerusalem and a device has gone off under the Temple Mount—what kind and what it accomplishes should not be revealed—the ending is a finely ironic shrinkage of a furiously expansive story.

There are any number of vivid scenes: a spooky night walk in the Old City when Lucas is accosted by two Arabs who lead him along by the hand, perhaps to kill him. Perhaps not; he is released but the perhaps remains. There are riots in Gaza, set off by one arm of the many-armed linkage of conspiracies. There is a brilliantly conceived conversation between an Israeli intelligence agent and the American rabbi whom, it appears, he is assisting in the bomb plot. The Israeli, a tough, sophisticated European and sometime terrorist, has nothing but contempt for the rabbi's religious mania; his own purposes are hidden.

Stone's finest portraits are of those too wise or cynical to catch the Syndrome. Besides the Israeli agent and Dr. Obermann, there are two saints, each of whom lives a life of dedication without a whiff of exaltation. One is Gross, who works tirelessly and dangerously to report and, where possible, prevent Israeli security abuses in the occupied territories. The other is Herzog, a Jew who has become a Catholic priest and insists on retaining his Israeli citizenship.

Lucas, half Jewish and half-Catholic and exhilarated by the mystical buffet he has been gorging on, goes to Herzog hoping for some large spiritual advice to tie everything together. “I can't give you a faith with Bodhisattva and the Kabbala and Our Lord,” the priest dryly replies. “No doubt in America there is one.”

Americans figure prominently among the Syndromers, and Stone has little use for what amounts to spiritual imperialism. There are the Messiah and his spoiled American handler—one mad, the other drugged-out—the bomb-financing rabbi from California, a sleek, well-financed Christian fundamentalist couple, an undercover agent from one of the Jewish settlements who acts as a provocateur in the Arab camps.

The weakness of the book is its one-sidedness, not moral or ethical but dramatic. Stone gives a lot of space to those who have caught the Jerusalem Syndrome. We hear them talk about their mystical visions, but the talk is windy and dumb.

It's not that the author should admire them. It's that he is unable to convey the power of what he sets up as overwhelming power. Still less does he convey its allure. A poisoned apple has to be an apple if it is to poison anyone. In his moral drama, Stone can do a Grand Inquisitor—such figures as Obermann, Gross, Herzog, the Israeli agent—but his Christs are soggy duds. The result is to make Sonia, who is a temporary convert to De Kuff's teachings, and Lucas, who toys at great length with them, seem empty and lacking in anything much beyond good will.

On the other hand, if Damascus Gate fails as the religious thriller it aims, among other things, to be, it succeeds in those other things. It is a novel of springy action, a witty political thriller, an artfully lighted labyrinth of conspiracy and deception and a testing of Israel's perilous razor edges.

Hillel Halkin (review date 25 May 1998)

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SOURCE: Halkin, Hillel. “The Jerusalem Syndrome.” New Republic 218, no. 21 (25 May 1998): 29-32.

[In the following review, Halkin criticizes Stone's superficial understanding of Israel and Jewish religious nationalism in Damascus Gate.]

Robert Stone is a first-rate writer of fiction. He may not have a voice that is unique, but the voice that he does have, while shared with others of his times, has been burnished to a fine tone: spare, tough, sharply observant, capable of genuine lyricism and tenderness. He is a man who has read widely and he cares deeply about his craft; and when one catches traces in his writing of the great originals—an undertone of Hemingway, an occasional riff of Conrad or of Joyce—these are always perfectly modulated. The more is the pity, then, that Stone's new novel [Damascus Gate], written with his usual skill, is really a rip-off of a country and a tradition that deserve better at his hands.

The Damascus Gate is the English name of one of the main entrances into the old walled city of Jerusalem, a point near where Arab Jerusalem and Jewish Jerusalem meet, and Stone's novel, set in contemporary Israel, takes place in just such an interstice between Israelis and Palestinians, one inhabited by international types in which Israel (and Jerusalem in particular) abounds: journalists, TV crews, diplomats, U.N. staff, international relief and human rights workers, foreign archaeologists and Bible scholars, and Christian missionaries and men of the cloth, to say nothing of religious pilgrims, seekers, and lunatics of all kinds. Judging from my own limited acquaintance with such types, Stone has a keen eye for the condescension with which many of them regard the haplessly quarreling natives among whom they live. And yet few Israelis or Palestinians, it must be said, have much to do with them—which, when it comes to its representational ambitions, is one of Damascus Gate's problems. But I will get back to that.

Renting an apartment in Jerusalem is Christopher Lucas, a freelance American journalist who has come to Israel to do a feature story—exactly about what, he is not sure. The lapsed Catholic son of a Christian-Jewish intermarriage, Lucas has knocked about the world a good bit and seen more than his share of human brutality and idiocy. Like many members of his profession, he is curious by nature and cynical by habit, and the stories that appeal to him are “the ones that expose depravity and duplicity on both sides of supposedly uncompromising sacred struggles. He found such stories reassuring, an affirmation of the universal human spirit. [He] desperately preferred almost anything to blood and soil, ancient loyalty, timeless creeds.”

Lucas finally decides to write about the “Jerusalem Syndrome,” the known propensity of some pre-psychotic individuals to suffer delusional breakdowns of a religious nature while visiting the Holy City. Then he meets an attractive and street-smart American woman named Sonia Barnes. Sonia is half-Jewish like himself (the other half is black), and has made Israel her home. A part-time nightclub singer, she has mystical sensibilities that originally brought her to Jerusalem to sit at the feet of a Sufi guru named Berger, who dies early on in the novel.

Sonia is not your ordinary American Jewish immigrant. The world she moves in is as international as Lucas's: her friends include Nuala Rice, a pro-Palestinian Irish human rights worker in the Gaza Strip; Raziel (“Razz”) Melker, an American Jewish musician and ex-junkie who has also been “a yeshivah student, a Zen monk at Tassajara, a member of a Hebrew-Christian commune” and a follower of Berger's, and is now heavily into Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and messianic fantasies; and Raziel's Gentile companion Adam De Kuff, a musician too, as well as a Yale graduate and the wealthy heir of an old New Orleans family.

De Kuff, a brilliant though mentally unbalanced polymath whose conversation with Raziel ranges over “Zen and Theravada and the Holy Ghost, the bodhisattvas, the sefirot and the Trinity, Pico della Mirandola, Teresa of Avila, Philo, Abulafia, Adam Kadmon, the Zohar, the sentience of diamonds, the Shekhinah, the meaning of tikkun, [and] Kali and Matronit under the dread designation of the moon,” is both Raziel's mentor and his protégé; for Raziel, while acting the role of the disciple, has convinced De Kuff that De Kuff is the Messiah, and eggs him on to declare himself as such.

What follows is a religious thriller. Lucas falls in love with Sonia, who comes increasingly under the influence of Raziel and De Kuff and joins their little band. While attracted to Lucas, she is, to his immense frustration, less interested in a physical relationship than in the new world about to be born. She seeks to win him over to a belief in that new world. Unpersuaded, he nonetheless gets involved with the group, in part to be close to Sonia and in part to research his subject, of which both Raziel and De Kuff seem outstanding examples. Nor is he so removed from his religious upbringing that something in him does not thrill to the message of an End of Days in which, as De Kuff tells the ragtag audiences that he preaches to in the alleyways of the Old City, “the old world will disappear and things will become the word of God incarnate … the world will become Torah.”

But there are also other messianic forces at work in Jerusalem: ultra-right-wing Jewish nationalists who, assisted by an unsavory British adventurer named Fotheringill, are planning to blow up the Mosque of Omar on the Temple Mount by planting a bomb in the ancient tunnels beneath it, which can be reached from a secret passage opening off the Old City courtyard in which Berger lived. And Sonia, returning with Lucas from a trip to the Galilee—in the course of which De Kuff's messiahship is symbolically revealed, Jesus-like, to his followers—discovers that Raziel is not only still on drugs, which are the real secret of his eschatological visions, but is also in league with the mosque bombers.

The finale of Damascus Gate has the kind of fast-moving action that one associates with Stone's fiction. It can make one feel, even while appreciating his adeptness with scenes of violence and suspense, that he is not unaware of a movie industry in Hollywood. Aghast at what is happening, and suspecting sinister forces in the Shabak, the Israeli internal security service, of being in cahoots with the bombers also, Sonia rushes off to the tunnels in the hope of stopping the madness.

Plunged into darkness by a failed flashlight, she wanders blindly through an underground labyrinth of eerie voices and strange phantasms until, following the unexpected appearance of Fotheringill, there is a sudden eruption of gunfire, a tremendous explosion—and a bittersweet ending. Fotheringill, it turns out, is himself working for the Shabak, who have been on the good side all along: having infiltrated the bombers, they arrive with a commando unit in the nick of time to save the mosque. De Kuff is mistaken for a Jew by a rampaging Arab mob and lynched, while Raziel is beaten senseless and taken comatose to the hospital. Lucas, with enough material for ten feature stories, or perhaps even for a novel written under the pseudonym of Robert Stone, decamps for America. Before leaving, he asks Sonia to join him. She replies:

I love you too, Christopher. I do. But let me tell you something. When I'm not here trying to be the best Jew I can be, I'm going to be in Liberia, Rwanda, Tanzania. In Sudan. Cambodia. I don't know, man, Chechenya. … We'll see each other again. But if you have to ask me will you be my wife? I have to say no. I don't want that. I want to be free and I want to be here and Jewish and I want to do my little no-account bit for tikkun olam. Even if I use up life that way. I'm sorry, my love. There's no doubt in my mind.

Tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “repairing the world,” is a phrase that, even now that it has been popularized by the Jewish theologian Emil Fackenheim, and even more so in Fackenheim's wake by the left-wing magazine Tikkun, might not be expected to turn up in the work of a leading American novelist who has written about drugs, Vietnam, and Central America. But neither would such kabbalistic terms as shekhinah (God's femininely imaged presence in the world), adam kadmon (the primal Adam), sefirot (the ten “spheres” of Creation linking the Godhead with the material universe), or matronita (“the Matron,” an Aramaic synonym for the Shekhinah). So what gives?

What gives, one supposes, is the current fad for Kabbalah in certain Jewish circles in America and Israel, which suggested to Stone (who already in his Central American novel A Flag for Sunrise evinced a fascination with the relation of religious faith, or the anguished lack of it, to revolutionary action) the idea of organizing a novel, dealing with the interplay of mysticism and messianic politics, around kabbalistic ideas and imagery. (Or more precisely, around the ideas and imagery of Lurianic Kabbalah, since the fusion of Kabbalah and messianic fervor, largely absent from the thirteenth-century Zohar, the seminal text of kabbalistic tradition, took place in the writings of the sixteenth-century rabbi Isaac Ashkenazi Luria. It was Luria who shifted the emphasis of kabbalism from theosophy, the understanding of divine reality, to theurgy, the transformation of it, which he held could be done by acts of spiritual concentration.)

As a way of universalizing his treatment, Stone has made his kabbalistic Messiah not only a Gentile, but a religious syncretist who combines Lurianic doctrines with Sufism, Buddhism, Kundalini Yoga, Christian Millenarianism, and the mystery religions of the ancient Mediterranean. Indeed, as the Israeli psychiatrist Pinchas Obermann explains to Lucas, the schizophrenic De Kuff is thought by his followers to contain within himself all the great spiritual figures in the history of mankind, reincarnated “as a single recurring soul.”

Needless to say, although De Kuff's and Raziel's beliefs are little more than the tinsel of rhetoric, there is nothing wrong with staging a novel with the flash of tinsel. What matters in fiction, after all, is what ideas do to characters, not what they are in themselves. The lack of verisimilitude in Damascus Gate is not due to the two men's failure to be intellectually coherent. (Since one of them is spaced out and the other is mentally ill, why should they be?) It is due, rather, to the unfortunate fact that the ideas attributed to them are essentially inappropriate for Stone's plot.

Turning to political violence as a means of coaxing a reluctant God to manifest Himself in history is a theme that clearly intrigues Stone; and clearly, too, his choice of Israel as a fictional venue was dictated by this. What better place to explore this theme, indeed, than a Jewish state in which religious and nationalist extremists actually did, back in the 1980s, plot to destroy the Mosque of Omar in order to rebuild the Temple on its ancient site? The problem is that the actual thinking of Israel's religious and nationalist extremists has nothing to do with Kabbalah, and that the fantasies of a character like Raziel have no relevance to anything happening in their circles.

True, Abraham Isaac Kook, chief rabbi of Palestine in British Mandate times and a leading theoretician of religious Zionism, was deeply influenced by Kabbalah. True, too, his son, Rabbi Tsvi Naftali Yehudah Kook, was the intellectual master of Gush Emunim, the religious settler movement that sprung up after the Six Day War. Yet the most militant settlers and their supporters are not mystics and never have been mystics. It is not the hand of God that they have been trying to force with their actions, but the hand of the Israeli government, by seeking—alas, not entirely unrealistically—to embroil it in an endless holy war with Islam. Their messianic vision, if such it be, has never been the ontologically theurgic one of Isaac Luria. It is rather the pragmatically political one of the antimystical and rationalist Maimonides, who (though his writings otherwise provide no support for their policies) wrote:

Do not think that the king Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar things. If there arise a king from the House of David who … rebuilds the sanctuary on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the Messiah.

I hope this will not be taken for critical quibbling. By handling Jewish religious nationalism in the wrong framework, Stone ends up writing about the wrong country. In general, not even his admirable powers of observation can hide the fact that his grasp of Israeli reality is far less sure than his grasp of Central America, with its left-wing Catholic priests and lay workers, that he wrote about so marvelously in A Flag for Sunrise. There are simply too many mistakes and inaccuracies: the lapses of a writer who has spent time gathering material in a foreign land, taken extensive and hurried notes, and not always been able to read what he has written upon returning home.

Thus, German Jews in Israel are called yekkes, not tekkes; the Jewish marketplace in Jerusalem is Machaneh Yehuda, not “Machaneh”; a non-Hasidic European Jew is a mitnaged, not a mitnag, the initial consonant in the Hebrew word kavana (concentration in prayer or meditation) is not “glottalized” (some initial “k”'s are in Palestinian Arabic, with which Stone's notes apparently got confused at this point); the numerical value of the Hebrew letter kuf is 100, not 19; and so on. Errors of this sort (their uncorrected appearance in print reflects sadly on the decline of copy-editing as a conscientious profession in today's publishing world) are natural. They would be more pardonable if Stone did not deliberately flaunt such details to create the illusion that he knows more about his subject than he does.

For some time now, at least since John Le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has served authors of thrillers as a topos to write about from the vantage point of world-weary observers like Christopher Lucas, who, themselves lacking all belief in any transcendent purpose in life, are simultaneously drawn and repelled by the consuming faith that motivates religious and political zealots. This genre has come to have rules of its own—among them, that the zealots must be intelligent and initially engaging; that their actions must lead to actual or narrowly averted catastrophe; that they must be, on the Arab and Jewish side, mirror images of each other. While Stone skimps a bit on the last of these (though he does include the obligatory scene with Palestinian fanatics in the Gaza Strip, it is the Jews who exercise him), on the whole he observes them faithfully. His ending, too, sticks to the convention. Like Fielding and Aziz at the conclusion of A Passage to India, Lucas and Sonia must go their separate ways, for the believer and the agnostic cannot lie down together.

Yet while Lucas leaves Israel with painfully fond memories of “a land in exile, a God in His absconding, a love in its loss,” there is in his attitude toward it, too, an ultimate condescension that corrodes the pages of Damascus Gate.Ah, Israel! these pages seem to say. So alluring in your dreams and certainties to the Western, rational mind—and so fatal if it lets itself be snared by them. But the truth is that Israel is overwhelmingly a place in which the Western, rational mind prevails and argues with itself, even in the settlements of the West Bank. The Jerusalem Syndrome is not an Israeli illness, nor is the country seen from the Damascus Gate the real one. For an outsider to assume otherwise is to be paternalistic toward its inhabitants and indulgent toward himself, and to make things conveniently easy in either case. Art that makes things easier than they should be is never art of the highest quality.

James Gardner (review date 1 June 1998)

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SOURCE: Gardner, James. “Apocalypse Now.” National Review 50, no. 10 (1 June 1998): 53-4.

[In the following review, Gardner provides a favorable assessment of Damascus Gate but notes shortcomings in the novel's lackluster protagonist and stereotyped characters.]

Robert Stone is surprisingly intelligent for a novelist. And what, the reader will ask, is that supposed to mean? In general, we expect our novelists to feel things rather than to know them. In practice, however, aside from those who endorse the hokey notion that you must write only about your own experiences, authors who evolve beyond the coming-of-age first novel must acquire new and special information about each subject to which they turn their attention. And yet most of these, even the best, are clearly faking it. When this is not the case, they tend to fall into the opposing trap of sounding like professors posing as novelists, because the knowledge they present, though extensive, has been imperfectly assimilated into fiction.

In Damascus Gate, by contrast, Stone reveals himself to be both learned and shrewd. Whether his subject is the syncretic kabbalism of Pico della Mirandola, the music of Fats Waller, or cigarette consumption in an Israeli bar, he always gets it right, knowing just enough more than his reader to have something worth telling him, but incorporating this knowledge so seamlessly into the fabric of his work that it is never irksome. He has a very sharp eye, not so much for visual or psychological detail as for social mores. He is not a poet or a psychologist, but a journalist, an upscale, intellectualized Tom Wolfe. He does not expand the perceptions of his age, as Don DeLillo presumes to do: he is content to observe the world with the rest of us, only with greater vigor and justice.

Like Stone himself, Chris Lucas, the half-Jewish, half-Christian protagonist of Damascus Gate, is a journalist and an observer who is only half-heartedly sucked into the feverish action generated by everyone around him. He is the stillness in the eye of the religious whirlwind that is the real force of the book, the messianic movement around Adam De Kuff and the attempt by Raziel Melker to blow up the Temple Mount. Lucas is the by-now standard figure of the blocked writer in mid-life crisis. Having come to Jerusalem vaguely to write an article for a tony American magazine, he shifts gears to write a book about religion.

But out of his centrality emerges the first and potentially largest flaw of the novel. Though Lucas is fairly well fleshed out as a character, embodying the sorts of “issues” that people in novels nowadays tend to embody, he is a little too pallid to loom so large. It is the convention of classical drama for the protagonist to occupy a position of extremity and for the minor characters to council caution and good sense. Nineteenth-century literature reverses this with the figure of the “superfluous man.” Mr. Stone's novel falls somewhere in the middle and suffers for it.

His characters are convincing without being especially compelling. In a general way, Stone seems, like so many other novelists today, to be almost afraid of his creations. He refuses to instill them with a real and vigorous sense of life. He will provide them with attributes as needed, but they never take off as living things magically independent of their creator. Stone is too good at his job to make them anything other than clever and complicated and cute. But that real sense of character, that power of great literary art to conjure living souls, like golems, out of mere words, to create souls that survive after the book has been finished and shut, is not so much beyond Stone's abilities as beyond his ambitions. Whereas he sees his characters as eccentrics pretending to be stereotypes, they turn out in the end to be stereotypes posing as eccentrics, highly burnished and cannily rendered, and allowed the occasional length of leash. But they are stereotypes all the same: Sonia, the leftist sympathizer; Melker, the fanatical Jew for Jesus; De Kuff, who is or is not the reborn Messiah.

From the perspective of literature, in fact, there is something almost refreshingly unambitious about Damascus Gate. Among the heavy hitters of contemporary American fiction, Stone is perhaps the least taxing to read. There is absolutely no experimentation here: no second-person-singular narration, no present tense for past, none of the incontinent prolixity that requires Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, as a point of intellectual honor, to flirt with a thousand pages. Eschewing the breathy faux-numinous tone of much contemporary fiction, Stone recalls, in a pared-down way, the Sixties journalism of Norman Mailer.

Furthermore, despite their well-crafted eccentricities, Mr. Stone's characters have easily graspable identities that unfold at the appropriate pace. Indeed, there is, formally at least, a peculiar conservatism to Damascus Gate. It has the immediate readability of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth. One might criticize Stone for relying more on dialogue than on narrative and for being sluggish about bringing together the disparate strands of his novel in the first third of the book. But soon the novel takes off with the attempted bombing of the Temple Mount, and all is brought to a satisfying conclusion.

The real ambitions of Damascus Gate are of a spiritual order. Terms like “New Age,” “millennial,” and “postmodern” appear in the flap copy, in the ads, and, therefore, in most of the reviews. Like Durrell's Alexandria and Dostoyevsky's St. Petersburg, Stone's Jerusalem is as much a character in the novel as are the creatures of flesh and blood. Chris Lucas is writing a book about something called the “Jerusalem Syndrome,” the tendency of even nonreligious types like Lucas himself to be irresistibly drawn to religion once they enter the walls of the ancient city. We are encouraged to believe that Jerusalem is the center of the universe. Though one of the oldest cities in the world, in Stone's estimation it emerges, both through its cosmopolitan mix of cultures and creeds and through its lethal blurring of pre-modern conflicts and post-modern weaponry, as the hippest place on the planet.

Certain reviewers have taken issue with Stone for not appreciating sufficiently the difference between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli border guards. In fact, Damascus Gate is characterized less by moral equivalence than by enthusiastic embrace of a luminous spiritualism, a higher, deeper calm and well-being that transcends such petty conflicts. Damascus Gate, whose very title is suggestive of Pauline revelation, seems to suggest that human civilization is on the brink of some nuclear or environmental Armageddon, and that the associated tribulations will have about them the cleansing effects of purgatorial fire. One day all this millenarian talk may well condemn Damascus Gate to the ranks of a period piece: the way people used to talk in the 1990s. For the time being, however, it offers the reader an often compelling and rewarding experience.

John Garvey (review date 5 June 1998)

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SOURCE: Garvey, John. “Bleak, Thrilling, and Funny.” Commonweal 125, no. 11 (5 June 1998): 24-5.

[In the following review, Garvey argues that Damascus Gate succeeds both as a thriller and as an examination of spirituality, extolling its use of such elements as dark humor, adventure, and the quest for truth.]

Damascus Gate has a number of elements which will be familiar to Robert Stone's readers: drugs, alcohol, the threat of violence, death, and characters searching desperately for a meaning that eludes them. But this novel is unique in the way that it approaches, head-on, the theme that moves in the background of other Stone novels: a God who has withdrawn from the universe. In much of Stone's work there is a sense either that there is no God, and we need him, or there is a God, and he is guilty of having abandoned us. This is a kind of visceral, felt gnosticism. Here Stone has found the perfect vehicle for his vision: the mystical Jewish tradition of Lurianic Kabbalah. It will help to have read Gershom Scholem before reading this book.

But this is not to say that the book is a heavy read, or that it is freighted with theology, or even that you should read Scholem. As is always the case with Stone's work, Damascus Gate works on its own as a thrilling novel, perhaps his best. It takes place in Jerusalem, and the city is itself a central character. Christopher Lucas, a journalist fascinated with religion, agrees to work on a book with Dr. Pinchas Obermann, a psychiatrist who is fascinated by the “Jerusalem Syndrome.” Obermann offers a typical example: “A young man of scant prospects receives a supernatural communication. He must go to Jerusalem at the Almighty's command. Once here, his mission is disclosed. Often he is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.”

Lucas is the son of a Jewish father and his Catholic mistress. Another character, a jazz singer named Sonia Barnes, is the daughter of an African-American father and a Jewish mother. They find themselves drawn to each other, despite Lucas's not-so-unshakable skepticism and Sonia's involvement with Sufism and persistent desire to believe. Together they are drawn into the orbit of a strange pair: an old man from Louisiana, a Jew named Adam De Kuff, who has converted to and abandoned Catholicism to return to Judaism; and Raziel Melker, a former drug addict and jazz musician who studies the Kabbalah and convinces De Kuff that he is to be the agent of a great revelation, even the Messiah himself. We are introduced to both in Dr. Obermann's office. Once Stone has placed everyone on stage (it takes a while), he involves them in a plot that includes betrayal, gun-running, riots, and a scheme to destroy sacred sites. He brings it off beautifully.

One of Stone's many gifts is the sudden way his humor can intrude into bleakness, without making the bleakness any lighter or the humor any less funny. Early on, for example, Lucas finds himself in the company of a Palestinian who insists that Woody Allen has come to Jerusalem to lend support to the Palestinian cause. And late in the novel another wild rumor is put to practical use. At the same time, there are moments when Stone brings us through almost hallucinogenically intense passages, something which makes me think of Melville's powerful chapter on the whiteness of the whale in Moby Dick. He has done this in several of his novels (remember the scene on the island in Outerbridge Reach?) and he does it here. I can't think of anyone else who does this sort of thing so well.

The Kabbalah is a central part of Damascus Gate, and Stone is good at hinting at what it means just enough to intrigue us. The Kabbalah, like the apophatic theology of Eastern Orthodoxy and the mystical theology of The Cloud of Unknowing and John of the Cross, insists that the concealed Godhead (called “'Ein-Sof”) “dwells unknowable in the depths of its own being, without form or shape. It is beyond all cognitive statements, and can be named only through negation—indeed, the negation of all negations. No images can depict it, nor can it be named by any name” (Gershom Scholem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead). God's creation and self-revealing proceed as emanations from this unknowable one (and even “one” could mislead).

Isaac Luria, the sixteenth-century Kabbalist, took an even more radical position: the 'Ein-Sof contracted itself, withdrew before any emanation, and is present in creation only as the broken shards left by the act of that withdrawing. This is a drastic oversimplification of a complex and beautiful set of teachings, but it is easy to see why it would appeal to Stone. After Lucas encounters this teaching, he turns to Pascal's Pensées “to look up something he half-remembered.”

“‘The universe is such that it bears witness everywhere to a lost God,’ Pascal had written, ‘in man and outside him and to a fallen nature.’”

In another place, Lucas visits the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem; leaving it he prays, untypically, and thinks, “It might be … that the world divided there, into the race of those somehow responsible and those somehow not. It was a division personally difficult for him. But around it spun a fallen universe of shame. Everyone would always look into its darkness as deeply as they could or dared. Everyone wanted an answer, a guide for the perplexed. Everyone wanted death and suffering to mean something.”

This (like all Stone's works) is informed by the Melville-like desire to “strike through the mask,” and shows how strangely close nihilism and belief can be. What makes Stone's work extraordinary is that he is able to move us terrifyingly close to edges we would rather not look over, as many of the greatest novelists do—and at the same time he offers as exciting and exhilarating a read as any of the best thriller writers.

I can't think of much that William Trevor and Stone have in common as stylists, but I remember when I started reading Trevor's Fools of Fortune, which begins with a description of an idyllic Irish Protestant family, my first thought was, “What horrible fate does he have in store for these poor people?” You feel that way with all of Stone's characters too. But—even though people here wind up comatose, murdered, and unhappy—there is something almost hopeful in Damascus Gate; and certainly (as always in Stone) moments where beauty and hope, madness and despair, are brought very close to us. “It's a terrible fate to stand between the worlds,” Sonia tells Lucas at one point. “It's like madness.” And you are left even at the end wondering what genuine truths the failed messianic believers in this novel might be pointing toward, or if there is any final meaning at all to point to. There is a final truth, I fervently believe and hope, but Stone shows how close and at the same time how far apart are the worlds of the nihilist and the genuine believer. And if you feel uncomfortable with the ideas that crop up here, read the book as a great thriller. It works wonderfully at both levels.

Edward Hower (review date September 1998)

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SOURCE: Hower, Edward. “A Parable for the Millennium.” World and I 13, no. 9 (September 1998): 255-62.

[In the following review, Hower asserts that Stone employs a wide myriad of characters, settings, and motifs in a successful blending of the thriller genre and the spiritual quest in Damascus Gate.]

Robert Stone's Israel crackles with religious and political tensions as a fascinating assortment of fanatics conspire to obliterate the nation in order to save it.

For Robert Stone, America's most eloquent chronicler of the impending apocalypse, Israel is an ideal setting. In Damascus Gate, his powerful new novel, he makes the country crackle with religious and political tensions and peoples it with a fascinating assortment of fanatics who are prepared to obliterate the nation in order to save it. Yet the author's obvious fondness for Israel and many of his more peaceable characters provides a glimmer of hope amid all the darkness. Redemption is possible for those who seek to understand the passions that consume the land.

In Stone's novels an atmosphere of danger has always hung over the places where his characters play out their tales of depravity and heroism, soul murdering and salvation seeking. In his first book, A Hall of Mirrors, his damaged young protagonists took on vicious politicians in racially explosive New Orleans. Dog Soldiers, which won the National Book Award in 1975, brought the trauma of Vietnam back to a bleak, paranoid California. A brutal Central American dictatorship was the setting for revolution in A Flag for Sunrise. A drugged-out screenwriter's adventures in corrupt Hollywood and Mexico were the subject of Children of Light. In Outerbridge Reach, the lonely hero pitted himself against the turbulent high seas.

Stone's fictional Israel is alive with cynical intrigue, but it also resonates with the energy of its spiritual history. Christopher Lucas, an American journalist who is the novel's central character, is especially fascinated by Jerusalem, “where the Judean wind praised the Almighty, every sultry breeze [was] infested with prayer, every crossroads labor[ed] under its own curse. Where the stones were not mere stones but resided in the heart and were wept upon or given in place of bread.”

Lucas likes the mix of people who live bustling modern lives in Jerusalem's ancient streets. “The Damascus Gate, with its Ottoman towers and passages and barbarous Crusader revetments, was his favorite place in the whole city. He took a simple tourist's pleasure in the crowds and the blaring taped Arab music, in the rush provided by the open sacks of spices that were piled in wheelbarrows beside the vendors' stalls.” In its name he finds “the suggestion of a route toward mystery, interior light, and sudden transformation.”

Even for Lucas, who has seen it all and has no patience with sentimentality, Israel is clearly a place of magic, both benign and evil.


As the book opens, Lucas does not know that he will soon be closely involved in the spiritual journey the city's landmarks evoke for him. He is in Israel as a freelancer looking for an interesting story to write. One possibility is to investigate a gang of thugs that beats up Palestinian children who throw rocks at Israeli soldiers during antigovernment demonstrations. Another possible subject is a phenomenon known as “the Jerusalem Syndrome”—a kind of religious mania that inspires some people to commit acts of violence in order to prepare for the coming of the true Messiah.

The subjects appeal to Lucas' secular worldview. “He liked the ones that exposed depravity and duplicity on both sides of supposedly uncompromising sacred struggles. He found such stories reassuring, an affirmation of the universal human spirit.”

Both subjects, he discovers, are interconnected—are in fact part of a complex scheme to blew up the Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount, Jerusalem's most sacred site, in order to clear the way for the building of the Third Temple, thus facilitating the arrival of the Messiah. He does not know who is behind the conspiracy, but, as his investigation progresses, he learns that his own personal salvation is linked with the ideas that have inspired it.

The novel's plot revolves around Lucas' adventures with a variety of characters who are perpetrating violence or trying to prevent it. As in most of Stone's fiction, the characters are an odd lot of international misfits, misguided idealists, and cynical manipulators. Some are innocents who become dangerous when they try to express their spiritual yearnings in the world of brutal politics. Others are spies, agents provocateurs, and soldiers of fortune who keep their true agendas hidden.

Lucas, the world-weary journalist, believes he can remain a detached observer of all the intrigue, but, of course, he cannot. He falls in love with Sonia, an American woman who unwittingly becomes a central figure in the impending trouble. Sonia, who has lived in Cuba and served as a relief worker in Africa, has come to Israel to join a group of Sufis who are trying to establish a spiritual community. Part black, part Jewish, she supports herself as a jazz singer in a Tel Aviv nightclub.

As Lucas becomes more involved with her, he is tempted to suspend his agnosticism and adopt her religious certainty. Of mixed parentage himself—part Catholic, part Jewish—he feels the pain of being an outsider in a land where everyone's identity is defined by his faith.

When he hears her sing “If you want to hear my song, / you have to come with me,” he wants to believe that his love for her offers him salvation. At the same time he torments himself with the probability that it cannot. “She was on the other side of darkness,” he thinks. “Beyond anyone like himself, so unequipped for magic. … If he walked toward her … there would be nothing where she stood on which to place his feet. She was the leap he could not make.” Still, he can't stop trying, and his efforts to win her have profound effects on them both.


Among the mystics Sonia becomes involved with is Ralph (or Razz) Melcher, her accompanist at the nightclub. He is a junkie, a hipster in a leather jacket and shades, the son of a prominent American politician, and a former Jew for Jesus. Though he has now moved on into Sufism, he says, “Hey, I'm still for Jesus. You gotta love the guy.”

Razz discovers a fellow musician and seeker, Adam De Kuff, in a psychiatrist's waiting room and begins a weird, symbiotic relationship with the older man, who is also from a wealthy American family. Sometimes Razz manipulates him, seemingly able to read his mind. At other times, he becomes convinced that De Kuff is a true prophet and becomes his eager disciple.

The brilliant, lost De Kuff may possess the secret knowledge that will unite all the world's faiths, as Razz believes. Or he may just be a certifiable manic-depressive who has stopped taking his medication. Whatever the source of his visions, a crowd of young pilgrims begins to gather around him each day as he meditates. He becomes convinced that “now he could stand anywhere on his own terms and represent in his own soul the obviated differences between Jew and Greek, male and female, bond and free. The world to come was within him, represented in his person, available to all.” Soon he begins to preach. Some believe he is the Messiah; others scheme to make him an unwitting accomplice in their violent plans.

Many of the people Lucas consults are “NGOniks,” members of nongovernmental organizations who are trying to do relief work or to keep the peace between Jews and Palestinians. One is the beautiful Nuala, an Irish communist “hard-case aid worker … who seemed to divide her time between good works and various intrigues, erotic and otherwise.” Lucas is initially attracted to her but backs off—he is far too cautious and introspective for someone as adventurous as she is.

He comes to admire Nuala's extraordinary courage, however, when during a trip to the Gaza Strip, she walks into an alley packed with rioting Palestinians in an attempt to rescue a Jew who is being beaten. Not long before, a single Danish UN peacekeeper had performed a similar role during the uprising, preventing a squad of Israeli soldiers from brutalizing a Palestinian youth trapped in a cul-de-sac.

The Gaza refugee camps, Lucas discovers, are hellish landscapes surrounded by machine guns and razor-wire fences, reminding him of pictures he has seen of Nazi concentration camps. They are places where “seven hundred thousand people passed each night by the light of trash fires, demanding their own revenge and protection from everyone else's. … A major energy resource, Gaza … had more than enough fear and rage to sustain human nature for the next millennium.”

Controlling this much discontent, Lucas is told, requires draconian methods on the part of the Israeli authorities, including routine use of “moderate force,” or torture. “They don't worry too much if they get the wrong man,” a human rights worker explains. “They reckon whoever they get is probably guilty of something. Or would have been eventually. And if he didn't do anything, he probably wanted to.”

Despite his sympathy for the underdog, Lucas, caught in the riot, finds himself being pursued by a Palestinian mob shrieking “Kill the Jew!” He finds refuge in a camp of Muslim gypsies, then wanders into a village of ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers who beat him up. He wishes he could throw his allegiance behind one side and ignore the others, for “attempts at ethical calibration … induce vital fatigue.” But his search for the truth makes alliances impossible for him.

Right-wing Jewish settlers in former Palestinian territories, Lucas suspects, are allied with fundamentalist Christians in a plot to start an apocalyptic holy war. Stone describes the sinister: aspects of both groups chillingly. But he also sees the ridiculous sides of extreme religious beliefs: “In the Jewish Quarter, an American rabbi named Gold ran a sleek showroom where, for a fee, one could have a window, a wing or a menorah of the coming Temple named for one's Uncle Jack or Aunt Minnie.”

One of Stone's wildest riffs takes off on the idea of the Rapture, which some Christians are certain will coincide with the building of the Temple to welcome the Messiah:

One of these mornings … the born-again would wake up singing … spread their wings and commence to fly. They would be rapted, like cosmic chipmunks in the talons of their savior, drawn irresistibly heavenward. … Godly motorists would be wafted from the controls of their cars. Since born-again Christians tended to be concentrated in states with high speed limits, things would get ugly. One moment Mr. Worldly Wiseman would be spouting cynical, superficial observations from the passenger seat. Then his motor-pool buddy; Christian, one of the elect, would vanish from behind the wheel and there would be nothing in the driver's seat except a pair of white loafers and plaid golf slacks and a polyester sports shirt, none of them necessary in the world to come. Mr. W. W. would stare terrified and confused at the wildly spinning unhanded wheel beside him, like Steward Granger beholding Pier Angeli transformed into a pillar of salt in Sodom and Gomorrah. Soon the car and Mr. Wiseman (or was it Weissman?) would hurl driverless into a wall of consuming flame. And that would be only the beginning. …

Fanning the flames—or attempting to dampen them, Lucas is never sure—are various undercover government officials, hired thugs, secret agents of dubious loyalties. One is Janusz Zimmer, a Polish “war lover” with previous experience in Vietnam and Eritrea. Another is Ian Fotheringill, a former skinhead from Glasgow who has served in the French Foreign Legion and is now a chef in an upscale hotel. Then there is Linda Ericson, the sexy young widow of a Christian missionary, who gradually evolves into a machine-gun-toting ally of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish faction.


If some of this sounds like an action-adventure stow, it's because Damascus Gate does have the structure of a fast-paced thriller. Stone's major characters may be obsessed with love or the state of their spiritual lives, but they are driven more by events than by inner turmoil. For most of the book, Stone handles the complex plot masterfully. He is especially adept at dramatizing the ways people change because of the relationships they develop, the actions they take, and the insights they gain.

Toward the end the book, however, the story becomes so complicated that the reader must follow events blindly, unable to keep track of exactly what is going on and why. Elements of cinematic melodrama appear as armed adversaries fight over ancient artifacts in secret underground tunnels.

Writing in the tradition of Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, and Malcolm Lowry, Robert Stone has always infused his novels with high drama in order to intensify his observations about the human condition—the possibilities for cowardice and bravery, good and evil, in a complex and often brutal world. Some reviewers have criticized his previous novels for being overly pessimistic, populated by characters too damaged, drugged-out, and morally bankrupt to stand up to the cataclysmic wickedness that confronts them on every side. A writer who takes as many risks as Stone does, pushing some of his characters past despair and madness, is bound to be criticized for his excesses. And at times in Stone's previous novels, mayhem does seem to be destined to overwhelm sanity, corruption to obliterate all traces of idealism.

As dark as Damascus Gate sometimes gets, however, it never comes close to a descent into hopelessness. Its physical setting is too vibrant with history and beauty, its characters are too concerned with finding spiritual redemption, for nihilism to prevail. Lucas may be lonely and alienated, but he is no burnt-out case. It is fascinating to wash him develop, through his love for Sonia and his search for religious identity, into an emotionally involved, committed searcher for difficult truths. Sonia also grows, learning how to stop seeking magical answers to complex religious questions and finally to put her revised beliefs into action.

The book's characters are as colorful a collection as Stone has ever presented. Among them are despicable villains—especially the devious religious extremists on both sides, for whom the author reserves his most devastating verbal assaults. But he also presents us with many heroes—relief workers, human rights advocates, and other peacemakers—who understand that only by steadfastly courageously holding off hostilities between factions can the country continue to flourish.

James Wood (review date 1 October 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2504

SOURCE: Wood, James. “Ceaseless Anythings.” London Review of Books 20, no. 19 (1 October 1998): 33-4.

[In the following review, Wood faults Damascus Gate for being an amalgam of “techniques and conventions” aimed at maintaining simplicity, grouping Stone with a number of contemporary American realists preoccupied with this goal.]

American Realism, once a belief, is now an idle liberty. Writers such as Robert Stone, Joan Didion, John Irving and even Don DeLillo, are praised for their ‘realism’, for the solidity of their plots, the patience of their characterisation, the capillary spread of their social portraits, the leverage of their political insight. Robert Stone is one of the best contemporary realists America has. But it is difficult to read Damascus Gate with anything like the respect it seems to desire, and with which it has been received in the United States. With its carefully mortised scenes, its dialogue intelligently starved, its descriptions shaved down to a familiar stubble, and the squeezed reticence of its prose (hardly a single simile in the book, each word a little hiatus of arrival), Damascus Gate is never dull, and never unintelligent. But it is never literature, either. Instead, it reveals contemporary realism to be only a series of techniques and conventions aimed at the management of simplicity. Realism, in Stone's hands, is a calm firefighter, able to travel anywhere and put out the fire of complexity at a moment's notice.

Not that Stone has designs on simplicity. On the contrary, he has chosen Jerusalem, and its difficult religious and political affiliations, as his site and subject. Yet, as the novel develops, Stone's very theme—the strangeness of religion in Jerusalem—begins to seem too dramatically intractable, and thus too easy; a way of reversing into simplicity. Christopher Lucas, Stone's hero, is a journalist who is writing a book about the ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’, the way that city turns certain people into majnoon, or religious lunatics—who think they are the Messiah, or Moses, or Elvis, and who take Jerusalem as their theatre. Lucas ‘majored in religion’ at university, which allows Stone to equip him with the bruised fruits of the author's own research. Like most of the protagonists, Lucas is half-Jewish; he was raised a Catholic. Stone uses this religious dapple to confound what he sees as Jerusalem's intemperate run on theological absolutism. ‘Lucas desperately preferred almost anything to blood and soil, ancient loyalty, timeless creeds,’ Stone writes, and the same blameless decency might be fairly ascribed to the author himself. Indeed, Jerusalem, in the familiar way, is seen as an asylum of wandering absolutes—Jewish settlers, Orthodox Christians, vicious Israeli police, political Palestinians, religious Palestinians and meddling Americans. Even the Christians are wildly various:

In the Christian Quarter, a promiscuous babble of pilgrims hurried down the sloping cobbled pavement. One group of Japanese followed a sandaled Japanese friar who held a green pennant aloft. There was a party of Central American Indians of uniform size and shape who stared with blissful incomprehension into the unconvincing smiles of merchants offering knicknacks. There were Sicilian villagers and Boston Irish, Filipinos, more Germans, Breton women in native dress, Spaniards, Brazilians, Québecois.

Lucas is that familiar American male hero, a porous scout, always on the search for sensations and experiences, vaguely religious but also vaguely faithless, and uninterestingly flat. Above all, writes Stone, ‘Lucas wanted it all to mean something.’ Thus he joins the ranks of incomprehension—as a private, alas.

In the course of his researches, Lucas stumbles on a mystical religious cult led by a young man called Raziel Melker, an American Jew who had converted to Christianity but who is now a Sufi. His old girlfriend, Sonia Barnes, a nightclub singer, is a member of the cult, and, like Raziel, a former druggie. Raziel and Sonia have decided that Adam De Kuff, an unstable American Catholic, is the new Messiah, and that ‘the End of Days’ is nigh. De Kuff starts preaching to crowds of seekers. He teaches a religious and mystical medley, combining millenarian Christianity, Lurianic Kabbala, Buddhist reincarnation, Hindu wisdom, and so on. Stone has been busy in the library—apparently in imitation of Denys of Alexandria, who received an order from God to read everything. He reproduces his reading lists every so often, in meaningless swathes: De Kuff and Raziel ‘talked about Zen and Theravada and the Holy Ghost, the bodhisattvas, the Sefirot and the Trinity, Pico della Mirandola, Teresa of Avila, Philo, Abulafia, Adam Kadmon, the Zohar, the sentience of diamonds, the Shekhinah, the meaning of tikkun’.

In fact, Raziel is involved in a right-wing Zionist plot to blow up the Temple Mount, destroy the mosque, and restart the war of 1948, this time to the finish. He is assisted by various sinister American Christian apocalyptics, who believe that Christ can only come again through the flames of such a conflagration, and apparently assisted by two spies who are actually working for the Israeli Government and who have infiltrated the Zionist networks: Jan Zimmer, a Polish immigrant, and Ian Fotheringill, a Scottish chef and former SAS member. Lucas discovers this menace almost too late, and is nearly killed. The novel ends in a thriller-ish shoot-out along underground tunnels. When it is all over, Lucas flies back to New York, clearer-eyed about the insanity of religious adherence.

Stone makes things too easy for himself. His realism is never challenged by Jerusalem's wild novelties, only lazily fed by it. ‘In the Gaza Strip, it was possible to happen upon anything,’ he writes at one point, and this is the descriptive principle of the novel: it is a strip of ceaseless anythings—pilgrims, madmen, spies, expatriates, soldiers and so on. It proceeds as certain action movies do, except that the swift location changes are metaphysical. And there is an undoubted metaphysical vulgarity, a melodrama, here. Stone might reply that he is describing a concatenation of metaphysical vulgarities, the kind exaggerated by Jerusalem, but his novel's inability to consider any form of religious attachment that is not extreme or deranged can be read as the novel's own pedagogical statement about Jerusalem. ‘What happens here affects the inner life of the whole world,’ Sonia announces (it's a very DeLillo-ish announcement), and Stone seems to agree with her.

Unembarrassed by his riches, Stone is never shamed into stringency: there is always a fresh diversion around the corner. And the novel uses the extremism of its subject to nullify actual religious difference. Indeed, Damascus Gate tends to run together all forms of extreme experience, political or religious. Lucas hears a string quartet of Russian immigrants playing Shostakovitch. He finds the playing ‘inexpressibly beautiful. Yad Vashem, the Gulag, Gaza, exile, cruelty, compassion.’ From this it is only a short step to the Le Carré-like vulgarity, near the end of the book, of ‘outside, where the twilight teemed with riddles, the sun had disappeared beneath the Philistine Sea.’ The novel that began as an attempt to unpick riddles ends by revering them.

Stone might have written a more serious novel, even with this subject-matter, were it not for the hardened simplicities of his realism, which clear away all complication even in the process of announcing complication. In previous novels, in particular in Dog Soldiers and Outerbridge Reach, Stone has often written with vivacious solidity. Here, he rarely crawls beyond convention, writing as if literary modernism had never occurred, as if language were not a medium but a neutral saturate, like light, and as if the novel's only desire were reportorial summation. Characters are briskly painted, as clothes-horses or busts, or often both: ‘Dr Obermann was red-bearded, crew-cut and thick-bodied. He wore a turtle-neck and slacks and army-issue glasses.’ ‘Her eyes were very blue and the sort called piercing.’ ‘Lucas was a big man, broad-shouldered, thin-lipped, long-jawed.’ ‘A horse-faced woman in a yellow pantsuit, with short dark hair and prominent teeth’.

Description of scenery has that careful enigmatic ordinariness that Graham Greene does better: ‘She had opened a latticed Moorish door to the small sunny courtyard outside and moved her chair to sit beside it. An olive tree grew from the dry soil in the middle of the court. Two thirsty-looking potted orange trees sat on the loose cobblestones. The sky had a rich blue afternoon light.’ The short, chopped sentences attempt to impart an aesthetic selectivity, a dramatic chosenness to the details, as if all kinds of impedimenta were avoided on the way to this pondered essence. In actuality, the details are usually the most haplessly banal. Sometimes, Stone is not even this good. This is how he describes a French hospice: ‘The interior of the hostel was redolent of France. Lucas breathed in the aroma of floral soap, sachet and varnish. There were fresh cut flowers at the reception desk. The first guests had come down for breakfast and were speaking French, adding the smoke of their first Gauloises to the mix, along with the smell of coffee and croissants.’ Apparently ‘French’ just means nice French smells.

All representation, especially of the realist kind, is a forcing of particles; but Stone's forcings are unusually rigid. My point against Stone is not the one commonly understood by Martin Amis's comment that his father wished he had more sentences of the order of ‘He finished his drink and left the room.’ Stone's realism would not be transformed if he just wrote more fancily, though it might be a little more interesting. The weakness lies in his apparent certainty that language can simply yield what it is asked to describe, in his refusal to admit any level of uncertainty into the business of narration. Narration never registers any struggle in Damascus Gate—any more than it does in DeLillo's Underworld, which is fancily-written realism. Both books, you feel, could continue for thousands of pages and keep the same even tone and calm pitch.

A contradiction quickly emerges. Despite the fact that Stone is drawn towards the incomprehensible, the mystical, the fringe, his prose insists on the briskly knowable, and shuts off any of the apertures his religious interests may have opened. ‘Tsililla had been raised on a Tolstoyan-Freudian-Socialist Kibbutz in the Galilee, equipped from infancy with such a plenitude of answers to life's questions as to leave her awash in useless certainties.’ And that is all we hear about Tsililla's certainties. It is not Tsililla's certainties that are the problem, but Stone's easy formulation of them. He is altogether too certain about her certainties—it is not his place to decide their uselessness in such rapid summation.

The inevitable result of Stone's realism of the knowable is a mere knowingness, a journalistic slickness: ‘Maria Clara tottered over on her heels. She was wearing skin-tight spangled pants from a Paris designer.’ Stone has a paragraph about the German, Scandinavian and Irish women who work for relief agencies in the West Bank: ‘fair, boreal creatures whose grannies and great-aunts had been missionaries to the hot world and who laboured on in the same vineyard, chastened and rigorously non-judgmental, demystified but no less intense’. This is everything writing should not be. The tone, because it is journalistically smart and world-weary, is also condescending; instead of capturing actualities, it dabs at typologies; it is verbally drowsy (‘vineyard’ is the grossest cliché). The briefest comparison with Conrad, with whom Stone is often compared, shows not only the difference in talent, but Conrad's advantage in vividness and depth, when describing characters, for he writes about private narratives that we do not know. Conrad had a genius for hidden strangeness; Stone has a talent for obvious strangeness.

So it is that Stone's details are frequently not exactly wrong, but wrong because they are a little too right. Christopher Lucas's father, for example, was a German Jew who taught at Columbia, a great immigrant scholar. At one point, Lucas says of his father and mother: ‘he took her on a trip to Los Angeles on the Superchief’—the cross-country train—‘to meet all his pals. The Frankfurt school. Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse and Thomas Mann.’ Although Adorno helped Mann with Doctor Faustus, Mann had no especial proximity to the Frankfurt School, so Stone is technically wrong. But the little list is wrong because it is so obviously the ‘correct’ list of famous Germans in California during the war, as if chosen by a zealous computer. It is the level of detail that is the problem not its accuracy.

The chief casualties of Stone's realism are his characters. This novel, like all its predecessors, is large and bountiful with characters. But they are just a rattle of words on the page; a name attached to a verb. We are always encountering ‘Lucas thought that’ or ‘Lucas wondered if’ or ‘As far as Sonia was concerned’, as if these names had somehow come alive without any help from Stone, who flatters them with the prestige of free will and free thought; the disjunction between this flattery and their absolute hollowness becomes almost comical. It is as if he were a CEO who was always trying to include his secretary in company decisions. His characters have short, efficient biographies, of course—a parent there, a brother here, a university, a temper, a drinking problem—but that is all they have. It would be hard to describe Lucas once the novel has ended. As with most of Stone's male heroes, his only vivid quality is his separateness, a slightly mournful (and rather boring) quality of toughened alienation.

This failure of the human is a distinctive weakness of current American realism. Stone, like his coevals, is drawn to the very mode of writing which offers the greatest possibility for the exploration of character; and then either refuses, or is not capable of, the interiority, the hermeneutic intensity that great character demands. In the works of Didion, Stone, Irving, and in DeLillo's Underworld, one encounters large novels that insist, sometimes didactically, on connections between their various parts, yet which, at the human level, offer characters who have no connection with each other and no connection to the reader, because they have no reality. The connectedness that these writers claim to find—political, religious, social, intellectual—is almost entirely conceptual.

Virginia Woolf attacked Galsworthy, Bennett and Wells as realists who defined character only by stubbing the end of it into clothes, income, social status and so on. She faulted a generation for its vivid exteriors. A new generation of realists might be similarly faulted, except that now even the Edwardian solidity has disappeared. Instead of those vivid exteriors, we are offered only the exterior of realism itself—its shape, its machinery, its process. Our fictional characters are not audible and visible and surely present, in the Edwardian manner, but are in both senses of the word, merely sensational. Alas, the hero of Damascus Gate is a familiar late 20th-century ghost: a speaking frame, who knows what he doesn't like more feelingly than what he does, who knows no more than what the author gives him, and who silently nullifies all that he voyeuristically consumes.

Paul Quinn (review date 30 October 1998)

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SOURCE: Quinn, Paul. “All Things to All Men.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4987 (30 October 1998): 26.

[In the following review, Quinn claims that Damascus Gate contains flat language, too many plots and characters, and fails in its aspirations as a thriller.]

A great deal of profoundly fractured cerebration had gone down in Vietnam. People had been by turns Fascist mystics, Communist revolutionaries and junkies; at certain times, certain people had managed to be all three at once. It was the nature of the time. …

The above quotation from Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise (1977) can be read as a distillation of the skewed world-view, the disappointed politics and the spilt religiosity evident throughout the oeuvre of a novelist whose writing career began as a US Navy journalist, serving in what Don DeLillo has called “the first self-conscious war”. The—by turns—cynical, opportunistic, or sublimating shifts of allegiance, the implied relationship between ideology and addiction (and the profitable trade in both), even the conjuring of contradictory identities into a profane and precarious Trinity, are all familiar Stone motifs.

This “fractured cerebration”, forged in one conflict zone, is refined in another, pre-millennium Jerusalem in Stone's sixth novel, Damascus Gate. Here, we encounter, among the conflicted personae, an African-American Communist Sufi, a Jewish junkie Christian convert and a Catholic-Jewish-sceptic hero. That belief systems or behaviours so strikingly various can coexist “at once” has long been Stone's principal animating idea. It has figured most powerfully in his depiction of the cynicism of American foreign policy as felt in the field. In the typical Stone scenario, CIA machinations or illicit drug-trafficking, or both, bind the diverse together, into a connection (usually covert or narcotic) rather than a community. The only alternative is an existential loneliness, a void waiting vainly to be filled. Stone's narratives gape with what postmodern theology would call a God-Space.

Damascus Gate offers fertile territory for the author: a cast of damaged souls in a riven state, the world centre of spiritual longing, exploited by covert political interests. Raziel, a recovering addict, seizes on a fellow Jewish American, Adam De Kuff, as a potential messiah, on whose prophetic visions a new world religion, a faith of faiths, will be founded. Sonia, a black Sufi nightclub singer, is one of many eager to believe, to satisfy the cravings her Communism has failed to appease. This messianic plot is paralleled by another shadowy one, involving a plan to destroy the mosques on the Temple Mount, thereby allowing the rebuilding of the true Temple. As in a thriller, we are kept guessing who is really behind this conspiracy: Zionist zealots, an American New Right Church and secret-police factions are among those implicated.

Bringing together the two plot strands is another resident outsider, an American, Christopher Lucas. Internally divided, Lucas is a lapsed Catholic on his mother's side, Jewish on his father's. Like John Converse, the hero of Dog Soldiers (1973), the novel that made Stone's reputation, Lucas is a journalist, drawn to the city by a residual religious longing that his (inevitably) world-wearied scepticism cannot wholly extinguish. Lucas is professionally torn between two projects that, somewhat schematically, reveal Stone's secular/sacred division: investigating the beatings of Palestinian youths in the camps by a mysterious avenger, and researching a book on “Jerusalem Syndrome”, a term for those who feel drawn to the city by the will of God, and await imminent revelation of his purpose for them.

The idea of traffic, usually illegal, or illicit, between people and cultures, has long been a staple subject of Stone's. It allows him to develop his own variant of the paranoid perspective which also permeates the work of his contemporaries, Thomas Pynchon and DeLillo; whereas their deployment of the theme of paranoia has always been as much preoccupied with epistemological matters as with politics, Stone's particular emphasis on the conveyance of sinister traffic allows him to concentrate on matters of movement, speed and adventure (Stone is a former Beat fellow-traveller, who once went on the road with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, in the psychedelic bus driven by Neal Cassady). In his new book, however, he attempts to deepen the resonance of his favourite device. A more numinous sense of “traffic” is teasingly implied in earlier books like Dog Soldiers (“It's a Buddhist country. They must have a fantastic traffic in the transmigration of souls.”); but in Damascus Gate, where the spiritual is at the narrative core, the ultimate trafficker, we infer, is that god of border crossings and cross-cultural interpretations, Hermes. Tellingly, the bomb plot ultimately leads us to an underground chamber where a statue of a syncretic cousin presides.

Stone has discerned that ancient conflicts often hinge on textual matters, and he concerns himself with the importance of hermeneutics in descrying the links between rival faiths. He also implicitly suggests the dangers of syncretism as well as its promise; A Flag for Sunrise's idea of identities uneasily existing “at once” becomes here a quest for a credo able to subsume the many within the one, to put the fractured together again. Sonia, for example, thinks she has found it in the ancient texts: “The Sufis always knew it. And the Jews, in a certain way, always knew it, because that's what Torah is. It's a formula for making things one. For bringing us back where we belong.”

Making multifarious things one, however, is as much a recipe for reductionism, as it is an antidote for the world's ills. Stone is undoubtedly aware that, for all the exciting correspondences the syncretic method uncovers, it also does violence to historical and theological specificities. Thus, at one extreme, we get the scriptural omnivorousness of Raziel: “The Sufi, the Kabbalists, the saddhu, Francis of Assisi—it's all one. They all worshipped Ein-Sof. The Spanish Kabbalists derived the Trinity from Kabbala.” Despite the connections it generates, this notion aims to reduce to an essence, to erase difference. It is illuminating to compare Raziel's encompassing doctrine with the litany of hate issuing from Ian Percy, an Australian agronomist, in Dog Soldiers, whose mode of all-inclusive hostility can be read as a negative equivalent, a kind of counter-Torah: “As an engagé he hated the Viet Cong. He also hated the South Vietnamese and its armed forces, Americans and particularly the civilians, Buddhist monks, Catholics, the Cao Dai, the French and particularly Corsicans, the foreign press corps, the Australian government, and his employers past—and, most especially—present.” Lucas, however, is avowedly against the kind of generalizations that can yoke the diverse together, be it in negative or positive categories: “history was moronically pure, consisting entirely of singularities. Things had no moral. … Comparisons, attempts at ethical calibration, induced vital fatigue.”

One of the many disappointments of Damascus Gate is that it is guilty of its own kind of reductionism, and therefore unable to muster anything like the breadth of thought and expression its subject demands. Instead, we get journalistic paraphrase as the dominant stylistic mode; time and again, Lucas, our correspondent in Babel (appropriately a “religion major”), will dutifully fact-check a translation, bullet-point the details of some ancient complexity, chew at a cabbalistic bone of contention, or take a well-trodden tourist route towards guide-book revelation. What we invariably get is a report of a doctrine rather than an imaginative incorporation of its textual energies, stories or strategies in the novel itself: “In the afternoon, he drove out to the Hebrew University to see what he could find out about Ebionites and Clementine literature. … There was a single monograph in English, a summary that presented Christ as a Jewish Gnostic aeon who had appeared to Adam as a snake, and then to Moses. …” If, according to Ford Madox Ford, Conrad's ocean reeks overmuch of Roget's Thesaurus, then Stone stands even more revealed by the visible machinery of his research—most strikingly at a climactic moment when Lucas and friends sit down to an educative, summarizing slide-show. It is, also, a significantly static scenario for a writer who is far happier when the plot-wheels are turning faster. At such moments, the laureate of traffic seems hopelessly jammed.

Stone, despite his status, has never been a great literary stylist, but in earlier books his spare Hemingwayesque prose is sometimes stretched into a Beat-inflected lyricism. His work has never been particularly interested in the figurative, but Dog Soldiers, for example, describes realities so surreal they possess a charged symbolic power:

That winter, the Military Advisory Command, Vietnam, had decided that elephants were enemy agents because the NVA used them to carry things, and there had ensued a scene worthy of the “Ramayana”. Many-armed, hundred-headed MACV had sent forth steel-bodied flying insects to destroy his enemies, the elephants. All over the country, whooping sweating gunners descended from the cloud cover to stampede the herds and mow them down with 7.62-millimeter machine guns.

In Children of Light (1985), a novel in which Stone calculatedly moved away from the Catholic, Greenean, territory with which he had become associated, in order to interrogate the false religions of Hollywood, we again see evidence of a more audacious way with words, as for example, in the screenwriter Walker's description of his life work: “All those scripts … the record of petty arguments lost or won, half-assed stratagems and desperate compromises. A graph of meaningless motion like the tube-worm trails in a pre-historic seabed.”

The language of Damascus Gate is uniformly flat by comparison. Stone's authorial voice imparts information as baldly as his principal character; on the rare occasions a metaphor is employed, it is clumsy or predictable (“At just about the time oily black night commenced its descent on them, they ran clean out of road”). One of the more effective images, when Lucas gets inadvertently locked in the Holy Sepulchre during a vigil, describes “the flickering crack-house light of the church”. For a writer so preoccupied with the relations between religious and narcotic addiction, this is a highly appropriate metaphor; so appropriate, in fact, that we have already encountered it in the short story “Miserere,” included in the collection Bear and His Daughter (1997), where a Catholic convert and right-to-life activist arranges the blessing of four foetuses from an abortion clinic, and finds herself “in the crack-house flicker of that hideous, consecrated half-darkness”. To return to that story, however, is also to be reminded of an intensity of writing, a fluency of language, hardly echoed elsewhere in the 500 pages of Damascus Gate.

Characterization in the novel is also beset by shorthand and cliché: the latent Nazism of Lestrade, an archaeologist in the employ of the Christian House of the Galilean, is signified by a penchant for playing Orff and Wagner loudly in his quarters; in Sally Conners, Stone presents us with an English foreign correspondent whose strongest exclamation when learning of a bomb about to blow up the Temple Mount is “Crikey!” She is made to participate in exchanges like the following:

Itbah al-Yahud?” asked the reporter. “What's that?”

“Don't you speak Arabic?” Lucas asked.

“I do somewhat,” Sally Conners said. “But I don't recall the phrase.”

Whatever her linguistic shortcomings, Sally is beautiful, like every female, from little girls to matrons, described here; these include Sonia, with whom Lucas falls in love, Nuala, an Irish revolutionary fatally embroiled in too many cross-plots; even Raziel's mother, mourning his drug-induced coma, is strikingly handsome. The affect of all this cumulative pulchritude is that many women read like one, or like versions of a type—a syncretic femininity. This straining after an essence is also evident in a preoccupation with music as master-art. Adam, Raziel and Sonia are all accomplished musicians, and the latter describes their mission as “making everything be music again … the way it was in the beginning”. Such harmony, however, threatens a democratic and distinctive noise. As Lucas says, “all the grief of the twentieth century has come from trying to turn life into art.”

Ultimately, Damascus Gate is itself guilty of aspiring to the condition of the airport blockbuster. Stone, like many successful writers, on both sides of the Atlantic, and for all the hermetic allusions in the novel, seems to be pursuing a peculiarly middlebrow alchemy: mingling journalism and pre-digested Big Ideas, seeking a saleable fusion of thriller and “literary novel”, providing metaphysics for the beach. Thus, despite the great promise of Jerusalem as a palimpsest city to be read and misread, despite the potential for a traffic in ideas and languages, as well as in the guns, drugs and conspiracies that regular readers know Stone will supply, we experience the texts of the city through the limited, journalistic mediation of Lucas (it is perhaps time to confine the Journalist-As-Hero to journalism), while the stones of the city serve most often as a mere backdrop for the formulaically star-crossed love of Lucas and Sonia. In the end, then, after all the expectations it sets up, Stone's Holy Land seems clouded by bad faith, and both the action-adventure set-pieces, the riots and pursuits, and the cerebration, fractured or otherwise, suffer accordingly.

Michael Hulse (review date 31 October 1998)

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SOURCE: Hulse, Michael. “All Fortune Cookies to Him.” Spectator 281, no. 8882 (31 October 1998): 50.

[In the following review, Hulse criticizes Damascus Gate, claiming that Stone fails to “come to terms” with his religious subject matter in the novel and that the narrative is unconvincing.]

This new novel by the author of Dog Soldiers is so unsatisfying that the enthusiasm with which it has been received in the United States appears truly bewildering. A novel set in Jerusalem enjoys the kudos, no doubt, of having broached avowedly difficult material. And Stone has a reputation. But his inability in Damascus Gate to convert research into felt narrative, to allow any of his manifest intelligence to stray from the authorial voice into the world of his characters, or to come seriously to terms with the religious complexities that are ostensibly a main subject, is disturbing.

Christopher Lucas, a journalist in search of a topic, begins researching a book on the Jerusalem syndrome, that condition of religious mania that can come over visitors to the holy city, persuading them that it is their duty, say, to rebuild the Temple. Lucas, described in sophomore-speak as having been ‘a religion major’, is capable of responding to religious discussion like this: ‘I never get these religious parables. It's all fortune cookies to me.’

As long as Stone sends Lucas on walks through Jerusalem, feeling the perennial Bogartian outsider, ‘party to no covenants, promised nothing except the certainty of silence overhead, darkness around’, all is more or less well. But he is given encounters that enmesh him both in the multifariousness of religious experience and in the dangers of terrorism. One is with the dark-eyed Sonia from the Bronx, a nightclub singer and Sufi who talks like this: ‘Could you chill that light because I think it's giving me epilepsy, know what I'm saying?’ Another encounter is with the unworldly Adam De Kuff, who takes to preaching by the Pool of Bethesda, and the ex-junkie Raziel Melker, given to taking up De Kuff as the new Messiah.

The novel is loosely hung on a supposed plot to blow up the Moslem sites on the Temple Mount, but it is the set pieces that hold the interest. A riot in the Gaza Strip, the death of a Jewish acquaintance, and Lucas's subsequent own near escape as he wanders through the night from camp to camp, amid the wire and spinach fields, never knowing who might be friend or foe, and at one memorable moment subjected to a cruel practical joke by Israeli soldiers in a helicopter: this is all vivid, and affecting.

Too often, though, the prose is makeshift and the characters shallow, so that Damascus Gate seems little more than another airport novel: ‘The army did in fact let them pass by the Beach camp checkpoint, and their drive from Gaza to Khan Yunis featured sunset on the sea.’ To the ugliness of that word ‘featured’, Stone adds an extraordinary American provincialism. Not only are most of his characters American, his points of reference are often irritatingly American too: Israeli motorists are said to have the ‘life expectancy of west Texas bikers’; the border between Israel and the occupied Gaza Strip ‘had always reminded him of the line between Tijuana and greater San Diego’.

Unable to become very interested in Stone's terrorist plot or the ciphers that pass for his characters, I wondered what the point of writing Damascus Gate might have been. With Lucas and Sonia at its heart, Indiana Jones and a bimbo surviving against the odds as others around them come to nasty ends, it is a romance of the triumph of the right-thinking, resourceful, unfazed American over the dark, miry ways of inscrutable and often potty foreigners. Poor America, that needs such fictions now.

Jeoffrey S. Bull (essay date spring 1999)

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SOURCE: Bull, Jeoffrey S. “‘What about a Problem That Doesn't Have a Solution?’ Stone's A Flag for Sunrise, DeLillo's Mao II, and the Politics of Political Fiction.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 40, no. 3 (spring 1999): 215-29.

[In the following excerpt, Bull discusses the political dimension of the novel form and examines the presence of ideological impasses in Stone's A Flag for Sunrise and Don DeLillo's Mao II, wherein crises of politics, religion, and morality are shown to have no apparent solutions.]

The political novel, says Irving Howe, is a work of fiction alive with the “internal tensions” born of abstract ideologies colliding with “representations of human behavior and feeling” (20)—and since World War II, by his estimation, such fiction has only been produced outside the West (254). In his 1986 epilogue to Politics and the Novel, Howe describes authors such as V. S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, and Milan Kundera—among others—as creators of “a literature of blockage, a literature of impasse” (252) that offers “no way out of the political dilemmas with which they end their books.” He praises their ability to document “utterly intractable” circumstances while pointedly refusing to accept the totalist stances propounded by the subjects of so many of their novels (253-54).

I argue that Howe's definition underestimates recent attempts by American novelists to create political fictions—that is, that writers such as Robert Stone and Don DeLillo, to name two, also make the themes and discourse of blockage and impasse important parts of their novels. For example, both Stone's A Flag for Sunrise (1981) and DeLillo's Mao II (1991) explore the seemingly unresolvable conflict between liberal pluralism and revolutionary certitude. Mapping the limitations of both certainty and cynicism in a world where the boundaries between religious faith, political orthodoxy, and “apolitical” evasion meet and cross, Stone and DeLillo are ideal constituents of Howe's literature of impasse, writers who reveal the full effects of political action in an age when clear-cut solutions no longer seem to exist. By documenting the West's increasing uncertainty concerning its own democratic tenets, Stone and DeLillo question how one can find a reason to believe in (let alone act for) as fragile an enterprise as democracy, even as they critique the propensity to spurn dialogue in favor of totalism. Their works expose the limitations of all orthodoxies, while illustrating the sources of their allure. At the same time, both writers resist the temptation to simplify or solve the dynamic (active, potent, energetic) conflict between certitude and pluralism, thereby generating in their novels a perception of politics that reflects the novel's inherent receptivity to differing interpretations and opposing voices.

Uncomfortable separating “observation and participation” (Whalen-Bridge 198), a number of American novelists are now creating political fictions attuned to “the postmodern condition,” the notion that metanarratives (i.e., all-inclusive explanations of human purpose and practice) fail to account for the variety and contingency of human experiences (Lyotard xxiv). Any “faith”—any political ideology, any theocratic design, any dogmatic espousal of “freedom” and the “mission” of the United States—is itself such a metanarrative, and as such is now thought to be worth examining. Stone and DeLillo, drawing on the very complicities and failings of the American sense of mission, reveal the complexities of their homeland's relationship with itself and with the world. Their novels also reveal the complexities of the novelist's own relationship with his or her culture, the “politics of the novel,” and its relationship with democracy.

The last fifteen years have seen numerous compelling declarations of the democratic spirit of the novel. For example, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera praises the ability of novelists to defend individuality and indeterminacy against those who insist that all bow to an unassailable Law. Believing that religions and ideologies “can cope with the novel only by translating its language of relativity and ambiguity into their own apodictic and dogmatic discourse […] (Kundera 7), he declares that “the spirit of the novel” is, as a rule, “incompatible with the totalitarian universe,” because totalitarian conceptions of truth reject any vision of “relativity, doubt, questioning” (14), whereas the novel “does not by nature serve ideological certitudes, it contradicts them” (Kundera, quoted in Rorty, Essays 73).

Richard Rorty echoes that view when he affirms that, in place of “contemplation, dialectic, and destiny,” novelists offer “adventure, narrative, and chance”—inherently anti-essentialist concepts that subvert the search for some “greater truth” beyond or behind events, something “more important” than suffering or joy (Essays 74). Rorty's novelist, unwilling to see suffering as simply “mere appearance” and recognizing that there is no way to completely describe (i.e., subsume) any person, chooses to create “a display of [the] diversity of viewpoints, a plurality of descriptions of the same events” that does not “privilege one of these descriptions” or “take it as an excuse for ignoring all the others” (Rorty, Essays 74). That novelist insists upon desacralizing all ideologies and orthodoxies, submitting them to careful analysis and orientation against the specific contexts of a work. The novelist's neologism “postmodernist bourgeois liberalism” (Objectivity 197), whatever its flaws, can serve as a name for this pronarrative “politics.” A self-subverting ideology that owes “more to our novelists than to our philosophers or to our poets” (Rorty, Essays 81), postmodernist bourgeois liberalism celebrates efforts to undermine dogmatism while making a virtue of the deterioration of certitude.1 Against totalist appraisals of culture and history, the postmodern bourgeois liberal seeks to create a haven for difference while upholding a central tenet of traditional bourgeois liberalism: the notion that there can be an anti-ethnocentric ethnos, a “we (“we liberals”) that is dedicated to enlarging itself, to creating an even larger and more variegated ethnos” (Rorty, Contingency 198). Salman Rushdie's post-fatwa lecture “Is Nothing Sacred?” makes similar positive claims for inclusiveness, instability, and “unholiness.” Literature, says Rushdie, “tells us that there are no answers; or, rather, it tells us that answers are easier to come by, and less reliable, than questions. If religion is an answer, if political ideology is an answer, then literature is an inquiry” (422). Insisting that distrust of metanarratives must not itself become a metanarrative, that novelists (“we”) “must not become what we oppose,” Rushdie feels that literature must remain “the arena of discourse, the place where the struggle of languages can be acted out” (427).2

The politics of the novel, therefore, are founded on the properties of the genre itself. E. L. Doctorow suggests that “the most important political function of the writer is to be a witness” (Whalen-Bridge 198)—and the novel's inherent tendency to measure and question all metanarratives, upholding the ethos of the ethos discussed above, assists in that act of witness. The novel's excellence as a vehicle for “opposition,” its capacity for refusing to accept without question any single reading of existence (Howe 23), is a result of its propensity for allowing characters and their ideological stances to interact, to challenge each other, and to be challenged by events.

Although emerging from an entirely different cultural and critical orientation, Mikhail Bakhtin's “prosaics,”3 his celebration of unfinalizability, variety, and freedom, makes similar claims for fiction. Bakhtin sacralizes the novel to some degree (Seguin 42-43), but the political significance of his ideas is clear: suggesting that metanarratives are of limited value.4 Bakhtin challenges “theoretisms” (ideological abstractions) of any kind (Morson and Emerson 49-50). He envisages the novel as the place in which contesting discourses state their cases and challenge each other.

According to Bakhtin, Dostoevski's emphasis on creating a “genuine polyphony of fully valid voices,” and his effort to see that both the form and content of his works support “the struggle against a reification of man, of human relations, of all human values […]” (6, 62), both help to reveal how human unfinalizability and indeterminacy are central themes of all novelistic discourse. Part of that effort includes creating a new and important role for ideas—including political ideologies—in his works. Whereas ideas in “monologic” (author-centered) texts are placed in character's mouths to be used as “simple artistic characterizing feature[s],” important only so far as they represent or are repudiated by the author's own ideology, ideas in Dostoevski's dialogic (ideologically decentered)5 texts become “the subject of artistic representation,” actors in their own right (85).6 Both characters and ideas confront and test each other as autonomous actors; Dostoevski's polyphonic conception of fiction, the “ideology” of his works, demands that characters' ideas be both known and felt, born of dialogic contact with other consciousness in a world where “nothing conclusive has yet taken place [… where] the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future” (85-87, 166).

Bakhtin's Dostoevski, as David Lodge points out, “put the adventure plot ‘at the service of the idea’ […] to make it the vehicle for exploring profound spiritual and metaphysical problems” (62).7 Therefore, his narratives test both ideas and those who hold them, and feature characters in whom ideas and the idea of self are interdependent, unfinalized, in dialogue. Aspects of Menippean Satire—plot extravagance, the use of low settings such as bars, prisons, and brothels as the site of dialogues concerning ultimate questions, the clash of diametrically opposed viewpoints, and the use of ridiculous, “carnivalized” characters (Bakhtin 109-19)—are turned to charting the sense of spiritual crisis their author detected in modern secular society (typified by political extremism and the decline of commonly accepted bases for social stability) and to doing justice to the complexity of “the man in man.”

Therefore, even though Dostoevski's own antidemocratic opinions are well documented,8 the artist Bakhtin depicts possesses an aesthetic model that clearly draws on “the wisdom of the novel,” that “imaginary paradise of individuals […] where no one possesses the truth […] but where everyone has the right to be understood” (Kundera 159).

In their works, Stone and DeLillo draw on and examine the political implications of such wisdom. A Flag for Sunrise and Mao II, latter-day examples of the Dostoevskian “philosophical adventure story” (Lodge 62), display all the passions and contradictions that politics and religion engender and set conflicts between characters and ideas in a heterogeneous adventure-story setting. Both novels depict how the differences between religious and political faith blur; guerillas, gun-runners, spies—and novelists—pose “ultimate questions” (What is the use of man? Do we seek freedom to act or freedom from action?) while participating in plots consistent with the contingencies of thrillers. In both books, political ideologies and the characters who hold them come to be tested through contact with each other and are woven into a “great dialogue” that illuminates the complexities of modern culture and character. In so doing, Stone and DeLillo reiterate the particular politics of the novel, the “wisdom” that measures all things before judging them.

Robert Stone, for one, draws on “what there is of the mythic in [the thriller's] kind of popular melodramatic form,” both because it works as an “irreverent echo” [that is, conscious parody] of the heroic epic, and because it helps hold readers' attention (Schroeder 159-60). Indeed, A Flag for Sunrise “has the pace and suspense of a first-class thriller, [catching] the shifting currents of contemporary Latin American politics,” while its author manages to “convert clichés into people, and people into questions” (Wood 1). Contingent circumstances and the necessities of ideas control its plot. Characters move from place to place according to the dictates of hidden, often inexplicable motivations, thereby revealing the author's determination to allow his protagonists to struggle freely with antithetical ideas.9

Don DeLillo is also known for using popular genres as forums for debating “ultimate questions.” Tropes of the conspiracy thriller, for example, vie with explorations of philosophical and political problems in many of his novels (Aaron 308). Frank Lentriccia praises DeLillo's novels for their “irredeemably heterogeneous texture,” calling them anatomies, “montages of tones, styles, and voices that have the effect of yoking together terror and wild humor as the essential tone of contemporary America” (239-40). Even though Libra (1988) was DeLillo's only best-seller, the preponderance of “popular” genres in his works might lead one to ask, Is DeLillo “a highbrow or a populist writer?” (Johnston 261). In each of DeLillo's novels, “the subject matter or content normally associated with conventional or popular forms of the novel is crossed or overlaps with at least one other kind of content”—namely, complex philosophical and moral questions (Johnston 262). It is in genre variety of this sort, mixing the contingencies of the thriller with important philosophical and political matters, that DeLillo, like Stone, establishes a dialogue with American mass culture and with the political implications of that culture.

Stone's protagonist, Frank Holliwell, is neither able clearly to articulate why he came to be in Central America, nor why he allows himself to be drawn into the political upheaval there. That which has driven him south resists easy interpretation, as it depends more on longing than logic. Like many Americans before him, he finds himself drawn into events in this “sweet waist of America”—drawn to something sensually thrilling and seductively macabre that inhabits both the landscape and the politics of the fictional nation Tecan. For example, driving toward Tecan with Tom and Marie Zecca, employees of the U.S. Embassy, and Bob Cole, a “leftish” freelance journalist, Holliwell notes to himself that the giant volcanoes for which the country is famous seem to communicate “a troubling sense of the earth as nothing more than itself, of blind force and mortality. As mindlessly refuting of hope as a skull and bones” (Flag 157-58). Stone sets that observation against Cole's belief (as intuited by Holliwell) that there is something moral and just in history, something worthy of respect. Holliwell finds such optimism both touching and dangerous. For him, the truth of the land exists beyond hope, beyond politics; here “primary process” rules. That same feeling radiates from the menacing blankness he later encounters while scuba-diving below “Twixt,” and from Pablo Tabor, the American drifter with whom Holliwell makes his escape from Tecan at the end of the book: all give off intimations of a darker power no justice can answer.

Already seductive, the macabre allure is only augmented by the chance to encounter the Catholic missionaries his “friends” in the C.I.A. have asked him to check up on—people in whom faith and hope might still abide. “It would be strange to see such Catholics,” he thinks. “It would be strange to see people who believed in things, and acted in the world according to their beliefs” (101). With his own sense of hope “badly seared” by what he encountered in Vietnam (165), he has grown comfortable with the voyeurism allowed by his profession (anthropologist) and the cynicism born of his past and present experiences with American history in action. As a result, he feels within himself a simultaneous longing for and loathing of hope, a sort of false martyrdom of caustic despair that drives him forward.

That inchoate compulsion is the plot-device that allows Stone to place Holliwell in extreme situations, such as his conversation with the antiterrorist operative Heath or his ride in the open boat with Pablo Tabor. Such situations test Holliwell's personal “ideology” of political indifference (an attempt to forget that silence is consent), his own mix of personality and philosophy. He believes himself to be a liberal, a free agent; he thinks he owes nothing to anyone. Nevertheless, the dictates of history and fear eventually beset his faith. In the polarized political world of Tecan, his “curiosity” seems to both the Left (the missionary Sister Justin) and the Right (Mr. Heath) little more than “‘a moral adventure [he] can dine out on in the States’” (395). “‘I don't know quite why I came […],’” he angrily tells Heath. “‘People do such things, you know. You may live in a world of absolute calculation but I don't’” (394). “[H]e had vainly imagined that truth was on his side—but of course there was no truth. There were only circumstances” (394). Amidst that ineluctable polarization of Left and Right, the needs of Holliwell's “dry spirit” and his abiding discomfort with such needs (apparent in his despairing skepticism and political uncertainty) combine to put him in peril. Curiosity and desire lead him deeper and deeper into the politics of the region—and closer and closer to the confrontation with himself and his own values that ends with his murder of Tabor, an act of calculated violence he had hoped to avoid, yet knew he could not escape. He had hoped to evade politics, evade involvement, leave the world to the sharks. In the end, of necessity, he is obliged to become one of them. He betrays Justin to the Guardia, and kills Tabor. Hallucinating after the murder, he “hears” sharks “talk” to him, joke with him, as they swim past the boat back toward Tabor's body. They tell him that now he has his proof, that there is no justice—“just us.” Cole was entirely wrong. In the final scene the sun rises on a world, as Holliwell sees it, permanently lost, one in which history cannot be challenged or changed. He styles himself the man who “understands history” because his encounter with Tabor's brutality and his own has confirmed what the volcanoes and Twixt called forth: that sense that “blind force and mortality” are the only earthly powers. …

Stone also manages to investigate, and thereby unsettle, both ideological certitude and the politics of the novel. Holliwell's use of language and his meeting with Sister Justin are two examples of how Stone examines the limitations of both unquestioning belief and corrosive doubt. For example, Holliwell's political voyeurism, his attempt to watch American foreign policy in action in Tecan while trying to avoid becoming committed to either side, arises from his unwillingness to believe that change is now (or ever) possible, that history and hope might be related. By his estimation, the United States has put an end to that. Asked by an old friend (now a C.I.A. stooge) to present a lecture at the Autonomous University of Compostela, Tecan's neighbor (asked, he later finds out, so he will be “in the neighbourhood” of the missionaries), Holliwell decides to let his audience in on a crucial secret: not only has the United States buried the world under pop culture—to borrow his phrase, “‘Mickey Mouse will see [us] dead’” (Flag 108)—but it has also committed cultural suicide by destroying its own secret, nonexportable culture: the United States no longer believes that it is “more” (109).10 The peculiarly American brand of idealism, that problematic bonding of self to nation, born of the merger of secular and spiritual hope, is, as he understands it, a dying thing. “Its going sour and we're going to die of it” (109-10). Recent history has toppled American certainty and brought down with it Holliwell's faith in that nonexportable virtue.

As evidence of that decline, Holliwell's own speech, in several spots in the text, re-creates tropes adopted during the Vietnam War, phrases haunted by self-betrayal and futility (Wood 1). That “doubly-voiced discourse” (to borrow Bakhtin's term) lets Stone create a dialogized conception of history within Holliwell's own consciousness. Vietnam merges with Tecan: Driving into the capital Holliwell imagines that “the markets would be behind the bus station, where they always were, in Tecan as in Danang or Hue (163). “He had no business down there,” he tells himself (245)—not down under the reef, where he had sensed some greater darkness in the depths, not down in Tecan, “far from God, a few hours from Miami” (71), and not “under that perfumed sky” (245) (a turn of phrase as appropriate to Saigon and the Perfume River as to Puerto Alvarado). Memories of the idioms and events of Vietnam return repeatedly to his thoughts, drawn out by the echoes and similarities with that former circumstance he recognizes in his new surroundings. The Zeccas, he is only half-surprised to learn, also served in Vietnam. His conversation with them is centered around a comparison of then and now, Vietnam and Tecan, which increasingly paints Tecan as “Vietnam” about to be reborn. Tom Zecca, an astute student of history, hopes that when the place goes up he will be long gone: “[m]y tour is almost up. Then they can send in the types who like the Guardia's style. The headhunters, the Cubans, the counter-insurgency LURPS's” (169). Spooks and assassins; the names move back and forth through time, make incursions into a new continent, bleed 1961 into 1981. Such overt and implicit comparisons engage the present (early 1980s) in a dialogue with the American past and work as reminders of both the danger of American confidence and the price of its loss. The death of the sense of mission is handled in its full complexity by that use of language: language containing both a memory of the price Americans exacted from others in order to pursue imperial dreams and a sense that the last and the finest of all human dreams—democracy for all—has been murdered by such pursuits.

The void left by the end of hope is filled, Holliwell believes, by a loss of affect. “Whirl” supplants the dying sense of purpose. Powerful ideals have given way to empty yet deadly simulations. “In suburban shopping centers [he thinks] the first chordates walk the pavement, marvels of mimesis. Their exoskeletons exactly duplicate the dominant species. Behind their soft octopus eyes—rudimentary swim bladders and stiletto teeth” (246).

Having lost the secret culture of democratic hope, Holliwell's United States has become no more than its commodities, “for sale to anyone who can raise the cash and the requisite number of semi-literate consumers” (108). Unable to believe in belief and possessed by nostalgia for a world in which people acted on their beliefs, Holliwell slides into a lasting cynicism. Reflecting on Sister Justin and her fragile sense that she can act in history—that is, act for others, fulfill her religious and political “mission”—Holliwell feels “admiration, contempt, and jealousy” (243). Drawn to her hope yet repelled by it, he lacks the courage to be sincere. “Positive thinkers” frighten him. Such people's beliefs, he feels, are turned by the brute force of existence into a species of moral blindness leading to murder. “The world paid in blood for their articulate delusions, but it was all right because for a while they felt better. And presently they could put their consciousnesses on automatic. They were beyond good and evil in five easy steps […]” (245). He recognizes that his absolute doubt is a sign of despair, that last and greatest challenge to believer and political actor alike. “There was no reason to get angry,” he thinks. “At his age one took things as they were. Despair was also a foolish indulgence, less lethal than vain faith but demeaning” (246). However, by the end of the book, despair becomes master of his speech and thought. He reifies that “ideology of despair,” this sense that all is whirl and only whirl and insists that it governs every circumstance. When he tries to get Sister Justin to come away from the mission with him by arguing that the revolution is futile, she recognizes that for him “despair and giving up are like liquor […]” (388). He believes he must warn her that “God doesn't work through history”—and even after she tells him that that's “too metaphysical” for her, he persists: “‘The things people do don't add up to an edifying story. There aren't any morals to this confusion we're living in. I mean, you can make yourself believe any sort of fable about it. They're all bullshit’” (387).

What he fails to understand is that Justin is no longer interested in doubting or affirming any abstract ideology. Paradoxically, she moves away from metaphysics toward belief; she accepts the notion that “justice” might only be a word, yet she continues to see the revolution as a chance to end some suffering in one place, now. The paradoxes of religious and political belief settle in her as a desire for practical action, and she discovers a moment when a choice must be made and kept. Her conception of political practicalities alters the dynamic between Holliwell and herself so that the reader witnesses Holliwell becoming the “believer”—believing in the meaninglessness of belief—whereas Justin finds her use in a suffering world. “‘I don't have your faith in despair,’” she tells him. “‘I can't take comfort in it like you can’” (388). Her faith in action and her attention to the necessities of her particular situation allow her to go on; his controlling sense that action is futile, therefore worthless, binds him to the escapism of despair. Holliwell's internal conflict, the collision between his desire to “drink and drink and drink” of her goodness and his belief that all political action is foredoomed, allows Stone to play out “ultimate questions” arising from the American sense of self-doubt and thereby to establish and explore the longing and self-loathing within its politics. …

That commingling of ideology and the tangible concerns of human behavior and suffering allows DeLillo and Stone to illustrate the complexities of political faith and political action in an age that knows too well the dangers of blind certainty.

According to Stone, “There's a shared Marxist and American attitude that where there's a problem there must be a solution. What about a problem that doesn't have a solution?” (Plimpton 371). Stone and DeLillo's “answer” to that question is to enhance the tensions between idea, character, setting, and content that are the sources of the novel's effectiveness as an art form. Actual political crises (ghosts of Vietnam stirred up in Central America, censorship, and the rise of theocratic states11) become important figures in both texts, taking their places in the “arena of discourse.” In playing out these historical events (drawing on fiction's ability to clarify and order experience, lend it scope) both writers are able to draw the conflict of ideologies down to the personal level, thereby establishing “the connection between political forces and individual lives” important to all successful political fiction (Stone, “Reason” 75-76). Their novels support Bill Gray's contention that the novel has its own bit of moral force (Mao 48), which abides in the novel's ability to represent the complex and changing relationships between the private desires and the political ideals of the characters.


  1. Mark Edmundson calls Rushdie, Rorty, and (to a lesser extent) Kundera positive-minded “new postmodernists” who both “disenchant the world” (standard operating procedure for the original “negative postmodernists”) and affirm the merits of diversity and uncertainty (62-66).

  2. As Howe put it in Politics and the Novel, ideologies become “active characters in the political novel” (21); they are brought to life and brought into live, set against each other.

  3. A neologism coined by Gary Saul Morson (Morson and Emerson 15ff).

  4. Bakhtin resists “semiotic totalitarianism, the assumption that everything has a meaning relating to the seamless whole […] one could discover if only one had the code. This kind of thinking is totalitarian in its assumption that one can, in principle, explain the totality of things” (Morson and Emerson 28). “Semiotic totalitarians typically assume that it is disorder that requires an explanation. Prosaics begins by placing the burden of proof the other way. […] In the self, in culture, and in language, it is not […] disorder or fragmentation that requires explanation: it is integrity” (31).

  5. Bakhtin himself calls his ideas inadequate summaries, monologic representations of Dostoevski's dialogic creations (see Morson and Emerson 61). As Linda Hutcheon points out, he favored an ideology of anti-ideologism, whereas postmodern novelists recognize that paradox and use parodic re-enactments of traditional “centering” (which they promptly throw into doubt) to contest both centering and decentering. By the rules of Bakhtin's own analysis, “decentered” texts also have a “center,” self-conscious though it may be (180).

  6. Bakhtin's thoughts here match Howe's own interpretation of Dostoevski in Politics and the Novel. “Dostoevsky shows how ideology can […] blind men to simple facts, make them monsters by tempting them into that fatal habit which anthropologists call ‘reifying’ ideas. No other novelist has dramatized so powerfully the values and dangers, the uses and corruptions of systematized thought” (71). He is the “great artist of the idea” because he does not “finish” ideas and characters who hold them; he keeps his distance, “neither confirming the idea nor merging it with his own expressed ideology” (Bakhtin 85).

  7. See Bakhtin 106-66, where he discusses how the spirit of Dostoevski's works reflects the subversive power of carnival and compare with Kundera 20, on the wisdom of “the depreciated legacy of Cervantes.”

  8. One can only imagine what he'd say of “postmodernist bourgeois liberals”!

  9. Compare Bakhtin 104: “The adventure plot relies not on what the hero is [or] the place he occupies in life, but more often on what he is not, on what […] is unexpected and not predetermined.”

  10. That nonexportable element is “Idealism. A tradition of rectitude that genuinely does exist in American society and that sometimes has been translated into government. […] so much that is best in America is a state of mind you can't export” (Stone quoted in Plimpton 370).

  11. Compare Stone quoted in Plimpton 371 and DeLillo quoted in Passaro 77.

  12. I would like to thank my colleague Professor Mark Levene for his encouragement and helpful advice concerning an earlier draft of this paper.

Works Cited

Aaron, Daniel. “How to Read Don DeLillo.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89.2 (1990): 305-19.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

DeLillo, Don. “The Art of Fiction CXXXV [interview].” Paris Review 35 (Fall 1993): 273-306.

———. Mao II. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.

Edmundson, Mark. “Prophet of a New Postmodernism.” Harper's 279 (December 1989): 62-71.

Howe, Irving. Politics and the Novel. 1957. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York and London: Routledge, 1988.

Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Johnston, John. “Generic Difficulties in the Novels of Don DeLillo.” Critique 30.4 (1989): 261-75.

Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. 1986. Trans. Linda Asher. New York: Grove, 1988.

Lentriccia, Frank. “The American Writer as Bad Citizen—Introducing Don DeLillo.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89.2 (1990): 239-44.

Lifton, Robert Jay. Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. 1968. New York: Norton, 1976.

Lodge, David. After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Morson, Gary Saul, and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Passaro, Vince. “Dangerous Don DeLillo.” New York Times Magazine 19 May 1991: 34-37, 76-77.

Plimpton, George, ed. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Eighth Series. Intro. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

———. Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume II. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

———. Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers Volume I. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London: Granta, 1991.

Schroeder, Eric James. “Two Interviews: Talks with Tim O'Brien and Robert Stone.” Modern Fiction Studies 30.1 (1984): 135-64.

Seguin, Richard. “Borders, Contexts, Politics: Mikhail Bakhtin.” Signature 2 (Winter 1989): 42-59.

Stone, Robert. A Flag for Sunrise. 1981. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

———. “The Reason for Stories: Toward a Moral Fiction.” Harper's 276 (June 1988): 71-76.

Whalen-Bridge, John. “Some New American Adams: Politics and the Novel Into the Nineties.” Studies In the Novel 24.2 (1992): 187-200.

Wood, Michael. “A Novel of Lost Americans.” Rev. of A Flag for Sunrise, by Robert Stone. New York Times Book Review 18 Oct. 1981: 1, 34-36.

Mark Saunders (review date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Saunders, Mark. “From New Orleans to Jerusalem.” Sewanee Review 107, no. 3 (summer 1999): xc-xci.

[In the following review, Saunders offers praise for both Stone's ability to tie up loose plot threads in Damascus Gate and for clearly delineating a large cast of characters in a political thriller.]

On first inspection Robert Stone's six novels don't fit the broken mold of postmodern experiment and obsession with American popular culture that marks his contemporaries. After his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1966), which depicts, in terms at once realistic and satiric, a New Orleans mad with racial strife, Stone put himself and his characters—mostly lapsed Catholics possessed of a fervent gnosticism—in the way of some of the more volatile overseas conflicts of the last thirty years. In the manner of Hemingway and Greene he disciplined his ambition through plot, even as a carnival vein always seemed at the point of disturbing the limpid surface of his prose. Following his master, Joseph Conrad, whose characters stood at the margins of European empire, Stone sent his lost Americans abroad to understand his home country more clearly.

Stone's continuous struggle to write a so-called thriller that is really a novel of ideas unleashes an idiom that is at once hip and richly descriptive, surreal, transcendent. Read in light of its structural tensions and psychedelic tone, Stone's work seems closer to Pynchon and DeLillo—or the Gershwins and Jerry Garcia—composers who incorporate the various riffs of the postwar United States. Damascus Gate, Stone's monumental grappling with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adds a sacred Oriental strain to his uniquely American music.

While the novel's setting may suggest otherwise, its central plot to bomb the Temple Mount and usher in Armageddon is, as one representatively colorful character puts it, “an American story.” And, if a millennial thriller informed by the mystical traditions of Kabbalah and Sufism seems a project too dangerously perfect for a writer whose characters take God's apparent withdrawal so personally, fear not: there's a humor here, a gentleness toward his creations that feels like wisdom rather than judgment. This generosity yields Stone's most sympathetic protagonist—the freelance journalist Christopher Lucas. Lucas travels to Israel in the grip of a virulent midlife crisis “to cure himself” of a “fond, silly regard for religion” left over from his days in a Catholic boys' school, and finds himself choosing between two equally ominous stories to cover. Cut from the same cloth—half tie-dye, half hair-shirt—as Stone's earlier leading men, Lucas is a liberal with a divided provenance—the bastard son of a Jewish professor and a Catholic singer—who fears choosing either political commitment or faith: “Lucas desperately preferred almost anything to blood and soil, ancient loyalty, timeless creeds.” He is, in Stone's terms, a typical American, a “slave of possibility” who can't figure out if he's a cynic or a seeker, but knows he wants a good story anyway.

In spite of his impotence—temperamental and otherwise—Lucas does fall in love, with Sonia Barnes, a beautiful mixed-race Sufi jazz singer who is falling under the spell of a dubious guru, a wealthy, manic-depressive Jew from New Orleans called Adam De Kuff. De Kuff's election as messiah is promoted, in a manner somewhere between revelation and public relations, by Ralph (or Raziel) Melker, a spoiled prodigy, musician, and junkie from a prosperous Michigan Zionist family. Lucas, who is writing a book on religious fanatics, can't quite decide if Razz Melker is a mystic, charlatan, or madman. When Razz starts “using” again, his rationale offers an astonishingly clear window on the allure of drugs, their false promise of spiritual insight. He makes Stone's penchant for drug-popping characters seem organic, much more than a crutch. In Razz, Sonia, and a huge supporting cast of brilliantly drawn international-aid workers, gonzo journalists, intelligence operatives, evangelists, and shrinks, we see how a misguided conflation of political engagement and religious faith, often a symptom of mental instability, feeds political opportunists.

This unholy union of innocence and exploitation begat A Hall of Mirrors and the grim circus that formed its conclusion. Stone's books that take place in the seventies, in Vietnam and Central America, were products of their times, full of black humor and irony but earnest and tragic at heart. In his last novel, Outerbridge Reach (1992), the publicity surrounding a sailing race fed on a man's best dream of himself, destroying him as if his mildly mercenary romanticism were all the 1980s could supply in the way of a tragic hero. In Damascus Gate Stone is not afraid to let his tragedy shade into farce, to paint his Razz and Adam De Kuff as a band of Merry Pranksters trying to usher in the millennium with Lucas as witty everyman and Sonia as femme fatale. The ending, a cinematic chase across the Old City rooftops, is a comic sequence of great ingenuity in which what counts is the performances the bomb plot engenders—and the political box office made by the show. That it manages to tie up the strands of a labyrinthine plot while exposing the theatrical politics of late twentieth-century fundamentalist terror is well nigh a miracle.

Damascus Gate is the best testimony yet to the talent and encompassing vision of an American writer who, like his secret sharer Melville, went looking for himself in the Holy Land.

Robert S. Fredrickson (essay date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: Fredrickson, Robert S. “Robert Stone's Opium of the People: Religious Ambivalence in Damascus Gate.Papers on Language and Literature 36, no. 1 (winter 2000): 42-57.

[In the following essay, Fredrickson examines Stone's religious preoccupations and spiritually bereft protagonists in Damascus Gate, as they represent a reprise and elaboration of Stone's theological speculations and portraits of alienated leftists in previous novels.]

That Robert Stone has written another novel, Damascus Gate, with a central figure resembling those drugged and detached men of his earlier work leads us to ponder why he repeatedly so situates his readers in relation to his stories. Christopher Lucas, like Holliwell (A Flag for Sunrise) and Converse (Dog Soldiers), is another marginal, uncommitted, self loathing sot, another of those who “pretended to be human but were not” (DG [Damascus Gate] 326). These characters stand forever on the periphery of political or religious commitment, alternately belittling those who are involved and envying them. Moreover, they are uprooted, having gone out of their way to far flung places to witness the revolution or the revelation, even if they have no good reason to be there. They make odd pilgrims, these men, since they seem not to want to find anything.

Stone's repetition suggests a certain obsessiveness, leaving readers to ponder just what his affinity is with these men, many of whom are also writers. They do work of a journalistic sort, as Stone has sometimes done for The New York Times Magazine or Harper's, but unlike Stone, who now has six novels, his characters are frequently blocked or paralyzed, as if not knowing why they are writing in the first place.1 For them producing any book is problematic. Converse had gone to Vietnam to write a book, yet he takes up running drugs when it appears there would be none, as if doing so might provide some equivalent. Lucas has already written a book about Grenada, but due to his fastidiousness it appeared so long after the event that what he had so startlingly revealed was no longer news. He is now attempting a book on the Jerusalem Syndrome, the phenomenon of religious mania in the Holy Land, but his effort is likely to result only in further confusion, since he remains unsure about his relation to the material. Because Stone might have called his new novel, The Jerusalem Syndrome, we are left to puzzle out his relation to this material as well. Thirteen years earlier, Stone may have provided an explanation: “I take seriously questions that the culture has largely obviated. In a sense, I'm a theologian” (qtd. in Woods 44). Yet his protagonists usually disdain theological questions, even while implicitly asking them

We might ask as well whether Stone regards his audience as his fictional writers do theirs. Characteristically Stone depicts artists like Converse and Strickland, a documentary film maker in Outerbridge Reach, who, as a matter of marketing, cynically provide the prerequisite “left-liberal coloration” in order to appease a politically correct audience in America or Europe. Similarly aware of the intricacies of left wing politics, Stone seemingly writes for the same audience to which Converse and Strickland pander, although Stone avoids making concessions by not taking sides.2 Nonetheless, it is the readers of magazines such as The New York Review of Books,New Republic, and Nation (all of which regularly review any new Stone book) who make up Stone's audience. Somehow Stone's vacillating protagonists must be particularly recognizable to secular, left-oriented Americans, as if many of them now look to Stone for verification of their plight. Like Lucas, such readers belong “to the late imperial, rootless, cosmopolitan side of things” (DG 76). Hence, when we read how Lucas sees his audience, we may well wonder if this how Stone sees us: “When he wrote, it was for some reader like himself, a bastard, party to no covenants, promised nothing except the certainty of silence overhead, darkness around” (DG 59).

With Damascus Gate, his protagonist's quagmire has become principally a religious one. Israel may be the site of an east-west political struggle, but what disturbs Lucas particularly is that men will kill each other over questions of whom God has chosen and what God wills. By their nature, Stone's secular readers would likely share Lucas's skepticism about taking sides in such disputes. Lucas argues with Sonia, the female protagonist of Damascus Gate—a woman capable of commitments, both religious and social—that she is “too hip and beautiful and smart to believe this garbage” (DG 171), referring to her following a man named De Kuff who claims to be the Messiah. Similarly, Stone's readers regard themselves as too hip or smart to believe such garbage. Yet, as Stone has repeatedly demonstrated before with his decadent leftists, excessive skepticism has its problems, leaving one alienated, impotent, and dispirited, doubtful of his or her own humanity. His secular ironists are likewise adrift. Stone has claimed, perhaps inaccurately, to be the only American novelist addressing theological questions (rpt. in Woods 44). He seemingly wants and needs to focus on our neglected ontological state, evidently believing that his audience needs this as well. So what haunts his readers this time is how avidly Lucas searches for something more than “silence overhead, darkness around.” Stone has said that he sees his audience particularly as “people who had some intense experience with the sixties” (qtd. in Woods 44), a decade when meaningful political action seemed possible, when new spiritual revelations seemed conceivable, a time for which many readers might well feel nostalgia. Yet typically Stone's principals, Converse and Marge in Dog Soldiers, and Holliwell in A Flag for Sunrise, have seemed removed from the passions of the sixties, political or spiritual, even if they once partook of them. Now with Damascus Gate, Stone reenters that era's mindset more fully.

Stone's principal characters are typically alienated intellectuals—those best among us who still lack all conviction, as if we had come little distance from the non-believing Hemingway protagonist whose mitigating grace was more or less holding together in the face of nothingness. Stone's characters, however, obviously seek more than Hemingway's pleasure in things pleasant, clean, and well lighted. Stone takes a kind of sixties' pleasure in things ecstatic, ranging from the highs of drugs and alcohol to religious frenzy, from the sacred realm of art to the throes of sexual passion. In a desperate fashion, Stone resurrects Hemingway's various opiums of the people.3 Thus while Stone—what with his empty protagonists—may appear postmodern, his books seemingly cling to an idea of presence. If to some seekers in Damascus Gate, “Everything is Torah,” implying the word, written in fire, underlies all creation, Stone celebrates language as well. But his language has a cracked and schizoid relation to reality and cannot assuage the sense of existential dread that haunts his world.

In this sense, Stone's characters have always been tormented by a religious itch, and not surprisingly, his secular fallen leftists have even greater problems accommodating religious visions than political ones. Early on in Dog Soldiers, Converse mysteriously tries to pick up an older widowed missionary woman in Saigon, a woman who then tells him that “Satan is very powerful here” (DS [Dog Soldiers] 9. Perversely, Converse chooses to run dope because—after his disillusion with a war where elephants are being pursued by helicopters—it seemed necessary there “be something” (DS 25), this something having a religious resonance. His peculiar sense of the supernatural is based on fear. He believes religiously in the “moral necessity of his annihilation” (DS 185). Later we find ourselves in the mountains near the Mexican border at a hippie commune that has outlived its time and is presided over by an aging guru, Dieter, who seems to have slipped from Buddhist visions to an addiction to homemade wine. Like Dieter, this flashback to acid epiphanies of the sixties has a flaccid quality to it. Moreover, Converse is fascinated by Hick's Samurai charm, his pretense to Eastern spirituality. Hicks dies in a sort of Buddhist trance. In a burst of ecstatic writing found toward the conclusion of Dog Soldiers, Stone shows Hicks using a Zen technique to detach himself from pain, attempting to die well, still pretending to be a true Samurai.

In A Flag for Sunrise, Stone's ultimate decadent leftist, Holliwell, evinces, nonetheless, a fascination with Sister Justin, a woman who was one of those “who believed in things and acted according to what they believed” (FS [A Flag for Sunrise] 101). Indeed, we find the most compelling ruminations in this highly political book occur in the minds of a heterodox, drunken priest, and a nun who senses God's presence as she is beaten to death. Although tedious in terms of narration, intellectually Stone remains arresting while exploring through Father Egan a gnostic alternative to Christianity, the lotus within the flower. Yet at his strongest narrative moment, the description of Justin's murder, we experience along with Justin her sense of the divine that comes in the brief interlude between the shocks to her body: “then something began to come. … Stronger than the strong, stronger than love” (FS 416). The “trickster” Christ gives her the last word, which she flings at her tormentor, a final cosmic joke: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (FS 416).

In Owen Browne's last days at sea in Outerbridge Reach, he is obsessed with the nature of religious truth. Here in Stone's widest ranging theological speculation, Owen rejects the Christian sermons he hears on his short wave radio and meditates his way to the heart of a gnostic truth wherein he explores God's absence, His hiddenness, and finds finally—as John Leonard writes in The Nation—not God but Darwin. Browne, who heretofore had been a straight arrow instead of one of Stone's tribe of decadent leftists, has lost both his conventional idea of himself as decent and his sense of a supportive friendly God. He cannot return home, so he flings himself overboard. Typically, Stone's fascination with religion intertwines with the conundrum of death.

Stone has always liked to have his reluctant religious pilgrims traveling, like Browne at sea, as if we might only sense our contingent and ephemeral relation to the world and our proximity to death by being dislocated. For these pilgrimages, Stone's protagonists have come a long way from home in order to explore alternatives to the spiritual dearth that characterizes contemporary consumer America. Thus Stone's novels often have the quality of travel narratives: their alien settings are the locus of a twentieth-century apocalypse, religious and/or political, and their protagonists are tourists who have wandered into threatening situations both over their heads and beyond their means. Converse of Dog Soldiers wallows in Vietnam; Holliwell of A Flag for Sunrise lurches about in some Nicaragua-like country. The setting of Damascus Gate is principally Jerusalem, with forays to other locations in Israel, particularly the Gaza Strip. But despite being on the scene, Stone's marginal, dislocated men witness the mêlée—like Washingtonians going out in carriages to watch Civil War battles—from the sidelines. Trying to avoid being caught up, they stay high. Still they encounter the outlandish without the protection of any myth. Owen Browne, on his own perilous, lonely sea voyage, reads other accounts of such expeditions in the course of his trip and learns that most such narratives are lies, dwelling as they often do on the teller's courage in the face of the void. In contrast, Stone's travel stories ring true because they are harrowing accounts of psychic dislocation made tolerable only by our willingness to accept absurd juxtapositions with a numbed detachment. Of his future on the road, Lucas tells Sonia, “I'll be in Phnom Penh. Look for me at the Café No Problem. To find the Café No Problem, you turn left at the Genocide Museum” (DG 493). Like Stone voyagers before him, Lucas travels to experience the terrible incongruities of the contemporary world, justifying thereby his voyeurism, but also ironically provoking his longing for involvement. Appropriately, the conflagration overtakes Stone's wanderers; they find themselves in over their heads, out there, exposed in a conflict that seemingly did not concern them. Lucas is drawn particularly toward the central religious tussle of our time in Jerusalem, all the while maintaining that he is in Israel to cure himself of his “fond, silly regard for religion” (DG 8).

Often, however, the location Stone takes us to is not particularly geographical, but a figurative postmodern place—an environment of heightened, nearly surreal, possibility—where the reader must decide ultimately among possibilities for belief without any authoritative guidance. The best fictional example of this sort of multiple choice game occurs in Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 where Oedipa Maas sees clearly her choices in regards to believing in a mystical postal system called the Trystero, through which real meaning might be communicated. Her alternatives are these: she is hallucinating; she is the victim of a plot against her (even paranoids have enemies); she has gone insane, or she has stumbled onto a real alternative to the meaninglessness of the modern world. Novelists as dissimilar to Pynchon as John Updike, John Fowles, and John Gardner have similarly set up choices like these. For Stone in Damascus Gate, the duo of De Kuff, a bipolar (manic depressive) visionary, and Raziel, a drugged musician, provides three of these possibilities: hallucinatory visions—a major episode takes place with all the characters on Ecstasy; insanity—De Kuff is after all certifiable and Raziel is a flake; and real meaning—De Kuff's internal relation to past Messiahs has a certain cogency, a certain riveting appeal. At other places, a mixture of Shin Bet (Israel's version of the CIA), American fundamentalists, and Jewish right wing extremists provide us with the bizarre paranoid plot, one that includes an attempt by some to blow up the mosque on the Temple Mount. But whereas Pynchon never really chooses among his four possibilities, Stone holds out here for the possibility of religious truth in a manner that he has not before in his writing. Moreover, unlike Pynchon, Stone remains conventional in terms of realism and characterization. In part, Pynchon readers remain suspended among Oedipa's choices because no one knows finally how we should regard her. Might she be only a cartoon?

In Stone's case, even if his characters doubt their own reality, the reader believes in them. They are altogether too recognizable. Such marginalized, depressed, and alcohol-befogged types force an identification for many because they are as close as we are going to get to a sensibility we recognize. The problem seems more one of whether they merit sympathy. When teaching a Stone novel—I've worked with Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise—I have had to face student hostility toward characters who have nothing admirable about them. Only Sister Justin, with her religious doubt and political passion, stirs a mixture of pity and respect. Nonetheless, as a female character, Justin remains more object than subject in a masculine world characterized by Holliwell's hard-drinking paralyzing despair. Robert Solataroff has argued, however, that Stone gives us enough complexity to identify with even his most degenerate characters, thus rendering people such as Holliwell and Hicks compelling.4 Now with Damascus Gate, Stone has provided us with both male and female protagonists who merit sympathy, particularly in the seriousness with which they search for an elusive God.

Stone's long-term religious obsession evolves ironically from his sense of God's absence. As Solataroff has noted, “God's presence as a form of absence is to varying degrees inscribed into each of Stone's five novels” (20). With Damascus Gate and its more sympathetic seekers, we find Stone moving toward a sort of spiritual resolution. After a long engagement with gnostic theology, Stone here twists God's absence until it yields a kind of spiritual presence. He transforms here his belief in unbelief into something his protagonist can live with. Lucas's ultimate revelation is that “losing it is as good as having it” (DG 499), as if we can only know sumptuousness after losing it.5 What he means is that he can now accept a religion based solely on longing and desire, one where seeking is already a form of belief.6 Thereby Stone leads his secular audience closer to a spiritual realm.

With Lucas, Stone depicts someone more or less like Holliwell, but he justifies better here the character's ambivalence and allows more reason for Stone's typical reader to identify with him. Although Lucas has gone to Israel to take the cure for religious addiction, the fallen Catholic and one-time religion major that he is still wants to believe.7 Lucas, like his inventor, seems unable to leave his Catholic childhood behind him. For example, in a moment of regression, Lucas becomes frantic when locked out of a chapel where German monks are saying mass. Later he rationalizes his hysteria saying, “I've been drinking too much. I'm out of prozac. I've got a cold” (DG 388). Lucas feels he is better off when he can explain his momentary passion as “all an undigested bit of beef” (DG 388), like Scrooge explaining seeing ghosts in A Christmas Carol. Still Lucas cannot stop longing. Listening to the manic ravings of De Kuff, a bipolar man who pretends Messiah status, Lucas thinks “that he would give anything to believe it all” (DG 401). But like earlier Stone protagonists of this nature—like most secular intellectuals—Lucas remains convinced that there is value in his detachment, his impartiality, his capacity to see both sides, sometimes his ability to despise both camps. Facing “the simple fact that he had nothing and no one” and trying “to remember when that had seemed a source of strength and perverse pride” (DG 59), Lucas attempts, in Hemingway fashion, to make his existential loneliness a virtue. In regard to his book on the Jerusalem Syndrome, such desperate detachment might prove valuable.

Of course, Lucas exposes his real predilection for religion in his choice of topics for writing. While Israel may be the site of both political and religious controversy, given a choice between writing about the economic and political strife of the Gaza Strip and the religious turmoil of the Holy Land, Lucas opts for the latter, even if he disdains all sides. Similarly, his earlier book on Grenada was said by critics to be too concerned with Afro-Caribbean religion in lieu of politics. He nonetheless despises the very passions that drew him to this subject, so why does he not say a plague on both their houses and turn to another topic? Stone often underscores the questionable nature of certain beliefs held by some Israelis: Lucas has little patience with those who view Jews as the Chosen People, who believe that God has singled out Jews and has a special regard for them; he has little patience with those who believe in avenging any Jewish death with a multitude of Palestinian deaths; he is horrified by the living conditions inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza. Given his detachment, Lucas seems relieved to discover the ways in which Jews fall short; he is gratified to learn that Zealots “lapsed into banditry and murder, terrorizing the country” (DG 77), and that believers commit atrocities in the name of God. All the same, most of the sense of religious possibility in the book rests with Jews, or with Christians somehow united with Jews. Thus Lucas comes to doubt his doubt, wondering whether we, as skeptics, are any better off “because we know the old stories are lies” (DG 77). Lucas vacillates between discovering with relief some fact to discredit belief and wondering what we have gained by discrediting it.

Much of what characterizes Lucas, like what characterizes Holliwell and Converse before him, seems representative of most postmodern intellectuals. Lucas lives “a fastidious and anxiously examined life” (DG 54). He sees himself as “a man without a story secure from tribal delusions,” someone “not up to self invention” (DG 59). He doubts totally the efficacy of prayer. Where he differs is in his attraction to what is opposite to himself. Whereas Holliwell and Converse like to flirt cynically with those who believe, Lucas actively courts them. Holliwell makes love to the nun whose devotion fascinates him, a cynical and stupid act, as both he and Justin recognize immediately. By contrast, Lucas falls in love with Sonia, the Sufi Muslim who becomes a follower of De Kuff, the pretend Messiah. Of course, other distinctions between Justin and Sonia may justify Lucas's deeper involvement. At times Justin's political passion seems to be a form of self indulgence: she has a crush on a handsome priest; she romantically wants to have her flag for sunrise. Sonia, however, is deep and authentic. She is the beautiful mixed-race daughter of communists—black father, Jewish mother—who achieves through her fusion (race, religion and politics) something less vulnerable to criticism. She brings a harmony, revealing her nature best when singing. She is a beatific Sarah Vaughn. While she may have taken an occasional percodan for the “inner harmony” it promotes, she remains the healthiest of any Stone female protagonist. Once Sonia had lived in Cuba and found it a good life, one that was “plain, friendly and useful” (DG 108), and she seems capable of living a similarly sane life in the future.

Because of Sonia's magnetism, Lucas—unlike former Stone protagonists—seems ready to commit himself to her, even if he is unable to follow her religiously. It is a remarkable Stone protagonist who regards love as real. Sonia sees his spiritual bent and wants to draw that out. She tells Lucas, “You try to act like you're content not believing anything, and I don't think I buy it” (DG 168). Nor does the reader. She beckons him, crooning that for him to hear her song, he must follow her: “Yo no digo esta canción, Sino a quien conmigo va” (DG 270). She becomes a fleshly embodiment of spiritual wholeness. Nonetheless, Lucas cannot believe enough to follow her to where she imagines a purposeful existence. Lucas's imagined house with a picket fence is an upper West Side apartment from which they might go out to see Les Enfants du Paradis. Sonia's vision is of useful work in Liberia or Rwanda. Lucas wants to settle and have a family; she cannot imagine a family in such desperate places. So the novel ends with the love plot unresolved. Nonetheless, their relationship has more to it than does Holliwell's deflowering and betrayal of a nun.

Thus Damascus Gate turns out to be more a novel about seeking than a novel about the impossibility of belief. Indeed Stone's exploration of gnosticism leads away from heresy to belief. Just as a Jewish Catholic Priest (an impossible combination, yet representative, nonetheless, of Stone's variety of theism) tells Lucas, “If you seek God, some say you've found him” (DG 263), Stone reveals more something found than something lost. In fact, his belief is equal to his anger with certain aspects of conventional belief. At one moment Lucas catches himself praying:

“O Lord,” he heard himself say. The utterance filled him with loathing, that he was calling on God, on that Great Fucking Thing, the Lord of Sacrifices, the settler of riddles. Out of the eater comes forth meat. The poser of parables and shibboleths. The foreskin collector, connoisseur of humiliations, slayer by proxy of his thousands, his tens of thousands. Not peace but a sword. The Lunatic Spirit of the Near East, the crucified and crucifier, the enemy of all His own creation. Their God Damned God.

(DG 317)

The ordinary atheist has no reason to hate a nonexistent God; Lucas's tirade reveals he is enraged with the man upstairs. Consequently a belief in a God who is absent might avoid the pitfalls of “their Goddamned God.” Stone's allusions to Wallace Steven's “Sunday Morning” indicate that he sees a similarity between his difficulty with the Judeo-Christian tradition and the problem that Steven's complacent woman in a peignoir has with the “dominion of the blood and sepulchre.” Were we to push aside the God Lucas inwardly assails and she questions, the sky then would be a much friendlier sky, “Anything at all but that rich, indifferent blue” (DG 373). Stone's project seems to be one of rethinking God, putting aside that personal God who walks with us and talks with us, who takes a side, who demands ludicrous sacrifices. “Do you really think there's a thing in the sky that cares whether the passing asshole down below is Jewish or not?” Lucas asks (DG 167). An absent God would be preferable to this present one and all His consequences.

But from whence comes inspiration enough to carry on with life? Because Stone's protagonists seem often to be depressed men and women, they still need their moments of ecstasy, even if God is unavailable for revelation. They seem to need a God who can be experienced, so an absent God is an unlikely spiritual source. Stone's characters have traditionally found their delirium in drugs and alcohol, sex and language. Like so many other modern artists, Stone hints that in a world where God is absent, art may serve as a necessary substitute for a divine presence. He takes this position gingerly, however, having Lucas acknowledge simultaneously that “all of the grief of the twentieth century has come from trying to turn life into art” (DG 389). Yet Stone, whose attention to craft is great, who builds his novels in a Conradian fashion wherein “Fiction must justify itself in every line” (Woods 49), must here resolve whatever he might through the power of his narrative, and this time he cannot always pull it off. Damascus Gate is perhaps Stone's most erudite novel, despite mistakes that one reviewer has noted.8 He has managed to take a lifetime of autodidacticism on religion and superimpose it on an Israeli landscape, but while sentence by sentence his writing works, episode by episode it sometimes does not. Some of Stone's most important scenes are simultaneously his worst, and in terms of his story, this novel feels out of control. Intense ambivalence is difficult to dramatize.

For example, in one layered scene (Chapter 34), Lucas attends one of De Kuff's performances where a small new age group of devotees redolent of patchouli and a group of hecklers, including one Londoner who shouts repeatedly in a Cockney accent, “Excuse me,” interact. Thus the scene provides both ecstasy and a cynical commentary on it. Lucas rests ambiguously detached from both the preaching and the mockery. For the reader, also, the scene is unengaging, lacking either the humor or the intensity necessary to make it work. The reader stands between the hecklers and the ecstatic, not able to choose. In a considerably more successful scene later, Lucas's ambivalent and ambiguous position becomes vivid when he runs from a pursuing mob of Palestinians who shout at him, “Itbad-al-Yahud” (“Kill the Jew”), knowing he cannot turn to Israeli defense troops for help because they see him as the enemy also. Thus the man without a position finds both sides the enemy. Fear comes more naturally to Lucas than does divine ecstasy.

A culminating episode has a similarly Pynchon-like ambiguity. Here Lucas, sailing on a drug called Ecstasy, seemingly witnesses the Holy River Jordan change course. Is it just the drug, or is Lucas watching a miracle? Stone leads us to believe it is the drug, but his writing makes us want to believe in the miracle. Lucas's response partakes of both. “‘It's the Jordan,’ Lucas said. I see the god coming up out of the earth, he thought … But Lucas could not shake off his own terror. The fear of holiness” (DG 405). Holiness would disturb his hideout in doubt.

Lucas, who fears holiness, who regards himself as a “fucking weeper” (DG 399), who is capable of religious emotion, nevertheless falls short of belief, perhaps because he acknowledges perpetually—as he cautions Sonia—that “you have to be ready for this to fail you” (DG 389), and he cannot take the risk. But never before has a Stone protagonist been quite as theologically needy, not even Holliwell, who weeps at religious sentiment. Holliwell is fascinated by Justin but cannot make more than a sexual move in her direction. Converse needed there to be something; Marge required a certain “righteous satisfaction” found in drugs. But now we have a protagonist who weeps, who inadvertently prays, who curses God, who fears, who edges toward faith, and who ends hopeful. He concludes that despite losing everything in the end, “certain things of their nature cannot be taken away while life lasts. Some things can never be lost utterly that were loved in a certain way.” He goes home to a “different world” (DG 500).

So Stone has solved something here, has he not? While all previous Stone protagonists lacked faith in their inner resources, Lucas has found his. In a beautiful sentence fragment, “A land in exile, a God in His absconding, a love in its loss” (DG 500), Stone manifests the heavy pull of desire while telling us of absence. Art poignantly provides what experience denies.

Lucas recalls earlier the doctrines of the mystic, Isaac Luria: “The Almighty had absented himself in the first and greatest of mysteries, bequeathing to his exiled, orphaned creation emanations of himself. The force of these emanations was beyond the capacity of existence to contain them” (DG 130). In a sense, this theological formulation describes Stone's creation, a novel that intimates emanations whose force goes beyond the capacity of this book to contain them.


  1. Writers are central to a number of Stone's fictions. Besides the novels considered here, Children of Light has a writer protagonist, and a number of the stories in the collection Bear and His Daughter feature poets as principals. Characteristically, these writers are disturbed by God's seeming absence and attempt to use art as a compensation for an empty universe.

  2. See Fredrickson's, “Robert Stone's Decadent Leftists,” for a discussion of this problem. I argue that a number of factors—doubt of the viable self, doubt of the meaning of history, doubt of the possibility of communication—so deconstruct postmodern identity that these men feel impotent in the face of moral and political action.

  3. See Hemingway's “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” where it is not only the usual drugs that are opiums of the people, but almost all human distractions from work to food to revolution.

  4. Hicks, despite his disturbing behavior, has a certain tragic grandeur, according to Solataroff, that demonstrates Stone's skill in characterization (79).

  5. George Packer divides Stone's principal characters into two types, “seekers” and “ironists” (117). Lucas definitely falls into the category of ironist, but this time the ironist edges toward seeking, indicating, perhaps, Stone's desire to reconcile the two modes.

  6. What we see here is Stone seemingly pulling back from his postmodern sense of absence and turning toward an always inaccessible presence. His notion of desire resembles that of Jacques Lacan, only Lacan's idea concerns that which is lost to consciousness upon the advent of the signifier, whereas Stone evidently means something beyond the contents of the unconscious, something that signifiers, words loaded with desire, can suggest. Desire lingers even if that which we desire forever eludes us, forever remains beyond embodiment.

  7. Stone, also a lapsed Catholic, is, according to one critic, the Catholic poète maudit (Packer 115).

  8. Hillel Halkin scores Stone for the number of errors Stone makes about Judaism, Arabic, Hebrew, and Jerusalem, maintaining that he did not grasp his subject well enough to write about it and thus makes mistakes from mistranscribed notes.

Works Cited

Fredrickson, Robert. “Robert Stone's Decadent Leftists.” Papers on Language and Literature 32 (1996): 315-34.

Halkin, Hillel. “The Jerusalem Syndrome.” The New Republic 25 May 1998: 29-31.

Hemingway, Ernest. “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio.” The Snows of Kiliminjaro and Other Stories. New York: Scribners, 1927.

Leonard, John. “Leviathan.” Nation 13 Apr. 1992: 489.

Packer, George. “Robert Stone: The Funny Apocalypse.” Dissent 40 (1993): 115-19.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Harper, 1965.

Solotaroff, Robert. Robert Stone. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Stone, Robert. Damascus Gate. New York: Houghton, 1998.

———. Dog Soldiers. New York: Ballantine, 1973.

———. A Flag for Sunrise. New York: Knopf, 1981.

———. Outerbridge Reach. New York: Ticknor, 1992.

Woods, William C. “The Art of Fiction XC.” The Paris Review 27 (1985): 25-57.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 January 2003)

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SOURCE: Review of Bay of Souls, by Robert Stone. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 1 (1 January 2003): 24.

[In the following review, the critic calls Bay of Souls “a small masterpiece,” contending that the novel is spare, intense, and clear.]

Faulknerian intensity and a narrative economy reminiscent of Hemingway distinguish Stone's bloodcurdling seventh outing [Bay of Souls], a tale that charts a midwestern college professor's compulsive path toward self-destruction.

In a magnificent opening chapter, Stone introduces Michael Ahearn, living in Iron Falls, Minnesota, with his wife Kristin and preadolescent son Paul, and seeking the kind of “bliss” he intuits from the vitalist tradition in American fiction (his specialty) in heavy drinking and occasional hunting trips. Returning from one such trip, Michael learns that Paul has almost frozen to death and Kristin has injured herself rescuing him. This incident, and other indistinctly ominous particulars (a dropped flashlight, a slain deer's carcass carried in a wheelbarrow), foreshadow Ahearn's hallucinatory free fall, conceived as “the purifying effect of struggle,” but realized as obsessive infatuation with an alluring colleague, political-science professor Lara Purcell. Michael follows Lara to the embattled Caribbean island of St. Trinity, ostensibly so that she can attend a “ceremony of reclamation” for the soul of her late brother, an AIDS victim, and sell their family's property: the Bay of Souls Hotel. Instead, Lara succumbs to the irrational power of the island's voudon culture, and Michael—coincidentally an experienced diver—is persuaded to brave the depths of a coral reef, where an airplane carrying mysterious contraband has sunk. An ongoing island war, a “peacekeeping” military junta, unidentified American interests, Colombian militias, and various adventurers and burnt-out cases are the ingredients of a compact sulfurous melodrama whose working-out convinces the mesmerized Ahearn that St. Trinity is in fact hell (and Lara its likely agent), nor is he out of it. A perfectly calibrated ironic final chapter brings the story to a stunning full-circle conclusion.

A small masterpiece, possessed of a relentless lucidity that recalls Conrad and Graham Greene at their peaks. Stone's best yet.

Amy Wilentz (review date 20 April 2003)

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SOURCE: Wilentz, Amy. “Voodoo But No Real Magic.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 April 2003): 4.

[In the following review, Wilentz compliments Stone's abilities as a writer but faults Bay of Souls for what she contends is a weak plot and a preoccupation with spirituality.]

The title of Robert Stone's new novel, Bay of Souls, is evocative of other times, of thwarted adventurers on the high seas, of midnight attacks, of political intrigue and spies, of palm trees and beaches under the moon and important moral imperatives. Say “Bay of …” to Americans of a certain age, and they'll know how to finish the phrase.

Stone is one of our great living writers, and always an explosive and problematic one. He can set a scene like almost no one else. If he writes a chase, you know it will be speedy and vibrant and filled with things other than the simple act of pursuit. He is brilliant when it comes to visual description, a genius at tough dialogue. He likes to stuff his books with a kaleidoscope of humanity. And he knows how to wrap politics and spirituality into his plots in a way that can make them seem like essential aspects of living a life.

So hearing the title Bay of Souls, anyone familiar with Stone's work will expect politics and a thriller and, in all likelihood, a hallucinogenic spiritual quest. Conceptually, the book is a part of Stone's ongoing engagement with the essential questions: What does it mean to be human? What is consciousness? Where did we come from? Where are we headed? What is the meaning of right, of good, of love? Bay of Souls addresses these eternal mysteries, but it doesn't push our understanding forward. Nor does all the excitement amount to much. Bay of Souls is a witch doctor's title: The book conjures spirits, but it doesn't quite make them appear.

Stone tells the story of Michael Ahearn, a likable middle-aged English professor at a mid-level college, handsome (Stone is at pains to tell us), intelligent and in the throes of a midlife crisis—a personal and spiritual emergency—that he is trying manfully to soldier through in a decent way. He has the requisite hard, aging wife and difficult adolescent child. The book readies the reader for a tale of adultery; it begins very promisingly with fraught, unsentimental family scenes played out against the cold academic winter. Ahearn goes hunting too. Unsurprisingly, Stone is very good at evoking the masculine camaraderie and rivalry that come with this turf.

The hunt, and the “boozing” conversations after, leave the impression that this will be a taut novel of psychological suspense, emotional contortion and spiritual redemption. There is no nonsense in Stone's best writing, and there is truth too. “[Ahearn] sat with the safety off, tense, vigilant, unhappy, waiting for the deer. He considered the wind, although there was hardly any.” Throughout the book, sentences like those flame out at you.

All the cinematic Stone soup of drugs and religion and politics is cooked up and served in Bay of Souls, though the only drug that's used in this book (if you exclude religion) is alcohol. Readers familiar with Stone's work would expect this much; unfortunately, however, the novel moves as if it consisted entirely of the beginnings of many films. Suspense lurks everywhere. It seems to override every other consideration, but this tension is not satisfying if it is not resolved. The opening hunting scene involves many guns and much potential killing. There is Ahearn's son too, almost frozen in the snow; he might die. A torrid sadomasochistic love scene follows; will it end in murder or suicide? There is a scene in a hospital that generates strong waiting-room uncertainty. Later, Ahearn arrives on a tropical island in the midst of violent political unrest. Here in the heat, we see a car with a scary, unreadable dark-skinned colonel of questionable motivation, heavily armed Colombian drug dealers who may open fire at any time. At an airport, our hero may not get on the plane in time. There are scenes in airplanes and scenes deep below the surface of the Caribbean sea. There is even a plane crash. The book seems to move well because it moves a lot.

The problems come—as they did in Stone's preceding novel, Damascus Gate—when the plot thickens and spirituality enters. In Bay of Souls, the spiritual question and the love interest combine in the mysterious figure of Lara Purcell, a colleague of Ahearn's who hails from a composite Caribbean island called St. Trinity, where her soul was stolen away by her (now deceased) twin brother and given into the charge of the minor voodoo goddess Marinette. When Ahearn falls for Lara—who can play a terrific game of squash and indulge in autoerotic strangulation—the books morphs from a midlife masterpiece into a thriller in the style of the 1970s, a cliché-ridden narrative featuring the CIA and the Cali cartel: haute Miami Vice. It's like a parody of a Robert Stone novel.

There's a ton of plot, pound after pound of it, and the taut line that should keep the book moored is lost amid uncharted twists and turns. There is a good deal of deliberate disorientation (much of it caused by a voodoo ceremony that seems too satanic and dark, though in his St. Trinity scenes, Stone does capture the sheer strangeness of voodoo), but a good deal more disorientation that is not. For example, we witness a high-level drug deal gone awry, in which Lara seems to be mixed up, though how, we can't tell. She attempts to get her soul back at a long voodoo ceremony, but we can't tell for sure if it has come back, because Stone drops her before the end of the book, only to have her surface briefly toward the end as a hallucination on a horse.

Even Lara's political alliances are confused, and no answer is given as to who—in the end—was her boss. She seems to have connections to what we used to call the Agency, as well as to a right-wing Central American military-slash-drug-dealer type, though she was a lefty in Paris and also has had earlier affairs with both Graham Greene and with Castro (a heady mix!). To explain Lara's political shift, Stone says that she “changed sides” without offering a single phrase or sentence of further explanation. Politics doesn't really matter here. It's just a backdrop for action.

Throughout the book, one has the feeling that Stone lets the story lead him to subjects that might amuse him or mean something to him personally—hence the needless and anachronistic affairs with Greene and Castro, the wheeling in, for a few Hitchcockian pages, of the menacing General Triptelemos (General Trip, his nickname) and the pipings of the gratuitously awful female journalist on St. Trinity, among just a few pointless plot bits and pieces. These idiosyncratic references and allusions don't pay off. Stone seems to think he is doing and conveying more than he actually does do or convey.

Bay of Souls had every chance in the world with Stone as its author and an opening that most writers would sell their souls to Marinette for. In the end, it's worth paging through for those bits because Stone is dazzling when he's dazzling. He can create gasps of awe with his paragraphs: descriptions of the young son or of the Ahearns' marriage, or of a market in St. Trinity, or of a deep sea dive, and musings on marine, and human life and death on a coral reef.

One of the book's most moving passage comes during the hunting scenes at the beginning of the book, when Ahearn waits in a tree for his prey, only to find passing in the crosshairs of his gun a sort of homeless prophet who is screaming foul curses at a dead deer that keeps tumbling out of his wheelbarrow.

Many scenes are funny or poignant: the douane of St. Trinity requiring a “pink form” for departure from the island; the interrogation of Ahearn by a very threatening Cali cartel woman; the return of wheelbarrow man at the end of the book, in the form of a voodoo acolyte on St. Trinity, rolling a goat in for sacrifice.

The best work in Bay of Souls reminds you that its author is the Stone of Dog Soldiers, who wrote that brilliant and subtle opening, set in a windless park in Saigon, where John Converse shares a hard bench with the missionary lady, the same author who then laid down the complicated gonzo licks of that plot to its dark end. Like so many of Stone's books, that one delivered on its out-of-proportion promises. This one doesn't.

Robert Stone and David L. Ulin (interview date 30 April 2003)

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SOURCE: Stone, Robert, and David L. Ulin. “Considering Chaos.” Los Angeles Times (30 April 2003): E8.

[In the following interview, Stone discusses his past and the inspirations behind Bay of Souls.]

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Le Meridien Hotel in Beverly Hills looks like a setting from a Robert Stone novel, a study in contrasts, in silence and movement, in darkness and light. In the back of the lobby, the hotel bar sprawls like some abandoned post-colonial outpost, empty except for CNN beaming the latest images from Iraq.

A few feet away, a Japanese model poses before a fountain. As a photographer circles deliberately, like a predator, assistants jostle for position at his side. All the while, at a small table near the front of the lobby, Stone, at 65, sits unperturbed, oblivious even, looking off into some interior distance as he talks about his new novel, Bay of Souls, in a languid demi-whisper, as if he were occupying an existential territory of his own.

Stone, of course, has always kept himself at a bit of a distance, despite his proximity to some of the major countercultural moments of the last 50 years. In the late 1950s, he drifted through the fringes of New York Beat society (his wife, Janice, worked at the Seven Arts, a Times Square coffee shop where Jack Kerouac, Herbert Huncke and Allen Ginsberg liked to hang out). A few years later, as a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, he was one of the early LSD pilgrims who congregated at Ken Kesey's house on Perry Lane, a group that later evolved into the Merry Pranksters.

Yet for all his involvement, his sense of being an engage writer—he did a stint as a journalist in Vietnam, and has spent time in the Gaza Strip and Central America—Stone has never been a joiner, but rather a quintessential man apart.

“The difference between a lot of those guys and me,” he says of both Beats and Pranksters, “was that many of them came from solid Western farms, where the questions were all pretty well answered, and they were answered with no talking back. So they were ready to rebel. My situation was very different.”

“My father left when I was small. I was in … I guess I'd have to call it an orphanage, run by the Marist brothers, from the time I was 5 1/2 until I was 8. And I was really trying to get out of there. I was trying to get my mother to perform. You know, ‘Come on Mom, let's wear two shoes that match today and let's get me out of here.’ But sometimes she wouldn't wear two shoes that matched, so I had a lot to lose. I mean, nobody was going to put me back in the orphanage, but I was scared. I was scared of chaos.”

If any single idea has defined Stone's nearly 40-year career as a writer, it is this notion of chaos and how we behave in its presence, the way it can consume us at the core. Ever since his 1967 debut, A Hall of Mirrors, nearly all his characters have had to face that issue, whether they find disorder in the world around them or in the beating of their own corrupted hearts. It is his tendency to explore a larger, more morally ambiguous landscape that sets Stone apart from most of his contemporaries, eschewing both Beat fascination with self-mythology and Pranksters' absurdist tendencies.

Bay of Souls, the story of Michael Ahearn, a professor of English at a small Midwestern college, is the first of Stone's novels to begin with what might be called interior chaos in an exterior world that is deceptively smooth. “I wanted to deal with a character,” Stone explains, “who could take turmoil. One of the mass of men who live lives of quiet desperation.”

This is a perfect description of Ahearn. A man locked in a tense, distrusting marriage, the father of a 12-year-old son to whom he cannot, in any real sense, relate. He drinks too much, has acquaintances rather than friends, and is constrained in almost every aspect of his life. Then he meets Lara Purcell, an exotic beauty who has newly joined the faculty of his school. For Ahearn, she represents everything he's missing—a wilder, more elemental existence—and in her thrall, he walks away from his wife, his son, his very reason, following her to the Caribbean island of St. Trinity, where he participates in a voodoo ritual meant to reunite Lara with her soul.

In the process, however, Ahearn loses a piece of himself, and free falls into psychic crisis. “I have my problems,” he tells a female student at the end of the novel, and when she presses him to elaborate, he answers simply, “That I have no soul.”

The question of soul—of gaining it and losing it, of how we nourish it or how we don't—is another central element of Stone's fiction, the idea that, even in the most hallucinatory moments, a spiritual quest is going on. Over the years, his characters (many of whom are drug cases or alcoholics, lost souls in the most fundamental sense) have been labeled burnouts, but really, just the opposite is true. For men like John Converse or Ahearn, it's not that disassociation leads to chaos, but the other way around.

In Stone's universe, then, everything—alcohol, narcotics, lust, religion—is a tool, a way of navigating the darkness, of making meaning where there is none. What's striking, Stone insists, is that the deeper we delve into disorder, the more orderly it seems.

“There was this scene in one of the towns in the Gaza Strip,” he says, recalling a 1992 trip to the occupied territories. “The Palestinians are on strike because the U.N. can't give them enough work. They're having a sit-in, but the Israelis only allow us to employ so many people, so what are we going to do? And the girl who is the go-between for the Israelis and the strikers thinks everything is cool. But as it turns out, everything isn't cool, and in the afternoon, there's a bomb, and everything has gone as badly as it can.”

What Stone is suggesting is that, in almost any situation, reality is a matter of perception, that meaning, truth is relative and God is an emptiness with which we must continually contend. This, too, is a theme that marks his fiction including Bay of Souls where Ahearn sorrows after (but cannot reconcile with) his lapsed Catholicism.

Still, Stone insists, God is not an absence, not exactly. “I feel something like the aftermath of a divine presence,” he says, “although I don't believe intellectually in the divine presence. I feel an order, a desired goodness that was presented to us, and that we somehow ignored.”

It is not, in other words, that God never existed, but that at some point he abandoned us, that he created the universe and moved on, leaving us to sift through the shard ends, “les mysteres,” as Stone calls them in Bay of Souls, “very old things … left over from Creation,” all the things we cannot know.

In the face of that, Stone's characters must continually ask themselves how to keep on living, how to face another day. “I think of Dostoevsky, who said, ‘Suicide has gotten me through many a difficult night,’” Stone says. “But on the other hand, I think you take courage and do what has to be done. Certainly, I have enough courage to see the sun go down tomorrow.”

As for what this means in an indifferent universe, Stone admits he doesn't know. “It feels to me,” Stone murmurs, “very much that we are in a godless and, finally, uncontrolled situation, although I agree with Pascal who said, ‘One sees the evidence every day.’ It is impossible for me to believe, and yet I desire to believe.”


Robert Stone Long Fiction Analysis


Stone, Robert (Vol. 23)