Someone once described Graham Greene as the novelist of decolonizing Britain. England during and after the war and the imperial fall was his true subject, the uncut stone from which he chiseled his themes. Think of knob-kneed, lonely-hearted Wilson, the sunburned colonial officer in The Heart of
the Matter, which many consider Greene’s most achieved novel, and the notion seems a natural. But what about the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, the messy domestic duplicity of the narrator in The End of the Affair, or the dog-walking double agent of The Human Factor? These are among the ranking inhabitants of Greeneland, as we’ve come to think of the territory, but fitting them into the thesis makes it seem reductive.
Is it, finally? Range through Greene’s work and you begin to see the argument’s validity. Greene’s writing is all tied together by a running concern for a certain England at a certain time. His novels are maps for a journey through the moral, emotional and psychological terrain of a nation in triumph and decline at once–and then a nation re-encountering a world it so recently thought it had mastered. Between all the lines of all the histories to come, Greene may as well have advised us, this is the good and bad of who we were, this is how it looked from where we sat.
Some novelists lend themselves to this kind of reflection because their work is theme and variation from start to finish, as Milan Kundera once put it–and because their books are cast against the velvet curtain of public events: against history. Lawrence had his post-Victorian, postwar industrial England, injured and ugly; for Vidal the thread is spun of his preoccupation with us–we peculiar Americans and how we got this way, and the things our peculiarities lead us to do. To a long and disparate list let us add another name: In a writing life that now spans almost four decades, it is hard to think of an American writer who has made the deep dive into his time and place as effectively as Robert Stone.
This may as well get said straightaway: Nobody of Stone’s generation comes near him–not in the elegant clarity of his sentences and not in terms of the thematic whale he has pursued from one book to another. Stone has a new novel out, and this may as well be noted in the front, too: Bay of Souls does not rank among his best work–certainly not his biggest. There are flaws that beg repair. It lacks the ambition and magnitude of Damascus Gate, his prophetic book (sorry–couldn’t resist) on the Middle East. And it has nowhere near the cleanliness, power and singularity of purpose Stone achieved in A Flag for Sunrise, his Central America novel. Flag is now twenty-two years old, but I agree with Reynolds Price about it: It’s the best book Stone has ever produced.
Bay of Souls seems small by comparison. Stone takes us traveling once again, but the book unrolls primarily in a university-town household and the psyche of its male inhabitant. It seems closer in its aspirations, and in its mostly domestic setting as well, to some of the stories collected six years ago in Bear and His Daughter. To this we must quickly add that Stone attempts some important new turns in his latest book. No one who follows him and wants to know where he is going can consider Bay of Souls dispensable: It’s “must” reading in the way everything Stone writes is. So we can quip once again and call this novel a Stone of modest size, while recognizing that without it the edifice would not be complete.