A Stone Unturned

A Stone Unturned

Someone once described Graham Greene as the novelist of decolonizing Britain.


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.

If Stone has his great subject, as Greene had his, how shall we describe it? Much of Stone’s work is strangely similar to much of Greene’s in a co-relative sort of way. They both are given to wretched, peripheral locales to reflect upon the metropole–the force and connivance elsewhere that produced the wretchedness in remote places. Spooks, opportunists, the morally shredded, the morally bankrupt–Greene and Stone often seem to draw from the same population pool, though the sociology is never the same. None of this should surprise: Their differences may finally outweigh their similarities, but as Greene did falling and fallen England, Stone’s piece of marble is America as it enters and learns to live uneasily within its late-imperial phase, as it begins to suspect itself–as it weaves “the fabric of predatory power,” as Stone put it in A Hall of Mirrors, the book that launched him in the mid-1960s.

All sorts of themes are hacked out of this rock. Religion and the place of belief are taken up somewhere or other in every book. So are social commitment and its opposite. Stone decided from the beginning that he was not an engagé novelist, and praise be to him for this: It would have ruined his career had he misplaced his commitment to the art. But there is politics in all of his novels, just as there’s history; specifically, no reader can miss the postwar progress (if that is the word) of the American left as a kind of implicit backdrop–an aspect of the Stone milieu. Dope, alternative culture from the Beats onward, and more recently the intellectual remnants and survivors of the 1960s and ’70s–again, always there someplace. And it is interesting to see how each of these themes grows larger or smaller from book to book. The nature of belief is writ large in Damascus Gate, but it is hard to miss it in the earlier work: The scars of Stone’s Catholic upbringing are everywhere. Or a thumbnail example, one of many: A Hall of Mirrors contains the best renderings of cannabis-powered conversation I’ve ever read; they’re extended set pieces, hilarious and sad all at once. In Dog Soldiers, Stone’s Vietnam novel, drugs take a central place in the plot. Now, in Bay of Souls, this element shrinks down to a few lines of cocaine and a couple of joints skittishly consumed.

All this being noted, there is one theme in Stone’s work that must be singled out as his most prominent. As soon as we glimpse the first character Stone ever launched across a page–an outsider named Rheinhardt, the protagonist of A Hall of Mirrors, set in New Orleans–we know we’re concerned with the difficulty of becoming that most exalted of beings in postwar, cold war America: an individual. This, finally, is the irreducible constant in Stone’s novels and stories: the fight to realize oneself amid an unnamable accumulation of invisible, remote power–“the dreadful procession of things as they are,” as one character in Hall considers it.

Rheinhardt has many relatives by now–siblings in some cases, one could argue. It’s not difficult to imagine John Converse or Chris Lucas smoking a bit of gage with him–two journalists and the protagonists, respectively, of Dog Soldiers (Stone’s second novel) and Damascus Gate (his sixth, published twenty-four years later). Or, for that matter, Gordon Walker, the somewhat wasted screenwriter at the center of Children of Light. In between and after come the cousins. In Frank Holliwell, Flag gives us a serious-minded scholar, and by Outerbridge Reach we’ve made it along with Owen Browne onto the uncertain fringes of the American middle class. In Bay of Souls, Michael Ahearn is about as settled as protagonists ever get in Stone’s books: professor at a second-tier university on the Northern Plains, married, with a child, a teaching assistant and a routine. But they are all outsiders. They are all on the journey Rheinhardt began in New Orleans–the city of the excluded at least since the days of Lafcadio Hearn.

So does Stone unfold his story as if his books were successive chapters in it. But his progress can hardly be measured by way of his characters’ taste for drugs or their gross adjusted incomes. Nor can we set the books out in chronological order and say each was better than the last. Children of Light, which followed Flag, is generally considered Stone’s worst work, though it is better to say it is a weak card in a strong hand. The novel is set in Hollywood, a locale and a theme that has proven difficult for every writer who has attempted it, from Fitzgerald and Nathanael West onward. Bay of Souls comes after Damascus Gate in the same way: a lesser work following a large one.

So what? Stone has refined his style to the point where his paragraphs–which are his basic unit of expression, as opposed to his sentences–flow like water over the round rocks of a brook bed. He has made subtraction the trajectory of his career: Less is more–one of the best lessons any writer can ever learn. The same point can be made about the struggle he has waged to get beyond the mid-century brand of American realism that marked so many of the novels Stone must have grown up on and learned from. Think of The Naked and the Dead: That kind of mimetic, get-it-all-down replication of reality, so evident in A Hall of Mirrors, is completely gone now. Nothing is wasted; nothing is there just because he saw it and put it, reporter-like, in a notebook. Stone has always kept himself out of his novels–or at least invisible in them. There is more of Stone in his later work–up to and including Bay of Souls–but it is there implicitly, hidden in a style that depends on a certain immaculately chosen vocabulary, a taut detachment in the way he describes and a kind of implied irony that is all his own. Open Damascus Gate and put your finger on a page at random: You’re bound to find these qualities in any narrative paragraph. Stone is present, but as an intelligence.

Among the things to which Stone has always applied his intelligence is the place history and events should take in a novel. They are essential in his practice of the art. And to construct a relationship between fictional characters and the real time of their time, so to speak, does not mean merely to supply a context: It means writing from within an understanding of where we are in a historic process. There’s not a thing Stone has written in which the moral self is not depicted in the trap we have made of the world. He relies upon our common references, even if they are unspoken ones. This is why, in my opinion, he has always been respectfully but superficially reviewed: We’re too allergic to a clear vision of things to talk about some of the themes he sounds. So we gloss–and admire safely.

The stance toward history goes some way to explaining why Stone’s strongest books tend to be those set at least partly elsewhere: Dog Soldiers in Vietnam, A Flag for Sunrise in a fictional banana republic called Tecan, Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and its environs. The grand international context makes the plot–and Stone has always been plot-heavy–an easier vessel to fill. One might argue that Stone has trouble when he stays home, as in Children of Light, which shrinks the foreign locale to Gordon Walker’s surreal cavort in Mexico at the end. Certainly there is a tension in Stone’s work between the books that place historic time in the front and those in which it is implicit.

Stone saves his work from a fatal error by making history the site of his writing but never its subject. The same point is even more usefully applied to politics in Stone’s fiction. It would be easy to imagine from the early books that Stone fancied himself a political novelist who merely kept his politics in the closet as a sort of strategic decision. I don’t think this was ever true. Not quite fifty years ago, Irving Howe published a study of “the political novel” in which he began by declining the very nomenclature. “I am concerned with perspectives of observation, not categories of classification,” Howe wrote. “Perhaps it would be more useful to say that my subject is the relation between politics and literature, and that the term ‘political novel’ is used here as a convenient shorthand to suggest the kind of novel in which this relation is interesting enough to warrant investigation.” This is as far as anyone could ever go in terming Stone a political novelist, and the argument could be made that in his later work it is too far.

Stone’s political roots are evident enough, and they sink deeper than the 1960s, which are often assumed to be his starting point: If you read A Hall of Mirrors carefully enough, you detect that Stone’s consciousness was formed in that twilight era between the Old Left and the New. But there is a huge difference between a novelist equipped with political awareness and a producer of “political novels,” whatever the term may mean. This can hardly be overstated. Stone has understood from the first that, however grim his time and whatever his sympathies, he would preserve the ambiguity that everyone from Lawrence (“no didactive absolute”) to Kundera (“the wisdom of uncertainty”) recognizes as the novel’s unique strength and value. Political engagement is a theme in Stone’s work, not a position, and however often he seems to dismiss it, he has found it worth engaging–and so makes the question “interesting enough to warrant investigation.”

There is a general line from simplicity to complexity in Stone’s treatment of the political question as his characters carry it for him. As the novels go on, they progress from politics as an inadequate option to politics as an exhausted option. And by the middle books, the subject clarifies: The tension between political engagement and individual vision that powered A Hall of Mirrors is gone. Ron Strickland, the filmmaker in Outerbridge Reach and the protagonist’s foil, does documentary work that is loaded with political import, but he does it with clinical detachment–he may as well wear latex gloves. Nuala Rice in Damascus Gate is a full-bore engageé, but she is inaccessible–lost in another, black-and-white world from the one Chris Lucas moves in. Now we come to Bay of Souls, and we find that politics is a faint, quaint memory, barely implied in Michael Ahearn’s ruminations. For good measure Stone gives Lara Purcell, Ahearn’s lover and guide on the path to deliverance, a political career on the dark side that a 1930s Cambridge graduate would envy: She has worked for the Soviets, then the French, then the Americans, and seems at the time of our story to be uncomfortably engaged by some dope-running Latin dictators and their string-pullers on Capitol Hill’s far-right flank. Engagement as the opening to a labyrinth.

“Not a soul,” Rheinhardt says of himself in A Hall of Mirrors–meaning he has lost himself in the American labyrinth and cannot reconnect. Michael Ahearn in Bay of Souls suffers the same malady. When we meet him he is a wanderer without the courage to wander–a faker trying to survive on the inside. The raw, McCarthyist America of Hall is replaced by the cotton-wool calm of our moment–the time of Stone’s new novel is pretty much right now. Ahearn is tethered within it well enough to be only dimly conscious of his plight–but not quite well enough to miss the gradual collapse of the easy, insulating verities:

In the darkness before his son’s room he felt the vertigo of the shifting world. Stop, he thought. Go back. To the sweet order that had prevailed when life was innocent and carefree. Standing there, he could almost believe things had been that way. Of course there was still time.

Time, that is, for a little more evasion–to flinch from the journey into authentic personhood to which Lara Purcell, an exotic in Ahearn’s world of prairies and corn-fed students, has opened the door. Purcell is a visiting professor from a dot-on-the-map Caribbean nation called St. Trinity. She, too, has lost her soul–and knows it. As the novel unfolds, Ahearn is gradually exposed to and then drawn into her plan to return home to reclaim herself by way of a rum-soaked ritual involving ecstatic dancing and folk wisdom through which she is to penetrate les mystères.

Every Stone novel has a cataclysmic passage in store for its protagonist–a riot in A Hall of Mirrors, an attempt to demolish the Temple Mount in Damascus Gate. They are more or less mandatory parts of his working structure. Stone sometimes introduces devices not applied elsewhere in the book–stream of consciousness, touches of Surrealism–and these tend further to demarcate the passages. They are unmistakably hard to write, and they work more or less well from book to book. Ahearn’s voyage into the warmer climes resembles Holliwell’s in A Flag for Sunrise. But in Bay of Souls, Ahearn cuts and runs at the critical moment, as Holliwell did not. Lara has offered him a chance to discover a new way to live–a life free of all symbolic gesture–and Ahearn cannot make it. “If you had been less afraid,” Lara tells him in an apparition at the end of the book, “I might have delivered you.”

Stone is after some vital themes in this book: bravery and weakness in the face of personal transformation, the price paid for success in such an endeavor–and the price of backing down when we are given the opportunity to grasp what we say we’ve always wanted in our lives and escape what we’ve always claimed to be our prisons. It is hard to get at this, and Bay of Souls is to be valued for the courage Stone displays in attempting to do so.

But it is a taxing book, in the end. In moving the story from the Midwestern plains to the Caribbean and back again, Stone has sacrificed too much in the way of unity and compression. The scenes describing Lara’s ritual passage and all the explanation of les mystères that is required to get us there give a blurred effect. And the political element–St. Trinity is amid a US-backed coup of some sort when Ahearn and Lara arrive–is simply unnecessary, an add-on that adds nothing. There are passages in which dark island customs and dark island politics collide in almost hopeless confusion. I closed Bay of Souls admiring it greatly for what it has to say but wondering whether Stone may have found the limits of his method and milieu. Not every novelist’s approach to the art can be expected to do all things.

Bay of Souls leaves unanswered two questions that stretch like long cirrus clouds over Stone’s work. They are a little awkward to pose, but here they are. Why don’t women read Robert Stone to the extent men do? And why doesn’t Stone play overseas as well as he does at home? I have no demographic studies to support the legitimacy of either inquiry, but one can gather enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is something in both that begs explanation.

It seems to come down to Stone’s essential theme. Here we have to focus the lens sharply, and the resulting paradox is apparent, not real: Stone is not concerned with Americans so much as American men; he is not concerned with men so much as Americans. We can’t reduce the question of women–in the books and among Stone’s readers–to some simplistic notion that Stone is in the line of Hemingway-esque inheritors. There are complex, sympathetic, well-drawn women in a number of Stone’s novels: Sonia Barnes in Damascus Gate, Sister Justin Feeney in Flag. But Stone’s women are never quite the subject; they never quite embody what is at issue. It is not Lara Purcell’s successful passage in Bay of Souls that Stone wants to explore so much as Michael Ahearn’s failure to complete it.

The question Stone implicitly poses is legitimate, not exclusionary: What is the role of the man in contemporary American society? What’s the ideal? Investment banker? Dot-com millionaire? The absence of an answer that moves us is precisely what justifies Stone’s choice of it as a subject. You have to tip your cap to him for identifying it as early as he did, which is at the very beginning. Masculinity is a peculiarly American problem in our time, enough so to make Stone a peculiarly American writer.

In A Hall of Mirrors, Rheinhardt’s girlfriend considers his crowd of misfits briefly and remarks to herself, “There was some plague on things. These were not men, these men; they were broken, they were dying.” That goes straight to Stone’s theme as it’s played out all the way to Michael Ahearn. And we should note a couple of things about it. First, the experience Stone has sought to describe is almost enough to inspire that awful idea, American exceptionalism; it is hardly a wonder that, say, a British reader of either sex would have trouble entering fully into it. Second, the above-quoted thought is articulated by a marginalized woman–a drifting West Virginian whose boyfriend previous to Rheinhardt slashed her face–and we may wish to let this suggest (whether Stone intended us to or not) the extent to which the America Stone portrays is an experience that still does not fully incorporate women into it.

A novel is an expression of a certain community; this has been so from the novel’s beginning until now. I owe this insight to a dear friend, a French scholar who is hardly dear in the severity of her literary judgments. An expression of a community and an assertion that it exists, I would say–and, not least, a form of address to it. It goes some way to explaining why the novel is now in a struggling phase, my friend elaborates. By what communities do we define ourselves today? We live in archipelagos.

It is a valid observation, not unrelated to our understanding of Robert Stone. Even he has acknowledged, in an essay in The New York Review of Books a couple of years back, that fiction in our noisy, oblivious world occupies nowhere near the place it once did. But we can turn this around, too. Stone occupies the place he does among American novelists precisely because he expresses a community that still survives–struggling, atomized, mostly invisible, but still with something to say to itself, still in need of address.

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