A Flag for Sunrise

by Robert Stone
Knopf, 439 pp., $13.95

Robert Stone
Robert Stone; drawing by David Levine

This is the third novel by Robert Stone—A Hall of Mirrors was a Houghton Mifflin Fellowship Book in 1967, Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award in 1975—and it is even more’ relentlessly violent and cataclysmic than either. Here, as in the earlier works, the characters who find themselves joined at the end of the book in savagery, betrayal, and death are at the beginning mostly unknown to one another and not likely to meet in the normal course of things. It is as if each person were in a different story, pursuing a different destiny, so that only belatedly, and at a new extremity of disaster, will he ever discover, as one of them puts it, “the diagram of events toward which the life of adventure was propelling him.”

A Flag for Sunrise begins with three distinct plots which are to mix later on, and explosively, in Tecan, a small Central American country on the verge of revolution. One plot centers on a Catholic mission on the Tecan coast. It’s Graham Greene time. Nominally, the leader of the mission is Father Egan, an ill, aging, and alcoholic mystic whose congregation has declined and now consists mainly of a nearby colony of drugged-out and jabbering American hippies, along with a Mennonite horror named Weitling who gets his kicks by murdering Tecan children on orders from the Lord. This fact Egan, in hopes of reforming him, keeps from the authorities. His understandably dispirited associate, Sister Justin (martyr?) Feeney—one of Stone’s rare understated characters, and one of his best creations—is beginning to acknowledge her loss of faith, her love for the revolutionary priest Father Godoy, her own commitment to the revolution, and the danger of her fated adversary, a terrifyingly mad, zany, moralistic member of Tecan’s Guardia Nacional, Lieutenant Campos.

Meanwhile, another plot is initiated by Pablo Tabor. He, too, is one of the murderous subhumans who speak a moralistic cant that produces a kind of Swiftian comedy. Having skipped out on the Coast Guard, a little son to whom he sentimentally refers now and again, a wholly terrified girl friend, and two dogs he has senselessly shot dead, Pablo, popping benzedrine all the while, gets a job on the boat of Mr. and Mrs. Callahan. The Callahans are as cool as they come, and have lots of fun, too, as they cruise around the Gulf preparing to run contraband into Tecan on a super-powerful launch disguised as a shrimp boat. They talk and act like refugees from the novels of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, just as Pablo talks and acts like a composite of Faulkner’s Popeye (“the birdcalls were driving him bananas”) and Joe Christmas (having been born and raised a bastard, he suspects “some kinship of blood with these dark stunted people whom he so despised”).

The third story is about Frank Holliwell, whose name, first and last, is as trivializing a…

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