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 pun as is the wordplay in the names of the villainous Lieutenant Campos and Holliwell’s old friend Oscar Ocampo. Holliwell is an American anthropologist, and to the extent that, like the author, he meditates on the contradictions and calamities of American power, he is the novel’s main character.

Through Oscar Ocampo Holliwell has made arrangements to lecture at the House of the Study of Mankind in a little country bordering on Tecan. It is called Compostela—composed and compost. Before leaving New York Holliwell is asked a favor by a CIA operative named Nolan, whom Holliwell knew in Vietnam, and the same favor is later asked of him in Compostela by Ocampo, a recent defector from revolution to the CIA and from wife and children to a spoiled young man (“Do you know,” Oscar asks him, “a German film Der blaue Engel?”). The favor is that after his lecture Holliwell should pretend to look at ruins or to go diving, slip into Tecan, and find out if Egan’s missionary community is in any way helping the oncoming revolution.

Though Holliwell refuses the assignment he finds himself at the mission anyway, pulling himself out of the water where he’d gone—as Nolan said he might—scuba diving. “The swimmer’s absurd sportive presence irritated Justin considerably.” She sees him as an intruder, which is how only moments before he had seen himself when he descended into the coral reefs perilously and carelessly too deep.

But almost any human movement in Stone’s novels becomes, whether this is intended or not, a metaphor for intrusion or intervention, and of the suffering that follows from it. Drugs or alcohol are in that sense also intrusive, a self-inflicted assault on the mind. Indeed, central to Dog Soldiers is the suggestion that if America intervened in Vietnam, then the Vietnamese, by introducing a generation of Americans to hallucinogenic drugs, intervened in America, creating thereby in Southern California a replica of the nightmare landscapes of their own ravaged country. But even before Dog Soldiers Stone was no less obsessed with more domestic forms of intrusion. The investigatory visits in A Hall of Mirrors by social workers to the homes of black welfare recipients, like the news broadcasts of Rheinhardt, the chief character, ignorantly or thoughtlessly serve an invisible, reactionary news network of potentially enormous consequence.


Holliwell is not at all ignorant about the unintended ways in which such interests might be served, and he can’t possibly be called thoughtless. When Ocampo suggests that he might visit the mission as if by coincidence, he replies that “maybe we’ve located ourselves beyond coincidence”—maybe, that is, any move by any American anywhere has become by now complicit with American imperialism. So that when, out of boredom, blundering, and self-indulgence he ends up doing everything he was asked to do and, in the bargain, betrays Justin, with whom he has fallen in love and who has given her virginity to him with a poignant lack of satisfaction, the configuration of circumstances in which he finds himself can be said to deprive him of any claim to innocence, even though he can also claim not to be guilty. “His presence did not explain well. He had followed disordered circumstance, coincidence, impulse and urging so heedlessly that the logic of his toings and froings had evaporated. He made no sense. Except as an agent of Nolan’s.” The implication is that Holliwell has, like his country, put himself beyond explanation.

The book is an allegory of this American dilemma to the extent that Holliwell’s plot gets woven into and then, by its own twistings, destroys the “plots” of Sister Justin and Pablo. Holliwell’s recognizably liberal and arbitrating mentality induces him to negotiate with totalitarian forces he also loathes, and he thereby insures the destruction of Justin, whom he loves and who, as a former freedom marcher in Mississippi, seems to embody the decent, idealistic American impulse. It is therefore appropriate that when, in her final hours, she helps him escape, she does so by putting him together with Pablo, who, having killed the Callahans, has himself blundered into the mission. She gives them a small boat and sends them out to sea—the well-intentioned anthropologist of American life with Pablo, the Other, a man whose confused sense of racial or of any other identity makes him feel that, “It’s the worst thing in the world when people turn you around because you’re something else than them.”

Thus Holliwell’s failure to join forces with Justin has the inevitable consequence of isolating him in a world where there is no buffer between him and realities which, in the person of Pablo, are not to be assuaged by negotiations: inherited and inarticulate social, racial, and economic grievances which can only end in instinctive, retaliatory violence. Holliwell is compelled to kill Pablo, whose image he admits has haunted him all his life, and in the very last scene of the novel, utterly alone, insane from exposure, he tries to get assistance from people in another small boat by calling out the one word “American.” “That was a good enough word for his purpose.” As the novel ends, his potential rescuers are keeping their distance in silence, bewilderment, and fear.

Stone is not interested merely in measuring the culpability of Holliwell, or of anyone else for that matter. Instead, he seems to suggest that the power and threat of intrusiveness are now so pervasive as to make it impossible to trace any specific intrusion to a clear point of origin. America is so much everywhere that as it inflicts punishment on others it is necessarily punishing itself.

While Holliwell is deep in the coral reefs, there is a sudden and magnificently described shudder among all the living things around him—“a terror had struck the sea, an invisible shadow,” and Stone brilliantly leaves it at that. He will not say that the presence is a shark, nor can we. The source of terror is inseparably and therefore invisibly a part of the world of terror. The mind itself, which is later, and by other characters, compared in its structure to the coral reef, is “shadowed” internally and is therefore prompted to “shadow” others, much as the brutal but pitiable Pablo feels the “shadow” of his submerged racial identity and is compelled to murderous resentments. Dislocated by an imperial power that at last feeds on itself, the people in Stone’s novels are like the shrimp catch pulled onto the deck of the Callahans’ boat.

In thousands, creatures of hallucination—shelled, hooded, fifty-legged and six-eyed—clawed, writhed, flapped or devoured their way through the mass of their fellow captives, the predators and the prey together, overthrown and blinded, scuttling after their lost accustomed home.

Even as they are initially introduced, nearly all of Stone’s characters are trying to get someplace else, to forget where they’ve been—even, if possible, who they are. All three of his novels begin with journeys to places where people are known easily to get lost or missed—to New Orleans in A Hall of Mirrors, to Los Angeles in Dog Soldiers, and, in this novel, to a country in Central America about to be torn apart by revolution. And in all three the characters are first seen in the very process of despoiling themselves by getting drunk, smoking grass, shooting heroin, sniffing coke, popping amphetamines, or some combination of all these. A Hall of Mirrors features an alcoholic and his d.t.’s, along with housemates who are on “tea,” as grass was then called; Dog Soldiers has at its center a version of the treasure of Sierra Madre, three kilos of Vietnam heroin that set in motion the barbarities among those who take it and want to control it; and, appropriate to its being the largest in scope, A Flag for Sunrise offers anything that can send a body up or down—acid for the hippies, dexies for Pablo, and, for the older folk, lots and lots of booze and grass.


Everyone is tripping out in any way possible, and the different plots are correspondingly fast-paced and phantasmagorically inventive. People only halfway through a joint or a glass of Flor de Cana are transported into a maelstrom of violence, relationships that are as dangerous as they are fortuitous, and brutalities seemingly in excess of what any human body can absorb.

The forward momentum of the narrative is never deflected by the kinds of systems analyses, side trips, historical re-creations, and visionary constructs offered by Thomas Pynchon, whose virtuosity may be compared to Stone’s but whose work is significantly different. By dislocations and suspensions of narrative Pynchon keeps us at a mediated distance from political matters, while Stone tries to force us into them.

However bad our past and our likely future might look in Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, we are at least equally aware of the author’s fabricating genius, his arbitrary violations of historical narrative, and we are allowed to imagine that the book might just possibly be, to borrow a phrase from Joyce, “the hoax that joke bilked.” A Flag for Sunrise has its good jokes, but it’s evident that Stone doesn’t for a moment want us to think it’s in any way a hoax. He has written an emphatically historical novel, and his sense of American history requires that he show himself master of the kinds of actions that follow when intrusions take place—the tactics of involvement, confrontation, chase, flight, entrapment, capture, escape, wounding, the progress of pain, the kill. Such displays of novelistic talent are all the more dazzling—and discomforting—because Stone has managed to weaken most of the human scruples that might obstruct his characters’ intrusions as they are pressed forward in the service of power.

In the brutal, misdirected, casually homicidal world his novel projects, a world in which moral decision no longer finds any sanction or any object to which it can direct itself, children—who appear as a general category, not as individuals—are the only source of hope, the only human beings truly deserving of love, the only people worth dying for. The revolutionaries in Tecan, especially Father Godoy, make clear that it is for the children that they fight, for a future not yet corrupted by drink or drugs or the discredited discourses of politics or religion. This is a notably sentimental view of the freedom of children from history, which is perhaps why Stone doesn’t risk bringing any child forward as a character.

Children in the abstract are not, novelistically, a very effective substitute for values that might adequately measure the kinds of experience we find here. Stone seems a bit anxious to supply them. He populates both this novel and Dog Soldiers with predominantly Catholic characters, apparently drawn to the tradition of violence and debasement that includes such Catholic novelists as Mauriac, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor. But while Stone, who said in a recent interview that he was brought up a Catholic, sporadically reminds us of the traditions of Catholic nonconformism, his novels are given neither structure nor meaning by them. But to insist that such traditions ought to be functioning in his work only betrays a desire to supply Stone’s violence with a theological justification in order to dilute its political point, as well as the political distress which will probably be felt by almost any American reader.

When Justin is being tortured to death in a scene of extraordinary pathos, for example, her last thought is, “Let it be you after all. Whose after all I am. For whom I was nailed.” She is referring to Christ, but also to the lost love of Father Godoy and to the bloody giving of herself to Holliwell, all the possibilities included in the pun on “nailed,” which really isn’t embarrassing. And her last articulate cry to Campos, her torturer, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” is meant not as a rediscovery of her faith but as a retaliation on the killer who, superstitiously holding to the faith she has lost, will be haunted by her words with no hope of mercy. Stone is too discreet to spell out the implications—the faith expressed here at the fullest extremity of suffering is still a cheat and is known to be by the victim, even while it can have, as rhetoric, the power of vengeance on those who continue to believe.

A book so resistant to traditional comforts, even the comfort of traditional eloquence, is predictably full of literary echoes and allusions that are comically collapsed on the spot. “We hold our treasure in earthen vessels,” said Father Egan. “Fuckin-A,” Pablo said, or, ” ‘Cast a cold eye,’ ” Deedee Callahan said, remembering her Yeats, ” ‘on life, on death. Horseman pass by.’ She was weirdness itself.” Like Catholicism, literature for Stone no longer informs life and does not even provide, as it did for earlier writers, a resource for wry comments on contemporary decline. His characters—unabashedly derived from Conrad (like Naftali, an operatic suicide who could be relocated in Under Western Eyes), Faulkner, Hemingway, Nathanael West, and Greene—like to refer jovially to Yeats, Hopkins, Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, Sinclair Lewis, the Bible, Shakespeare, and others.

While most of the allusions are to the literature of despair, that literature in the past usually found ways to affirm redemptive possibilities not offered in this book. In fact, when Stone echoes earlier writers he seems to imply that what looked like down to them may look like up from here. Lear may seem to be aptly quoted in a novel that brings Holliwell to blistered nakedness, madness, and isolation, after he murders Pablo, his version of poor Tom. But then so is the more frequently quoted Hamlet, in a novel full of metaphoric variations that expose the terrible consequences of human acts meant to cleanse a small country, to right an injustice, or to reveal the discovery of love. Like everything else the two plays are nonetheless put up for grabs, freely confused one with the other, and turned into a tart joke in an exchange between the Callahans and Negus, their companion in gun running:

“Of course I’m with you,” Negus said. “Always have been. Just I get the feeling sometimes you’re flirting with disaster.”

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 mean taking a risk is one thing,” Negus told them. “Fucking around for kicks is another.”

“I like ripeness better,” Deedee said.

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

The smartness of this exchange, which brings the scene to a close, its theatrical timing, the communication of an utterly cool preference for wit at the expense of argument, especially Negus’s, even while the conduct of the conversation thereby confirms his worst suspicions—this is evidence on a small scale that the exhilarated pace and excitement of the book isn’t to be deflected by any reverence for allusions. Narrative makes a clean sweep of everything it generates. This is pretty much the case also, and dishearteningly, for the historical maneuvers, whether “revolutionary” or “imperialist,” that are described in this book. It might be said of Stone that his sense of opportunity as a writer of apocalyptic narrative is also his sense of despair as a man of feeling, but it is hard to determine just where the balance lies.

A Flag for Sunrise is altogether more accomplished than A House of Mirrors, which suffered from opaquely clever dialogue and even more opaque motivations, and it never forgets where it’s at for the sake merely of prolonging slambang sequences, like the concluding gun battle in Dog Soldiers, where Stone tried to show, as if he hadn’t already, that drugs brought the Vietnamese war, in all its actuality, to Orange County.

Flag is a disturbing book in many ways, some of them not intended. I’m not referring to Stone’s politics as such but to the degree to which they may reveal more about his opportunism as a novelist than about his anxieties as a citizen. The opinions that can be inferred about America or its uses of power or the possibilities of resistance to either—none at all, I would suppose, in his view—are so implicated in his creative energies that they don’t as yet offer themselves to argument. They are nonetheless available to suspicion. As a writer he is an inveterate showoff, and it ought to be said, in order to keep an important writer an honest one, that novelistic imperialism such as his—I mean that desire for the glamour of ruin that can be articulated only by first discrediting and then disposing of whatever might challenge it, including a clear head—may be worth worrying about, like any other kind of imperialism.

This Issue

December 3, 1981