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The Boston Phoenix Jerusalem Syndrome

In a city driven by political and religious passions, Robert Stone spins a millennial thriller.

By D.T. Max

MAY 18, 1998: 

DAMASCUS GATE, by Robert Stone. Houghton Mifflin, 500 pages, $26.

If I were the editor of the collected works of Robert Stone, I'd use as an epigraph that line from W.B. Yeats's "The Second Coming": "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." It's the major premise for all six of Stone's novels. One or more committed fanatics, one doubt-plagued stand-in for the author. But with each new novel, Stone reminds us that Yeats's equation lends itself to an inexhaustible number of permutations. This is Stone's great genius, the reason he is one of America's finest novelists.

Stone's books are a tour of the unstable world: Vietnam, Central America, Hollywood -- and now Jerusalem. Although the locales may change, the tour guide remains the same. John Converse in Dog Soldiers is Frank Holliwell in A Flag for Sunrise is Ron Strickland in Outerbridge Reach is, now, in Damascus Gate, Chris Lucas. They are a little hip, a little leftist, a little intimidated, and (this is just a theory) they have grown progressively more despairing with the years. Lucas is a freelance journalist -- by my count, Stone's third narrator to hold such a job. According to Stone, freelancers are by definition people who want something but won't endure the compromises necessary to get it, which is another way of saying they may not want anything all that badly after all. "Fear and rage," Lucas says, "that's all I know."

But that's not really true. Lucas also knows need, particularly spiritual need. That's why he's left a cushy American newspaper job to travel to Jerusalem. But it is 1992, and the intifada is under way. Muslim areas are sealed off from Jewish ones. Before long, Lucas is offered two journalistic projects. One is a book on the Jerusalem Syndrome, the psychological malady in which victims become convinced they are on a holy mission. (The police maintain a special detachment to deal with such people.) The other is a scoop involving the trade of guns for drugs in Gaza. Lucas, though, isn't sure he wouldn't rather just find a beautiful woman or a great drug to lose himself in. This brings us to another quality of Stone's protagonists: their goals are always fuzzy. That way, by the end of the novel, survival becomes its own triumph.

As in many of Stone's sprawling stories, he uses a narrative technique borrowed from John Dos Passos. Each chapter is seen from a different character's point of view, until one perspective, and one truth -- here, Lucas's -- takes primacy. It's the kind of thing that in lesser writers' hands can easily decay into schlock, but in Stone's prose you feel its power. He puts you above the action, watching the ants below.

It's from that perspective that we meet Lucas, who is an outsider in a city where Jews, Arabs, and Christians live packed together, but alone in their separate universes. This point is made from the opening sentences:

That morning Lucas was awakened by bells, sounding across the Shoulder of Hinnom from the Church of the Dormition. At first light there had been a muezzin's call in Silwan, insisting that prayer was better than sleep. The city was well supplied with divine services.

He climbed out of bed and went into the kitchen to brew Turkish coffee. As he stood at the window drinking it, the first train of the day rattled past . . . It was a slow, decorous colonial train, five cars of nearly empty coaches. Its diminishing rhythms made him aware of his own solitude.

This is a fair representation of Stone's prose, lightly ironic and ostentatiously devoid of tricks. A weird attraction-rejection thing often operates within his sentences. At first they seem expert; then, on rereading, a little slick and "written." Then, read again, they seem inevitable. His prose improves in the memory.

Lucas's solitude begins to ebb with the appearance of Sonia, a mixed-race jazz singer from a left-wing Bronx household, who is a practicing Sufi. The sense of threat begins to take form shortly thereafter, when two more Americans come together at a psychiatrist's office in a suburb north of the city. They are Adam De Kuff, a rich, manic-depressive Jew converted to Christianity, and the man who is half his sidekick and half his promoter, Raziel Melker. Melker is a yeshiva bucher from a well-connected family and has just kicked a heroin habit, an achievement that in Stone's fiction is rarely permanent. As soon as he meets De Kuff, he knows he must talk this unstable man into accepting the role of self-proclaimed Messiah. You don't know why he feels this way. But this is Jerusalem, Melker is slightly crazy himself, and the millennium is coming. Perhaps De Kuff is the Messiah.

I don't pretend to understand what happens next, except that Lucas's two assignments turn out to be one. Stone has a bit of Graham Greene in him. It's a world of secrets -- why should he draw you a map? Shin Bet, the Israeli secret police, is involved in the project to run guns into the occupied Gaza Strip. De Kuff and Raziel begin their preaching in the wilderness, weaving a cat's cradle of kabala, Christianity, and Sufism. "Faith is like a sponge," Raziel says. "You wring the liquid out, the structure remains eternal. Everything is Torah." Shin Bet turns out to be in on De Kuff and Raziel's efforts, too.

Watching everything is a journalist named Janusz Zimmer, "the ultra-experienced Pole," whose résumé bears some resemblance to that of Ryzsard Kapuscinski. Zimmer, along with a right-wing American Christian group called the House of Galilee, is involved with an attempt to blow up the Dome of the Rock on top of the Temple Mount. And keep in mind, as one character warns, that "the American dimension is always sensitive"; Washington's wishes are felt but never exactly articulated.

At novel's end, here's what I felt: Five hundred pages of having my cage rattled is a lot to take. The well-made wheels of the plot, the inevitability of fate, the well-meaning people destroyed. Stone's world is fiercely competitive, and I was relieved to get out. When I was done I felt as though I'd gotten a shot of testosterone. I wanted beer and meat.

Stone's press material says that Damascus Gate is based on a true story. I don't doubt it, but I'm not sure I care. I feel pretty much the same as Lucas at the end: "Serious mindbending," he writes in his notebook.

Still, Stone's outlasted Le Carré, who turned out to need the Berlin Wall to write fiction. Greene, too, seems a bit quaint now. Stone has proved tougher and more flexible. As long as people keep secrets from one another and from themselves, there will be plots for him. There's a timelessness to his writing that in the end will either be his great weakness or his great strength. If there's been some sort of crucial change in literature since the '60s, Stone has missed out on it. But then, I'm not sure there has been. All I know is, if I were alone on that proverbial desert island, I'd want one of my books to be his. And I wouldn't care which one.

A conversation with Robert Stone

Robert Stone looks like a vengeful Santa Claus. He has a white beard, a barrel chest, and a paunch. He calls himself an angry man who's learned to be gentle. Certainly there's a courtesy to him -- a quality of withholding judgment that contrasts with the Old Testament look of his fierce blue eyes. He says he learned from the Japanese to be yielding, a congenial stance for a novelist. He takes a seat in a dive on 55th Street and watches the parade of the unlucky up Eighth Avenue. "From here you get quite a good view," he says, and smiles. We order some beer.

Basically, all I want to ask him is: What took him so long? Jerusalem, the millennium, the claustrophobic world of the ultrareligious Jewish haredim (literally, "the fearful ones") -- a novelist's dream. Can of corn. Easy pickings. The whole literary world had been waiting for the big millennial novel, and Stone always had the power to give it to us. But he explains that the subjects he chooses to write about come from deep within his own psyche and not from the newspaper.

"I didn't set out to write a millennial novel," he says. "What I do in Damascus Gate is what I've always done. I write about betrayal. I write about love. I write about how difficult it is to be decent in the world, the compromises people have to make and that governments have to make. I write about the absent god."

He says he is fiddling with an absurdist comic novel that will be different from anything he's published before. We order more beer.

As we sit, we both feel that out there somewhere, someone in the media is preparing an attack on Stone over Damascus Gate. Commentary? The New Republic? Stone researched the book with a series of trips to Israel over a five-year period. He fell in with the NGO (non-governmental organization) crowd, which tends, like Stone, to be liberal. He admits that the Jewish settlers come off quite badly in the novel, and the Israeli government and its agents as devious and brutal. The Palestinians fare a little better. Stone is not Jewish, nor does he pretend to be an expert on Israel. He is exposed.

I bait him by mentioning Hama, the city where, in 1982, Syrian president Hafez Assad murdered 20,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Why didn't he set the novel there? He laughs at me. He was around the first time these fights were fought. "I couldn't let it all worry me too much," he says. "I'm not anti-Semitic, and I'm not anti-Israeli. What I'd like to see is a peace settlement." I feel a little like the judge in Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer, asking Nathan Zuckerman if his books are good for the Jews, and give up. Stone's fiction is moral fiction. It asks for decency from all sides, and that's an admirable stance. Besides, he points out, the hatred between Arabs and Israelis is nothing as compared to the hatred among Israeli poets.

Stone's fame dates back to the Ken Kesey years. You can find him in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, having an attack of paranoia. For years now, he and his wife, Janice, have divided their time between Westport, Connecticut, and Key West, Florida. In Westport, they mostly keep to themselves. Stone teaches at Yale; they live on an average street along the water; his neighbors are not literary. He writes much of the day and reads a lot and goes to the pool and worries about his health. In Key West, he is a celebrity, part of the old Esquire crowd that has at one point or another consisted of fiction editor Rust Hills, Frank Conroy, Thomas McGuane, and the late publisher Seymour Lawrence. "Sometimes it's nice to get out," he says.

We have another beer and the sun begins to go down and I ask him if there's anything he hopes to do besides write. He lives a life of remarkable serenity. I mention Raymond Carver, his contemporary and fishing buddy, who died 10 years ago. I wonder if Stone is worried that time is running out.

"At 60, you never know. But I'm not hurrying, and I'm not counting the number of novels I have left. What I do is what I do. I'm going to drop dead writing, that's all I know."

He turns back to contemplating the street scene with satisfaction, and we order another beer. I don't know if he makes it up at that moment, but it's then he tells me he and his wife are seriously considering moving to New York.

D.T. Max is a freelance journalist.

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