Robert Stone taught at Amherst College when I was there. Unfortunately, having just transferred there as a junior and not being in the English department, and instead the Drama department, with a concentration on playwriting, I was not able to take any courses with him. Too little time at the college, and too much competition for enrollment in his small classes.
Robert Stone passed away at the beginning of this year, and since I read Damascus Gate shortly after his death, I thought it would be a suitable time to reflect on one of his more recent works, since he had an influence on me as a younger writer in the following years after moving to California. This effect on me related to his novels Dog Soldiers (winner of the National Book Award) and A Flag for Sunrise (set in Central America). I read both while developing my book Brother’s Keeper, set in Guatemala in the late 1980’s, and which I have re-written extensively and will be forthcoming in the near future… It was a project I began over twenty years ago which involved visiting Central America during the peak of the troubled and tragic times down there.
Damascus Gate takes place in mainly in Jerusalem, where Stone explores the contemporary theme involving the strange effect of religion in this timeless city. The novel’s hero, Christopher Lucas, is an American journalist writing a book on the ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’ and how particular people here are compelled to become religious lunatics—from a messiah to an Elvis—and in turn use the city as their theater. Half Jewish and raised as a Catholic, on his quest to write his story, Lucas finds encounters spies, prophets, conspiracies and fanatics which leads to a climactic scene under the Temple Mount, where a plot is afoot to blow up the sacred site and instigate a holy war (and to my observation the recent mini-series Dig on the USA Network borrows extensively from this novel.)
The cast of characters Lucas encounters range from singer Sonia Barnes, daughter of an interracial couple who is involved with a religious sect headed by Adam De Kuff, wealthy heir to a New Orleans fortune, and his ‘handler’ Raziel Melker, son of a politically powerful Michigan family, a musician and a heroin addict. The novel’s sub-plots explore gun and drug deals with Palestinian and Mossad involvement, characters with ruthless and lethal hidden agendas as the story world also ranges from the Tel Aviv, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the southern desert, and more. All the time Stone shares with the reader an underpinning of the different layers of history in this land along with a range of discussions with the characters on history, philosophy, morality and more. His command of obscure and esoteric religious history is impressive and remains a detail I appreciated.
Critically acclaimed by many, Stone is a notable writer, there is no doubt, and his writing is rich and vivid in its descriptions, providing the small details that help bring a moment to life. I would make one observation after finishing the book. While I liked it, and might read it again in a few years, I found the characters themselves almost entirely ‘in their heads’; there was virtually not heart to these characters. Themes of compassion and empathy were missing for me. Granted, the characters were driven, the action intense and compelling, as the novel seemed to maintain an objective of exploring themes of moral ambiguity, which John le Carré' so deftly explores in his novels. But without the heart and compassion, the characters seemed focused mainly on an intellectual level, and Stone seems to miss (for me) the soul of the matter within the human condition.