In 2006, the book review editor at The New York Times took a poll, asking “a couple of hundred” literary folk to name “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.” The results were published (a list of 27 books, with Toni Morrison’s Beloved taking the top spot) and there were the usual gripes about some of the selections and the books that didn’t make the cut. At the time, I was simultaneously vexed and smugly pleased to see one particular title left off the list: A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone.
Vexed because it gets my vote for the best American novel of the 1980s, and yes, this assessment includes Beloved, White Noise, Blood Meridian, Housekeeping, and any other work you wish to name. Pleased, because it’s pleasurable to think you know something others do not. I know A Flag for Sunrise is a terrific novel; how many other readers know too?
Maybe not that many because in truth, Robert Stone really isn’t that great a novelist. Most of his books are overwrought failures. Children of Light, Damascus Gate, and Outerbridge Reach do set their sights on lofty heights, are filled with strong yearnings, big questions, vivid descriptions and hard-won knowledge, but they never cohere, never fulfill their author’s ambitious vision. Stone’s high standing rests largely on his justified reputation as a literary risk-taker and two outstanding books: Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise.
The former is a superb thriller that wrestles with the effects of the Vietnam War on American life. But the latter is Stone’s true masterpiece, an ambitious, 450 page examination of America’s meddling in Central America that employs the pacing and tension of the best work of say Elmore Leonard or James M. Cain. CIA operatives, missionaries, killers, revolutionaries and gun-running junkies all converge on the fictional country of Tecan as a revolution against the U.S.-backed government appears set to detonate. This would be enough for most novelists, but not Stone. He also throws in an alcoholic priest adrift in his own crisis of faith, a romance between an American operative and a disillusioned nun, and then, just to up the ante a bit further, a deranged serial killer who may or may not be possessed by the devil.
There is some truly marvelous writing throughout the book. A scene where Holliwell, a visiting American anthropologist, ventures out on an underwater dive and faces the fathomless black abyss beyond the coastal shelf is a particularly powerful moment. As are pretty much all of the scenes involving Pablo Tabor, a speed freak and wannabe soldier of fortune who finds himself running guns to the revolutionaries. Father Egan’s orations about the nature of faith avoid being pedantic and instead are provocative, even illuminating. Tecan’s revolutionaries are briefly, yet memorably, glimpsed, as are various other minor characters – mercenaries, spies, and a military torturer. One of the impressive things about this novel is how Stone makes clear the motivations of its various lost souls, yet never reduces them to types or caricatures, instead successfully evoking the complexity of the situation without missing a beat in terms of narrative drive.
The romance between Holliwell and Sister Justin is a bit forced and involves an ill-written (but thankfully brief) sex scene, yet the characters’ responses to their situation are convincing, even moving. Holliwell, an academic co-opted by the CIA, has the luxury of not being committed to anything, while Justin finds herself drawn more and more to the impending revolution. Unlike her associate, Father Egan, Justin’s faith has not faltered, only shifted, but her need to believe, and act on her beliefs, of course necessitates mortal danger. Meanwhile Tabor embraces that danger, seizes it, rides it as far as it can take him. Much like how Stone, in all his books, takes huge risks and follows them fearlessly, for good or ill, with charged prose that thrives on its own velocity.
— Michael Carbert