Saving Grace

Robert Stone
Damascus Gate
Houghton Mifflin

Those who read Robert Stone's essay on the religion of American writers in a recent New York Review of Books know that this author doesn't worship technique--probably the most popular idol among current American novelists. Indeed, in such titles as Dog Soldiers (made into the fine Nick Nolte film Who'll Stop the Rain), Children of Light, and Outerbridge Reach, Stone has displayed a marked indifference to modern literary trends, favoring instead deep-dish (and in the case of the 512-page Damascus Gate, deep-deep-dish), old-fashioned stories of men and women in danger, both external and psychological. Stone's characters are generally weak, haunted, and self-destructive, but their aspirations are heroic. In this, Stone most commonly draws comparison to Hemingway, and though Stone certainly shares some concerns with that author, his characters' incessant yearning for answers has more in common with Graham Greene.

Damascus Gate confronts the notion of religious misdirection on literal terms, and it seems to be the novel Stone has been building up to for years. Christopher Lucas, reared Catholic with a Jewish mother, is adrift in the Middle East, fitfully researching a book about "Jerusalem Syndrome," loosely defined as the delusions suffered by pilgrims of all faiths and sects when they come to the holy city. The syndrome has driven a surprising number of visitors to believe they are the Christ, and Lucas attributes its existence to the fact that in Jerusalem religion is a living thing, or, as he phrases it, "Religion here is something that's happening now, today."

The intoxicating air of religious fervor drives some visitors to distraction: There's Adam DeKuff, a Jewish mystic from New Orleans who makes a religion of his own neuroticism; Razz Melker, a sometime jazz musician and heroin addict who gets mixed up in a terrorist plot; Sonia Barnes, an ex-Communist who practices Sufism by day and sings in clubs at night; and Nuala Rice, an Irish expatriate worker with the International Children's Foundation who stands at the center of myriad intrigues, political and sexual.

Restless and emotionally rudderless, Lucas can commit to nothing. Yet he feels uneasy in a culture where, as one character phrases it, "Religious people are being marginalized by the media...[G]o to the movies--and the religious person is always a bad guy...a lunatic and a murderer." He finds himself drawn to the passion of Sonia and the others, people he can't keep at a journalist's safe distance. And, inevitably, he is drawn into their dreams and schemes in a city where everyone is tempted to "extreme behavior." In the Middle East, of course, extreme behavior means crossing the line from religious fervor to political action.

In Damascus Gate, as always, Stone makes few concessions to the reader: You accept his vision and move at his pace. This means, for instance, that the reader must be willing to join Lucas on his spiritual odyssey before really knowing much about him. It isn't until page 72, the point where the plots in most novels are beginning to accelerate, that we get our first glimpse of Stone's protagonist, and not much of one: "Lucas was a big man, broad-shouldered, thin-lipped, long-jawed."

Stone also demands that the reader carry some heavy intellectual baggage to the party: "'When I read about you,' Lucas said, 'I thought about Simone Weil. What she would have done.' But, Lucas thought he knew what Simone Weil would have done." I know that Simone Weil was a mystic philosopher and scholar, but beyond that I haven't a clue as to what she'd have done if plunked down in Jerusalem in 1997, and I wish Stone would tell me.

Stone does give us a skeleton key to Damascus Gate, practically on the last page, and it illuminates the path we've just taken with him. "Losing is as good as having it," Stone writes. Lucas takes it to mean that "a thing is never truly perceived, appreciated or defined except in longing. A land in exile, a God in his ascending, a love in its loss...[But] some things can never be lost utterly that were loved in a certain way."

In an age where public spirituality is reduced to Brad Pitt talking about how his latest movie brought him closer to the godhead, it takes enormous courage for a writer to present a huge novel about religion with no easy moral choices or oversimplifications. Damascus Gate offers the reader nothing that is easy except the satisfaction of having read it.

Robert Stone reads Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Macalester Plymouth United Church; call 699-0587.

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