Robert Stone's Damascus Gate

By Christopher McCabe

Political Novel Set in Jerusalem

Ponders Politics, Identities

Damascus Gate by Robert Stone, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1997.

Robert Stone was giving a talk at the New York Public Library in 1988 about the political novel, and he was disturbed by the notion, offered by William Gass, that art and morality do not mix. He was convinced that they do, and we can presume, based on his most recent novel, "Damascus Gate," that he still does 10 years later. The political novel, he believes, presents the opportunity to bring art and morality together as characters forfeit a preoccupation with the self and see their choices and decisions in the context of a larger, and more complex, universe.

This is not unusual for Stone. During the previous four decades he has frequently taken his American characters out of their familiar backyard to places around the globe that are teeming with factions that are not easily understood nor readily classified. In "Dog Soldiers," he brought Vietnam home to the United States. In "Flag for Sunrisehe portrayed a fictional Central American nation shaped by Washington policy. In "Outerbridge Reach" a sailor, no longer with radio contact, drifts off into a hemisphere he does not understand. Stone’s characters, whether at home or abroad, are tested to find the moral path, a path never clearly marked.

Now, in "Damascus Gate," he takes his readers to Israel, where an American journalist, Christopher Lucas, is trying to make sense of himself and the many competing worlds—political, historical and religious—that claim this sliver of land as their own. Lucas, raised in New York’s Upper West Side, the illegitimate son of a Jewish professor and a mezzo-soprano Catholic mother, has found that the freelance article he usually contributes to U.S. publications is too formulaic to convey the complexity of this society because, as Stone writes, "It was hard to tell who anyone was and what they wanted because the emergency basis on which the state proceeded created constant improvisations and impersonations." Yet, as Lucas tries to come to grips with who he is, lapsed Catholic or undecided Jew, he investigates the "Jerusalem Syndrome," the many displays of religious fanaticism that wind their way from the Gaza to the Old City’s four quarters.

As Lucas gathers information for his book, his relationships with several people unfold. Like characters in Stone’s earlier novels, Lucas and others in "Damascus Gate" are accustomed to philosophical dialogues and/or drug-induced meditations. Though well-traveled and international in their perspective, these are people unsure of who they are or, worse, unaware of their extreme commitment to a new, dangerous idea with Americans appearing to be often the most gullible.

Lucas becomes attached to singer Sonia Barnes, a daughter of a New York interracial couple. Their relationship is complicated by her belief in a religious sect headed by Adam De Kuff, an heir to a New Orleans fortune, and Raziel Melker, a musician, heroin addict and son of a politically influential Michigan family. Psychiatrist Pinchas Obermann treats De Kuff and Melker and becomes Lucas’s co-author on the religious mania book. Nuala Rice, a children’s foundation worker, and Sylvia Chin, a U.S. foreign service staffer, are occasional sources for Lucas’s stories. Though these characters meet, their lives rarely interconnect leaving a loneliness most apparent in Lucas as he follows the plan of religious fanatics to bomb Temple Mount.

The novel’s many sub-plots involving the planned bombing—from drug and gun deals to Palestinians and Mossad agents—are secondary to Stone’s greater mastery of the geographic and historic landscape. From the first chapter, his emphasis on the history that shadows the locals and tourists, émigrés and con artists alike, binds the novel together. Visiting Germans in the Old City are scrutinized by Lucas; he calculates how old they might have been by the end of World War II. When he contemplates the history of Josephus, he concludes that he could have been on either the Roman or Jewish side or both, reflecting his own present day religious ambivalence. The civic stance of a deceased parent, whether communist in Poland or Rosenberg supporter in Manhattan, is as important as a contemporary character’s own political beliefs. A Shostakovich composition recalls Dresden and fascism, and there are memories of Fats Waller playing Bach at Notre-Dame in Paris before World War I, the latter causing a character to cry in 1990s Jerusalem.

Such historical counterpoints give way to occasional spurts of dramatic tension. A drive through Gaza in a United Nations minivan brings Lucas and his two companions through a quick succession of military checkpoints, cheering Muslim women, shots of tear gas, a gang hoisting a dead teenage boy above their heads, and soldiers firing rubber bullets at an advancing crowd. Later, Lucas is pursued by a wrathful crowd with lanterns and flashlights through alleys and spinach fields until he finds shelter within an al-Firuli enclave.

Mostly, though, the novel is reflective of Lucas "trying to project the maximum degree of complexity against a landscape whose inhabitants had neither the time not the inclination for much." His favored Jerusalem landmark is Damascus Gate, a name which must trigger for him, a former Columbia University religion major, the mystery and transforming journey of Paul’s blinding conversion in the New Testament. But Lucas’s affection for the Gate is not tethered to the past; instead, he attempts to comprehend what is occurring near its old wall today. When one character says to Lucas that what happens in Jerusalem touches the whole world’s "inner life" as well, the reader concludes that Stone must feel the same. In his fictional "Damascus Gate," he has created a world that asks questions as complex as our current moral dilemmas. He does not offer a seductive answer, but has provided a poignant tale.


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