Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone 
by Madison Smartt Bell.
Doubleday, 588 pp., £27, March 2020, 978 0 385 54160 2
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The Eye You See With: Selected Non-Fiction 
by Robert Stone, edited by Madison Smartt Bell.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pp., £20.99, April 2020, 978 0 618 38624 6
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‘Dog Soldiers’, A Flag for Sunrise’, Outerbridge Reach’ 
by Robert Stone, edited by Madison Smartt Bell.
Library of America, 1216 pp., £35, March 2020, 978 1 59853 654 6
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Robert Stone​ was the feral child of American literature. He arrived in the world with no one to explain or defend him, except his mother, Gladys. About her we know only stray bits of personal history. The chief evidence that Stone’s father existed is the fact of Stone himself. All other claims – that he was a railroad detective, was a Greek or a Jew, had been killed by a bomb in Shanghai in 1937, even that his given name was Homer – are hearsay, most of them floated by Gladys one day, taken back the next. ‘I really don’t know who he was,’ Stone told a researcher in the late 1970s. He added that his mother didn’t seem much interested in men. Stone half-believed that his own conception was his mother’s first sexual encounter, maybe even the only one.

Found under a cabbage leaf, educated in Catholic schools, housed at times in a Catholic orphanage and fussed over by New York’s child welfare services, for his first fifteen years Stone was a castaway with his erratic, possibly schizophrenic mother. Some quarrel had driven a wedge between Gladys and a sister and a brother; Stone rarely saw them. How Gladys had travelled in France and China, managed summertime visits to Block Island, and even acquired ‘a rather patrician New York accent’, he did not know. Her meagre salary as a New York City schoolteacher ended when she was fired. Mental illness may have been the cause, or maybe not. After that she scratched a living by addressing envelopes at home. In 1948, when Stone was eleven, they moved into a single room in the once comfortable, now decaying Endicott Hotel on New York’s West Side. There was no kitchen. Hotplates were not permitted. The bathroom was down the hall, but rooms in such hotels tended to have a sink, resulting in a painful test of character for the young Stone and his ‘quite prudish’ mother. ‘Once you had pissed in the sink,’ Stone wrote later, ‘you belonged to the fallen world around you … To know this struggle in the dark was to know more than you needed about Original Sin, natural depravity and the thin pretences on which the maintenance of human dignity depends.’

There it is: the twilight childhood of Robert Stone, who wrote eight substantial novels about natural depravity in a fallen world. The strange thing, as described by Madison Smartt Bell in his new biography of Stone, is the writer’s acceptance of the cards life had dealt him. His mother was ten kinds of crazy, but she cared for him before all others, made him feel loved and taught him to read; the Marist Brothers kicked him out of St Ann’s Academy, but they schooled him in ‘making the best of a hard world’ and taught him to read poetry in Latin. The Catholic world had been the one solid thing in Stone’s childhood. When that went, he could be said to come from nowhere.

On the loose at eighteen with no high school degree, Stone joined the navy to see the world, and he did. Back on the city streets three years later he got a writing job on the Daily News and began college at New York University, where he encountered two people who changed his life: Janice Burr, who liked him more the more she knew him, and M.L. ‘Mack’ Rosenthal, a poet, critic and teacher of narrative writing, which Stone knew was what he wanted to do. Rosenthal twice urged Stone to seek a Stegner Fellowship in fiction at Stanford. The second time, at a chance encounter in Washington Square Park after Stone had dropped out of NYU, Mack told him that his lack of a degree would not matter – a Stegner did not require one. Stone applied and Stanford said yes. In the summer of 1962 he headed to California with Janice, now his wife, leaving nowhere behind and entering the mainstream of American life.

Bell’s biography is an unusual book, written by a ‘close friend’ (in Bell’s words) and divided into eight parts, named for Stone’s eight novels. Each part relates the genesis, the false starts, the tortured progress, the ordeal of finishing, and the critical and commercial fate of the novels as they appeared. Bell’s approach may sound mechanical but it suits the life of a writer who seems to have done very little – other than write, think about writing, teach writing and spend his off-hours under the influence of mind-altering chemicals. Bell cites their names, doses and frequency of use on dozens of pages. His index includes separate listings for alcohol, cocaine, LSD, marijuana, Peyote, quaaludes, Ritalin and habit-forming prescription drugs. Alcohol was a problem until the end, but tobacco Stone managed to give up in his mid-forties, prompted by a cancer scare. His wife said it was the hardest thing he’d ever done. Still, it got him in the end, through emphysema.

Bell was twenty years younger than Stone and also a novelist. Their friendship began in the early 1990s when Stone was teaching writing at Johns Hopkins. ‘We shared,’ Bell writes, ‘an addictive personality and a vocation for letters. In both cases, his were much stronger than mine.’ Bell’s friendship with Janice was also strong, and her understanding of Stone as a writer and a human being is often cited at length. A book by a friend, heavily influenced by a supportive wife, may sound like pre-washed jeans but that’s not the way it reads. Janice was a sharp-eyed observer. She believed in Stone’s talent from the beginning, read the novels as they were written, and took an active role in the creation of the later books, keeping track of characters, doing research, clarifying plotlines, and in numerous other small ways helping Stone to deliver his novels before his editors lost patience.

‘Bob once said, Kesey goes for life, but I’m going for art,’ Janice told Bell. ‘And I thought he made exactly the right decision, because all those great nights of back and forth, you know, they disappeared into the ether.’ She was speaking of the Perry Lane days when Stone was at Stanford and they lived in a low-rent, semi-rural student neighbourhood near the university. Master of revels on Perry Lane was Ken Kesey, who had just published the book that would make him famous, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His personality was large and unpredictable, and he attracted an excitable crowd of the mainly young who were ready to think, do or ingest anything. Stone was ready for anything too – tonight. But tomorrow he planned on being back at work on his Stegner project, the novel A Hall of Mirrors, which moved slowly. When Kesey, with his love for big gestures and adventure, set off in a gaudily painted, rattletrap school bus to visit the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, the wilder half of the Perry Lane crowd was on the bus too, and the man at the wheel was Neal Cassady, the legendary long-distance driver of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Stone was part of the Perry Lane crowd, but when the hijinks began to eat into his writing time he slipped away. Kesey’s voyage east with the Merry Pranksters was one of the signature moments of the decade, along with Altamont and Woodstock. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test conferred lifetime notoriety on the pranksters who made the trip.

Stone was not one of them. He had already moved back to New York to finish and publish A Hall of Mirrors, which appeared on his thirtieth birthday, 21 August 1967, and won a Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship. The book’s reception was a first-time writer’s dream: glowing reviews in the best places, a contract for a British edition, solid sales and a quick agreement for a second novel. A Hall of Mirrors had literary energy and a strong narrative pull, but the quality that set the book apart was not strictly literary. Stone had a prescient sense of something dead ahead in the American road. He hadn’t figured it out in a bookish way, but simply smelled it on the wind, like a wolf in winter catching the scent of something injured and vulnerable. The novel’s main character is a heavy-drinking radio personality called Rheinhardt who lands a job with a New Orleans station: ‘WUSA – The Voice of an American’s America – The Truth Shall Make You Free.’

It is here that Stone’s genius takes hold. Rheinhardt’s hammering broadcast style and message prefigure the formula embraced by Rush Limbaugh two decades later: ranting, fact-free hostility to government, gays, welfare cheats, communists at home and abroad, American rich kids who don’t love the country but won’t leave it. The novel, like Rheinhardt’s mighty river of invective and resentment, lurches towards apocalypse. The owner of WUSA is a tycoon of sinister purpose who hopes to use the airwaves and Rheinhardt’s rants to trigger an anti-black bloodbath. What Stone imagined was radio’s potential to spark the explosion of hatreds that often seems just around the corner in American political life. ‘I put every single thing I thought I knew into it,’ Stone said much later. ‘I had taken America as my subject, and all my quarrels with America went into it.’

With an audience waiting for a new novel, Stone began to look for a story to explain what he thought was going on. He wasn’t a conspiracist. The political quarrels of the day didn’t interest him much. He parsed and probed the public moment in the way of that wolf looking for something to eat, or of a sailor watching a darkening sky. He had a gift for knowing what a generation was thinking before it found the words to speak plainly. Vietnam in the early 1960s was already part of the moment in California, the thing everybody argued about. The big thing, Stone sensed, wasn’t the right and wrong of the argument – whether the goal was worth it, success possible, the military effort proportionate and just – but what the war was doing to the Americans who were fighting it. This embryonic theme was still only half an idea in his mind when his friend Kesey published Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964. Kesey was 28. This was his second book, his biggest, and as things turned out, his best. These two successes promised a big American career, but Kesey picked that moment to pursue a will-o’-the-wisp. For a frantic decade he talked about the inner world to be discovered through drugs (the ‘acid tests’ celebrated by Tom Wolfe); called on a generation to abandon conventional striving, was casual about drug laws, went to Mexico, went to jail, and went back to the land in Oregon. In time he picked up writing again, but the old fire was extinct. Stone and Kesey, although close friends, were completely different writers. Stone sought clarity and precision, Kesey strove for effect, the dreamlike reverie of run-on language. ‘Kesey once told me I use too many commas,’ Stone said in 1985.

A couple of months after Kesey’s death in 2001, Stone took part in a memorial service in New York. He tried to explain why Kesey had abandoned writing, which he knew how to do, for some never clearly explained attempt to put his finger on what had gone wrong in the history of Western Civilisation and Art. ‘I think he disliked the loneliness and the isolation of the writer’s life,’ Stone said. ‘I think he tried somehow to short-circuit the necessities of art. I think he believed that he could somehow invent a spiritual technology … somewhere between Silva mind control and the transistor, that would spare all the humiliating labour that went into the creating of art.’ Using the gentlest, politest words he could find, Stone said that Kesey, when you got down to it, had fallen under the spell of a crazy idea – that he knew when everything had gone wrong, that everything was clear to him now, that he had found the short path to ultimate meanings.

‘All those great nights of back and forth’ were when Stone chose art, by which he meant the labour of conceiving and writing his eight novels, resuming with Dog Soldiers. Seven years separated the publication of A Hall of Mirrors and Stone’s second novel. There was no single cause for delay. A movie version of A Hall of Mirrors burned up a lot of time for a film Hollywood considered an ‘epic flop’. Its only defender was the star, Paul Newman, who bravely called it ‘the most significant film I’ve ever made and the best’. He and Stone came out of it as friends, but reviews and box office were dismal. Stone was the screenwriter of record and in his memoir of the 1960s, Prime Green, he took the blame for the film’s ‘general badness’. Elsewhere he called it ‘a lousy movie … a god-awful movie’. The script was the problem. The book had ‘aspired to a certain poetry’, but the movie junked that. Stone’s mistake, he told interviewers, was to stick around after the producers brought in new writers to ‘fix’ the novel in a Hollywood way. He should never have left his name on the script, he said, but he wasn’t thinking clearly enough to say no when he still could.

By early​ 1971, with the movie dead and gone, Stone turned full-time to the effort of a second novel. He had an editor but nothing to show, not even a clear idea. In London, where Stone and Janice and their two children were living at the time, ‘all anybody could talk about’ was the war in Vietnam. The next step was the obvious one: ‘I realised if I wanted to be a “definer” of the American condition, I would have to go to Vietnam.’ To go he needed credentials, an official letter to confirm that he was a real writer with an editor waiting for copy. A start-up London paper called Ink provided this, and Stone bought cheap air tickets to Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Saigon. Right up until the moment of departure he shrank from going, fearing he would be killed, but he was on the plane when it landed in Saigon on 25 May. It was a Tuesday, in the seventh year of the full-scale American effort to prosecute the war.

Vietnam in 1971 was filled with writers who had gone to see the war. Many had been there for years and new ones arrived all the time, but few carried away as deep an impression of events as Stone, and none, I feel certain, got it more quickly. ‘How long were you in Vietnam?’ he was asked in 1975 by William Heath, who later edited Conversations with Robert Stone (2016). Heath’s flat question was impossible to ignore. ‘Just a couple of months, something under three months,’ Stone said, ‘which is, I admit, not very long, but all I can tell you is every day was different.’

‘Something under three months’ was narrowly true, but it was a stretch even to call his time in-country two weeks. He was home on 10 June. But what he brought back was something he thought and wrote about for the rest of his life: a sense of the war’s immensity – he later called it ‘a mistake ten thousand miles long’ – and of the infection it lodged in the American soul. ‘Vietnam is a terribly important thing for this country,’ he said. ‘It’s like a wound covered with scar tissue or like a foreign body, a piece of shrapnel … it is embedded in our history; it is embedded in our definition of who we are. We will never get it out of there.’

Stone got his only glimpse of the fighting in a battle zone twenty or so miles north-west of Saigon. He made the trip riding pillion on a motorcycle with a friend. He felt that honour required he share the danger of the troops, however briefly. Did he? In the accounts he wrote that are now collected in The Eye You See With, Stone was hazy about the details. Bell says he visited the edge of a battle known as Operation Dewey Canyon II. An ordinary soldier on the scene spotted him as a war tourist and cursed him with the bitter hope ‘I might … get my ass killed outright.’ If an ordinary soldier thought that was even possible then it probably was, and honour was preserved.

But a deeper, in some ways even scarier impression was left by the Saigon underworld with its war-wounded and homeless street kids, its teenage prostitutes and thieves, and its ‘skag-bars’ selling heroin in multiple user-friendly forms – as a booster in cans of beer, as an additive in cigarettes, or as a powder for snorting or injection. War was the business of the day – ducking it, waging it, arguing about it – but next to war came drugs. It seemed to Stone that among the writers he saw, a ragged mix of big names and the unknown, everybody was a user or a dealer. On Perry Lane, drugs had been a form of recreation; in Saigon their sale and consumption was of a different order of magnitude.

Stone’s dozen days in Saigon were all passed in the shadow of the war. Everybody was in it, somehow, and talked about it non-stop, but the talk never went anywhere. It ran into the war and came to a full stop. The war refused to be won, or lost, or understood. In the street one day Stone dropped ten piasters into the hat of a man without legs. The man smiled. ‘Who knows why he’s smiling,’ Stone wrote when he got back to London. ‘The legless man is one of the many blown-up people one sees about the city.’ Full stop.

Over dinner at night, or in the street, the writers and reporters told one another their stories: a tiger killed in a free-fire zone by napalm, elephants on the Ho Chi Minh trail shot to pieces by Americans in helicopters, a tax office in downtown Saigon blown up yesterday by a bomb, six people killed. It’s not clear who did it – maybe an angry citizen, maybe the National Liberation Front. Tales of this kind ended with a catchphrase Stone soon picked up. The pattern is always the same. The tale offers much detail, ends with its point of shock or horror, followed by a brief pause, then – ‘There it is.’ It is evident Stone heard this a hundred times, maybe a thousand – ‘There it is.’

He struggled for the right translation of ‘it’. Sometimes, he felt, the speaker meant ‘the Whole Expedition … the War … this shit’. A Marine he knew called it ‘Captain Gray Rat’. Stone himself thought of it as ‘the war’s infernal, antic spirit’. These attempts all get close, but they all miss the finality of ‘There it is’ – recognition that a limit has been reached, a thing like a wall, the point where human reason shrugs. I think ‘it’ is better translated as ‘the thing about which nothing can be done’.

Americans​ typically are something and come from somewhere. But Stone, though white, was hard to pin down. Life alone with Gladys, classes with the Marist Brothers and prodigious reading made him what he was. The catechism had been crammed into him as a child and he dug it back out again in his teens, rejecting one certitude after another. The Marists expelled him when he started to preach atheism in the halls of St Ann’s. By the time he entered the navy he was a former Catholic, just as another man might be a Total Immersion Baptist. Former Catholic is what Stone remained for the rest of his life.

‘I’m a theologian,’ he told an interviewer from the Paris Review in 1985. ‘And so far as I know I’m the only one.’ This was not a pose. His thoughts on religion never regained the simplicity of the Mass in his childhood, but they formed the core of his view of the world. The loss of belief had seemed painless at the time but later the world felt empty, lacking the big thing of early belief – faith in the existence of a thinking being at the centre of everything who cared what happened. Gradually he replaced a Catholic theology based on the presence of God with a counter-theology in which the great fact, apparent at every turn, is God’s absence.

A good introduction to Stone’s thinking on these matters can be found in the dozen interviews reprinted in Conversations with Robert Stone. What he had to say to interviewers between 1975 and 2013 helps to clarify what he meant by politics: the way humans in the aggregate manage, support, dismiss or abuse one another. His view of human behaviour is unflinching and suggests that natural depravity, the fallen world and the absence of God are three faces of roughly the same thing. None of the characters in Stone’s second novel, Dog Soldiers, speaks of things in just that way, but a vision of human life without God as a witness is what drives the novel.

The story begins in Vietnam, where John Converse, a former boy-wonder playwright – one play, nothing since – is a war tourist passing through, much in the exploratory mood of Stone himself. Converse is working on a plan to make a fortune with one risky venture – shipping a backpack of cheap Saigon heroin to the US, where it will be worth zillions. ‘Why the hell not?’ says his wife, Marge, who has remained in the States looking after their daughter. Marge is smart and medicates her boredom with Percodan and Dilaudid. She has never seriously tried to quit opioids and has no idea what that might be like. In her view a weakness for drugs is just a biological detail, like red hair or gluten intolerance, not something she needs to think about. One taste of high-grade heroin clouds her mind with self-delight. ‘I’m all primary process,’ she says. ‘I live the examined life. Not one funny little thing gets by me.’

Marge is fine with Converse’s plan. He knows a Marine called Ray Hicks, a Zen martial arts enthusiast who will soon be heading home on an aircraft carrier. Hicks has fixed ideas about most things but his judgment is erratic. Step one in the plan is to get the backpack to Hicks, who will deliver it to Marge in San Francisco. Marge is ready. Heroin is worth money and so long as the demand is there somebody is going to provide it: why not her? Converse sees a kind of joke in it. ‘If the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men,’ he reasons, ‘people are just naturally going to want to get high.’

But, like the war in Vietnam, this simple plan runs into a spreading tangle of difficulties that ratchet up the danger and strangle their hopes of success. The Americans in Vietnam just wanted to win the war, Converse and wife and Hicks just want to get their money and split: both see it as a morally neutral problem, how to get from A to B. In effect, as Stone tells it, Converse was infected by the war in Vietnam and brought it home with him. ‘The entire story,’ Bell notes, ‘springs from its actors being morally at sea.’

The problems begin at Marge’s place, when rogue drug agents invade the apartment to steal the backpack. Hicks manages to escape with Marge but later the rogue agents catch up with Converse and torture him for the whereabouts of the backpack. They burn his face on an electric stove, turning up the TV to hide his screams. Is it worse to cauterise a man’s face on a hot burner, or to drop napalm on his wife and children? Rogue agents are paid by the government but plan to keep and sell the heroin once found. Legitimate agents are paid by the government and plan to hand over the heroin to a DEA property officer and maybe get a merit bonus. Are these distinctions without a difference? Converse survives the torture and even the last page of the novel, barely. He wants to know what the venture adds up to but he’s just as much at sea. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing or why I do it,’ he explains to Marge after they have parted for the last time from Hicks, soon to be dead. ‘Nobody knows. That’s the principle we were defending over there. That’s why we fought the war.’

Stone uses plenty of commas to narrow down who does what in Dog Soldiers, but provides no moral accounting. Leaving that out was not a mistake but a strategy, a way of sharpening focus. We may imagine that he would have described a battle in Vietnam in much the same way, walking over the field after the shooting has stopped and telling the stories of each man dead or wounded, of the path of each bullet or piece of shrapnel through the body of a victim, of the heart rate of the shooter when he fired that bullet or shell, of his thoughts when he took a drag on a cigarette after quiet returned, of the village dogs who wandered that field sniffing the moist places in the ground – putting in everything that happened but never what it meant, or whether the goal justified the cost. Stone’s strategy is to emphasise a point by leaving it out, just as God is most noticed when he’s absent.

Dog Soldiers was published in 1974, at what proved to be just the right minute, when the US was thoroughly sick of arguing about the war but was beginning to notice what it had done to us. Some reviewers gave Stone rough handling for being a hippie, but most noted the sober artistry of the book and the force of its message. For the actual writing Stone got favourable mention in sentences that included the names of Mailer, Chandler, Faulkner, Baudelaire and even Chaucer. The reviewer for the Washington Post called it ‘the most important novel of the year’. The book sold well and won a National Book Award, which is one of the few triumphs the American literary world never forgets.

The success of Dog Soldiers elevated Stone into the small company of active writers who are taken seriously. For the next forty years his books all got reviewed. His contracts were generous. He never had to scramble for a teaching job. Soon after he died, in 2015, three of his best books were issued in a Library of America edition. The latest of them, Outerbridge Reach, appeared in 1992, when Stone was in his early fifties. After that his health faded and the novels that followed, strong as they were, failed to surprise. It was in A Flag for Sunrise, his third novel, which appeared in 1981, that Stone most fully captured the cold strangeness and impact of his counter-theology. Bell was 26, and had never heard of Robert Stone when he boarded a plane to Italy with a copy his mother had given him. ‘By the time the wheels touched down in Rome,’ he writes, ‘he was the writer I wished I could become.’

Stone​ often said he was interested in politics but had none himself, that his subject was ‘America and Americans’, that his angle of approach was religious. All his novels confirm these claims, but none more clearly than the third, which takes its title from Emily Dickinson – ‘Sunrise – hast thou a flag for me?’ A Flag for Sunrise is set in the imaginary Central American republic of Tecan. US visitors might think they were in Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador. Like all three in the late 1970s, Tecan is poor, run by a handful of wealthy families, ruled by a secretive and brutal regime, approaching the boil with revolutionary anger, and the source of bitter policy squabbles in Washington, where the abiding worry is another Cuba.

Stone liked to write novels with a mix of characters, strangers at the outset, who get tangled up in one another’s traces. The only Tecanecan central character in A Flag for Sunrise is Lieutenant Campos, a security official with violent tendencies and an open writ to deal with subversives as he sees fit. The rest are Americans: Sister Justin and Father Egan, a pair of Catholic missionaries of the Devotionist order (Stone’s invention); Pablo Tabor, a natural-born killer with a deckhand job on a gun-running boat disguised as a shrimper; Jack and Deedee Callahan, the boat’s owners; and Frank Holliwell, a middle-aged anthropologist with a feel of Yale about him – an entitled, articulate, unconfessed alcoholic – who is on his way to give a talk somewhere just up the coast from Tecan.

On his way to the airport Holliwell has lunch with Marty Nolan, a fellow American he helped out in several ways – none he’s proud of now – when they were both in Vietnam. Halfway through the first martini Holliwell has the answer to two questions: yes, Marty is still in the CIA, and yes, he arranged the lunch to make a pitch. Marty has been hearing things about two Devotionist missionaries in a place called French Harbour: ‘These people are wrongos, commies, et cetera.’ It’s only a short hop; Frank’s just the man for a brief look-in, ‘somebody who could give me a real insight into what they think they’re doing down there’. Holliwell won’t say yes. Nolan appeals to his conscience: things could turn out badly; the Tecanecan government is paranoid. ‘And extremely murderous,’ Holliwell adds. ‘They’re murderous troglodytes and we put them in,’ Nolan says. ‘But there it is.’ Holliwell says no five ways, but five isn’t enough: Holliwell knows he is trapped in the quagmire. A Marty Nolan lookalike from the US embassy in Tecan will appear to press the matter one more time. In Dog Soldiers the driver of events was the Vietnam mindset: everything is permissible in life and war, just go for what you want, nobody will be held accountable, the hard questions are above your pay grade. In A Flag for Sunrise the Vietnam mindset has metastasised; now the US knows what’s best for everybody and has the tools and the money and the secret skills to sculpt any outcome, and because it can, it must.

In Stone’s hands none of this seems arbitrary. It’s complicated in the way of life. The Callahans are awaiting a big pay-off from the rebels for a load of arms; Pablo Tabor has his eyes on the money too and they’re beginning to fear one another. Holliwell falls in love with Sister Justin and joins her in French Harbour. She is ready to give her life for the revolution and Lieutenant Campos expects to be a witness. Tabor shows up alone with a small boat, a diver’s knife and the earthly valuables recently possessed by the Callahans. Sister Justin and the rebels enjoy one day of thinking they might win. Soon it’s the next day. Nothing that happens can be called a surprise. Sister Justin’s conscience and the Tecan rebels’ dream of justice – those are small things. The security forces defending the Tecan ruling party are a big thing, and what the Americans secretly bring to bear, bigger still; and the indifference of the world to the fate of the rebellion, biggest of all.

A Flag for Sunrise invites an orderly political interpretation, a winnowing of just and unjust, good and evil. But Stone, the former Catholic, has a different sense of what is driving events. He gives Holliwell a glimpse of it on a dive in the reef-filled coastal waters north of Tecan before he heads south to trouble. Stone had diving experience and he sets the scene with care. The dive master describes the route, where the divers – seven in all – will leave the boat and start following a line of black coral. ‘No sharks here,’ the dive master assures them. In the water, drifting with the current, the divers will pass over a sandy bottom, then follow the wall of coral out and down, but keeping clear of the big drop.

At about ninety feet, he confronted the drop. The last coral terrace fell away and beyond it there was nothing … an abyss … At a hundred and twenty … it was time to start up … he began to climb … And then it was as if the ocean itself began to tremble. The angels and wrasse, the parrots and tangs which had been passing lazily around him suddenly hung in place … Turning full circle, he saw the same shudder pass over all the living things around him – a terror had struck the sea, an invisible shadow, a silence within a silence … Then Holliwell thought: it’s out there. Fear overcame him, a chemical taste, a cold stone on the heart.

Back at the surface he finds out that his tank is empty. He was that close. The dive master tells him the big drop – the blue abyss – fell away into the silence for nine hundred metres. Whatever caused the shudder of terror was felt by all living things in the deep.

A Flag for Sunrise ends with a final killing: of Tabor by a frightened Holliwell, using the diver’s knife, in a small boat adrift in the sea. Holliwell rolls the body out into the water. Much later, close to death himself, he calls for help from a passing boat, but the fishermen are cautious, they’re frightened, it’s not clear whether they will help him or not, and if they do, whether that will matter or not. This moment in Holliwell’s life is not the final item in a list of bad political choices but a working out of something more fundamental. In a fallen world what happens is a matter of chance, and chance doesn’t care what happens. There it is – the thing about which nothing can be done.

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