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The Conflict Within

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine a hospital ward full of lunatics whose fantasies and delusions are strictly biblical:

In one corner, “John the Baptist” is chattering excitedly to the wall, while “Moses” and “Samson,” both heavily sedated, are nodding off in straitjackets. “Jesus” begins yet another sermon, until he’s whisked away for blood tests.

It might sound like a bad comedy skit, but such a ward exists in Jerusalem, where millions of people, some of them deranged, make pilgrimages every year. And it plays a dramatic role in “Damascus Gate” (Houghton-Mifflin, $26), Robert Stone’s powerful new novel about the Middle East.

At the outset, journalist Chris Lucas makes a fateful choice between two stories he might cover in Jerusalem. One is about Israelis who sadistically beat up Palestinian youths at night. The other involves pilgrims who fall prey to the “Jerusalem syndrome,” acting out bizarre fantasies in the holy city.

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Lucas ultimately chooses the religious angle, thinking it safer. By the novel’s violent conclusion, however, he has learned that the two stories are one and the same--a Molotov cocktail of faith and fanaticism that could only be cooked up in the Middle East.

“What happens here is unlike what happens elsewhere,” says a character, describing the city, an international tinderbox where three great religions collide every day. “And sometimes it changes the world.”

Readers are likely to be swept along by Stone’s ambitious novel, a 500-page epic that some critics are calling his best. That’s heavy praise for an internationally respected author who won the National Book Award for “Dog Soldiers” in 1974 and whose collected short stories, “Bear and His Daughter,” was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in fiction writing.

The New York Times said his third book, “A Flag for Sunrise” (1984), was “the best novel of ideas since Dostoyevsky.” Newsweek unequivocally called Stone “the strongest American novelist of the post-Vietnam era.”

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Yet as he greets a reporter in his home here, Stone seems a model of understatement. Dressed in khaki shorts and a faded blue T-shirt, the bearded 60-year-old looks indistinguishable from the beach bums flooding into town on a sunny afternoon.

Reminded that Kirkus Reviews called his new work “this year’s ‘Mason & Dixon’ or ‘Underworld,’ ” he smiles with embarrassment. But once he starts talking about “Damascus Gate” and the writer’s demanding craft, all shyness disappears.

It is certainly his most controversial book. Stone paints menacing portraits of Israelis, Palestinians, evangelical Christians and the politicians who manipulate them. He roils the waters, telling tales of betrayal and collusion--including drug-dealing--between Israelis and Palestinian militants.

By the end, the city is ablaze with terror, and a rogue spy speculates darkly on the political future: Just as fanatics might blow up the Temple Mount, one of Islam’s holiest sites, “the Muslims would one day assemble a nuclear bomb in America. That particular stork would come home to roost.”

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The paranoia boils over. Yet Stone says he hopes his audience will not be simply caught up in the sweep of “Damascus Gate.” He wants them to be changed.

“Americans think superficially about the Middle East, if they think about it at all,” Stone says. “If anything, I want people to take religion more seriously, to think about it more deeply than we do in this culture.

“I was changed by that as I wrote, just as my main character, Lucas, is changed. He may not have answers, but religion has certainly become an issue in his life.”

Indeed, writing and researching the book caused Stone to reexamine his own beliefs--a blend of lapsed Catholicism and Jewish mysticism--and the experience was not pleasant. He had to confront adult demons, childhood conflicts and the stark consequences of his decision to live in a world without God.

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Stone had suffered in the past from depression and heavy drinking. He went through a period of intense drug use in the ‘60s and ‘70s, drifting unhappily from one place to the next.

“I felt a great dread in writing this book,” he says. “There were times I thought: ‘What have you done?’ I was bringing out forces so deep within me, I was afraid of falling back into the old habits, of drinking too much. I feared I didn’t have the strength, that I was losing it.”

Religious faith may strike some as an odd theme for Stone. His earlier work linked brutal images of Vietnam, Central American revolution and Hollywood decadence with jarring looks at American politics and culture. It was as if God had abandoned the stage in Stone’s books, leaving humans in darkness.

The same image recurs in “Damascus Gate,” yet it plays a much larger role. None of the central characters finds peace by the end of the novel; all are waiting for a divine signal that never comes. As in Stone’s earlier works, a toxic cloud of doom hangs over the conclusion. But this time, he seems to suggest that the only thing worse than a life of faith is one with none at all.

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To create the troubled journalist at the heart of his story, Stone dug for information like a reporter, shuttling back and forth between Israelis and Palestinians, visiting U.N. refugee groups and immersing himself in the arcana of Jerusalem’s many religious sects.

He spent five years on “Damascus Gate” and was lucky that the region’s politics provided rich material. His theme about a plot to blow up the Temple Mount, for example, was based on real events, and Stone’s depiction of a riot in the Gaza Strip was drawn from his own trip to the area when violence erupted.

Elsewhere, his novel was ahead of the news curve: The American media are just now focusing on the financial links between messianic Jews and Christians in the U.S., an ambiguous alliance that is at the very heart of “Damascus Gate.”

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Stone has never been one to write about exotic places from afar. In “Dog Soldiers,” he drew on his years as a reporter in Vietnam. He spent similar time in Central America on “A Flag for Sunrise,” based on the Nicaraguan civil war.

In his previous book, “Outerbridge Reach,” he plunged into sailing and nautical lore to write the story of a man who embarks on a round-the-world sailing trip alone. Yet he says nothing prepared him for the edgy turbulence of Jerusalem.

“I had to learn a lot for ‘Outerbridge Reach’ because sailors are fussy about getting all the details right,” says Stone. “But, of course, so are supporters of Israel!”

Although he tried to keep an open mind, the author readily concedes that life--and political novels--are not fair.

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In “Damascus Gate,” Palestinian militants are not as well-developed as Western and Israeli characters. With only a few exceptions, Arabs are presented in the mass--as a vast group of unhappy, inflamed refugees who do not occupy center stage.

“I think you have to understand the language to penetrate the outward aspect of a lot of Palestinians, who are often unsympathetic to the Western observer,” Stone suggests. “They don’t have a great sense of PR, and they don’t know exactly how to talk to Westerners. . . . They’re harder to get to know.”

By contrast, he adds, “Israelis are extroverted. They have a different version of the machismo thing that Palestinians have, but it’s much more comprehensible to a Westerner.”

Still, given Stone’s probing eye, there’s something to offend everyone in “Damascus Gate.” He cruelly dissects Lucas, ridiculing his agnosticism as a Western fraud. Evangelical Christians fare no better, as in this scathing passage about the final judgment and its logistical problems:

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The Rapture, when it came, would be distinctly cinematic. The Returned Christ would gather up his own. . . . They would be rapted, like cosmic chipmunks in the talons of their savior. Godly motorists would be wafted from the controls of their cars. Since born-again Christians tended to be concentrated in states with high speed limits, things would get ugly.

It’s vintage Stone: provocative, sarcastic, irreverent. The mocking language of an outsider--lingo he knows well.

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Born in Brooklyn, Stone never met his father, who left the family immediately after young Robert was born. His parents never had married, and his mother was a schizophrenic. Stone lived in an orphanage for four years while she underwent treatment, and when the two were finally reunited, they lived in cheap residential hotels on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

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Intelligent but wary of strangers, the boy was a voracious reader and spent hours in city libraries, devouring books by Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway and Charles Dickens.

He also began running with a tough crowd, hanging out in poolrooms and buying bus tickets to show that he could leave town whenever he wanted. He drank beer with his teenage buddies. One of his first stories--about a group of kids who hang out in Central Park getting drunk--won a city writing award. But his increasingly antisocial behavior got him kicked out of high school, and at 16 Stone hit the road.

He briefly joined a carnival in upstate New York, then signed up with the Navy in 1955. He worked briefly at the New York Daily News as a copy boy in 1958 but soon lit out for New Orleans with Janice Burr, who would become his wife.

Stone says he was drawn to the city because, in the early 1960s, it was “very much on the edge . . . kind of crazy and open to all possibilities, including literary work.”

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New Orleans became the setting for “Hall of Mirrors,” a pulsing, drug- and alcohol-laced portrait of the late 1960s. Stone’s first novel won the prestigious Faulkner Prize, quickly establishing him as a promising young writer.

Yet he was far from settled. In the mid-1960s, even before he had finished “Hall of Mirrors,” he got a fellowship at Stanford and met Ken Kesey. Stone joined the Merry Pranksters and dropped out, immersing himself in a world of psychedelia.

Returning to New York, Stone found work with a cheesy tabloid, where he invented stories like “Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds” and “Mad Dentist Yanks Girl’s Tongue.” These tidbits resurfaced in his next novel, “Dog Soldiers,” a brilliant fever-dream about America and Vietnam that cemented his reputation as one of the nation’s finest authors.

By then, Stone and his wife were raising two children, and his life became less nomadic. He took on a string of writing fellowships at American universities, producing his next four novels. Today, the Stones divide their time between a comfortable home in Westport, Conn., and a condo in Key West.

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Despite the pre-publication buzz for “Damascus Gate,” Stone seems subdued as he gears up for a publicity tour. When the talk inevitably turns to religion, he slowly shifts his eyes from a questioner and lapses into a long silence. Wearing sunglasses, he looks into the sunshine pouring through a backyard window--as if he were communing with the light.

“Somewhere in the Talmud it says that anyone who truly searches for God has, in a certain sense, found him, but he always hides,” Stone says, pondering a question about his current religious beliefs. “He hides from everyone.”

In a memorable passage from “Damascus Gate,” Lucas visits Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, and the squalid refugee camps of the Gaza Strip on the same day. The experience overwhelms him, as does the absence of God in both places.

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“I thought I knew a lot about religion when I started writing,” Stone says, staring once again into the light.

“But I didn’t know as much as I thought. I had to learn more. And I still haven’t figured out where this leaves me.”

* Robert Stone will discuss “Damascus Gate” on May 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Writers Guild Theatre, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. $10. (310) 335-0917 or (818) 789-TIXX.


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