In 1985, when I was in the midst of a 12-year struggle to write my first novel, I had the good fortune to be invited to the Edna St. Vincent Millay Colony in Austerlitz, N.Y., for a monthlong residency. There, in the colony's curved-roof barn, I happened to pick up a paperback copy of Robert Stone's 1981 novel, A Flag for Sunrise.
I had not yet heard of Robert Stone, but the precision of his language hooked me from the book's first sentence. It introduces us to a missionary priest at a bleak outpost in Tecan, a fictional Central American nation on the verge of a revolutionary uprising. Stone begins the story with this: "Father Egan left off writing, rose from his chair and made his way — a little unsteadily — to the bottle of Flor de Cana which he had placed across the room from his desk."
That line drew me into a world of treachery and faith, and the book became for me, in those four weeks and afterward, a master class on the art of making a novel.
Since then, I've read A Flag for Sunrise at least five times, taught it in college courses, and recommended it to countless friends and conference-goers. It has everything I care about in a novel: fresh, gorgeous prose; a vivid setting; an array of original characters.
But what matters most to me is the way Stone manages to weave big ideas seamlessly into his story — ideas about politics and religion and history and addiction; about that old, good thing, the meaning of life.
In the midst of Tecan's political upheaval, its fictional people struggle to find that meaning, or abandon the struggle and indulge their basest instincts.
The radical nun turns out to have a saintly compassion for the oppressed, while the Guardia officer — who suspects her, lusts after her, and ultimately takes her to the torture cells — displays an almost pure evil. But they and the cast of characters that lie between these two on the moral spectrum — an alienated American anthropologist, a fervent revolutionary, a soulless arms dealer, a treacherous businessman and spy, a lascivious yachtswoman — are beautifully crafted.
The book, a kind of literary velvet, has both weight and texture, exactly what I was trying for in those early days, and what I'm still working toward — in Stone's shadow — 10 novels later.
I'm a fan of all Robert Stone's work, but A Flag for Sunrise stands tallest on the shelf for me. I still go back to it at times when I want to re-experience the power created by a combination of elegant prose and a profound consideration of the human predicament.
Perhaps my favorite line in all of literature comes when Father Egan is asked why he's stopped saying his daily office. "I consider it wrongly written down," says the hard-drinking priest.
First line to last, I consider A Flag for Sunrise correctly written down, a masterful literary thriller that helps us appreciate the moral complexity that is the living of a human life.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.