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The Conflict Within

'Damascus Gate' looks at the clash and tangle of faiths in the Middle East. Robert Stone had to face up to his own beliefs to write it.

April 30, 1998|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KEY WEST, Fla. — 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.

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."

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."

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.

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.

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