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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

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."

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.

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:

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.

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."

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.

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