Personal Best: A Flag for Sunrise

"A Flag for Sunrise" by Robert Stone

By Reynolds Price
Published September 30, 1996 11:44AM (EDT)

if I were required to select one novel, from the entire history of world fiction, to escape nuclear holocaust, I'd choose Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." I've been reading it since I was 15 with only increasing admiration for its breadth and profundity. But Tolstoy will rank high on most such lists. So will Dostoevsky, Dickens, Flaubert, Proust and Mann.

It may be more interesting to consider what novel I'd choose if permitted to save one example from, say, the second half of the 20th century. Again, I'd be torn between several favorites: James Salter's "A Sport and a Pastime," Scott Spencer's "Endless Love," John Updike's "Rabbit; Run," Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," Toni Morrison's "Beloved" (not to speak of my own 10 novels). But a particular recent novel has developed an impressively respectable gravity in my recollection since I first read it, new, in 1981. It's the work of a living American, one who has slowly but with steadily strengthening power published five novels, unsurpassed so far as I know by his current peers.

As in all Stone's novels, the story itself, the rhythm with which it's unreeled, the severity of the prose and the final resonance of all components are bleak, if not terrible. In brief, "A Flag for Sunrise" is set in the near-present in a Central American country poised for revolution and ruled by oppressors who are simultaneously credible as human beings and as supreme monsters. An aging Yankee priest, a young Yankee nun, a Yankee anthropologist, a reptilian local official, a vicious Hispanic U.S. Coast Guard deserter and a rich moil of smaller characters are folded together with the typical slow genius of Fate's cookery until they form a catastrophe that looks both insanely accidental and eerily providential. If one's penultimate response is horror, the final response is likely to be invigoration -- one of the Earth's endless tragedies has been watched and recorded by a sensibility of superb toughness, subtlety and an even-handed tenderness.

Read it if you haven't; if you have, try the first five pages and see if you can resist the whole awful journey one more time.

Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price writings include the novel "Kate Vaiden." His most recent novel, "The Promise of Rest," will be published in paperback in November, 1996. His "Collected Poems" will be published in May, 1997.

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