Our Basest Desires: The Cruel Chaos Of Revolution

Play associated audio

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.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Credibility Concerns Overshadow Release Of Gay Talese's New Book

NPR's Kelly McEvers speaks with Paul Farhi of the Washington Post about Gay Talese's new book, The Voyeur's Hotel. The credibility of the book, which follows a self-proclaimed sex researcher who bought a hotel to spy on his guests through ventilator windows, has been called into question after Farhi uncovered problems with Talese's story.
NPR

Amid Craft Brewery Boom, Some Worry About A Bubble — But Most Just Fear Foam

Fueled by customers' unquenchable thirst for the next great flavor note, the craft beer industry has exploded like a poorly fermented bottle of home brew.
NPR

White House Documents Number Of Civilians Killed In U.S. Drone Strikes

The Obama administration issued a long awaited report Friday, documenting the number on civilians who have been accidentally killed by U.S. drone strikes. Human rights activists welcome the administration's newfound transparency, though some question whether the report goes far enough.
NPR

Tesla 'Autopilot' Crash Raises Concerns About Self-Driving Cars

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating a fatal crash involving a Tesla car using the "autopilot" feature. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Alex Davies of Wired about the crash and what it means for self-driving car technology.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.